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The Cake is a Lie: Reputation, Facebook Apps, and "Consent" User Interfaces

Reputation Wednesday is an ongoing series of essays about reputation-related matters. This week, Randy comes back from the IIW with a simple idea for improving application permissioning.

In early November, I attended the 9th meeting of the Internet Identity Workshop. One of the working sessions I attended was on Social Consent user interface design. After the session, I had an insight that reputation might play a pivotal role in solving one of the key challenges presented. I shared my detailed, yet simple, idea with Kevin Marks and he encouraged me to share my thoughts through a blog post—so here goes…

The Problem: Consent Dialogs

The technical requirements for the dialog are pretty simple: applications have to ask users for permission to access their sensitive personal data in order to produce the desired output—whether that's to create an invitation list, or to draw a pretty graph, or to create a personalized high-score table including your friends, or to simply sign and attach an optional profile photo to a blog comment.

The problem, however, is this—users often don't understand what they are being asked to provide, or the risks posed by granting access. It's not uncommon for a trivial quiz application to request access to virtually the same amount of data as much more "heavyweight"applications (like, say, an app to migrate your data between social networks.) Explaining this to users—in any reasonable level of detail—just before running the application causes them to (perhaps rightfully) get spooked and abandon the permission grant.

Conflicting Interests

The platform providers want to make sure that their users are making as informed a decision as possible, and that unscrupulous applications don't take advantage of their users.

The application developers want to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible. This fact creates a lot of pressure to (over)simplify the consent flow. One designer quipped that it reduces the user decision to a dialog with only two buttons: "Go" and "Go Away" (and no other text.)

The working group made no real progress. Kevin proposed creating categories, but that didn't get anywhere because it just moved the problem onto user education—"What permissions does QuizApp grant again?"

Reputation to the Rescue?

All consent dialogs of this stripe suffer from the same problem: Users are asked to make a trust decision about an application that, by definition, they know nothing about!

This is where identity meets trust, and that's the kind of problem that reputation is perfect for. Applications should have reputations in the platform's database. That reputation can be displayed as part of the information provided when granting consent.

Here's one proposed model (others are possible, this is offered as an exemplar).

The Cake is a Lie: Your Friends as Canaries in the Coal Mine of New Apps

First a formalism: when an application wants to access a user's private Information (I), they have a set of intended Purposes (P) they wish to use it for. Therefore, the consent could be phrased thusly:

"If you let me have your (I), I will give you (P). [Grant] [Deny]"

Example: "If you give me access to your friends list, I will give you cake."

In this system, I propose that the applications be compelled to declare this formulation as part of the consent API call. (P) would be stored along with the app's record in the platform database. So far, this is only slightly different from what we have now, and of course, the application could omit or distort the request.

This is where the reputation comes in. Whenever a user uninstalls an application, the user is asked to provide a reason, including abusive use of data and specifically asks a question to see if the promise of (P) was kept.

"Did this application give you the [cake] it promised?"

All negative feedback is kept—to be re-used later when other new users install the app and encounter the consent dialog. If they have friends who have uninstalled this application already complaining that "If (I) then (P)" string was false, then the moral equivalent of this would appear scrawled in the consent box:

"Randy says the [cake] was unsatisfactory.
Bryce says the [cake] was unsatisfactory.
Pamela says the application spammed her friends list."


Lots of improvements are possible (not limiting it to friends, and letting early-adopters know that they are canaries in the coal mine.) These are left for future discussion.

Sure, this doesn't help early adopters.

But application reputation quickly shuts down apps that do obviously evil stuff.

Most importantly, it provides some insight to users by which they can make more informed consent decisions.

(And if you don't get the cake reference, you obviously haven't been playing Portal.)


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