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One Key, Offline and Online, to Open All the Doors

Many keys on a key ring

When I was in high school, I used to have long conversations with the principal in his office. I wasn’t there because I’d misbehaved, I sought him out because he was one of the most interesting people in the school. It was a K through 12 Alternative School, so there were lots of interesting people around.

One afternoon we got to talking about keys. I said that the janitor seemed to be one of the most powerful people in the school. He had a key ring with what looked like a hundred keys. This appeared to give him access to all the locked doors on the premises. The Principal smiled and pulled out a key from his pocket. “This key,” he said, “opens every door in the school.” Now that’s a powerful key.

That’s the vision that haunts the internet identity movement — one key to rule them all. But is one key the right number? We have more than one key in our offline lives. We mitigate risk by having different kinds of keys. The key to my car can only be duplicated by the manufacturer. My house key can be duplicated by the hardware store down the street. I give copies to close friends, in case I lose my set. Keys are access tools, they don’t correspond to identity or personas in the offline world.

Would I really want one key that I could use to access everything in my life — both online and offline? How many keys should I have? One way to answer the question is to say, the right number of keys is determined by the size of my pocket.

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