December 15, 2004

The One True Number: "9210: the zip code of another IT-soap"

What could be called the "one true number" syndrome has been spotted by Simon Lelieveldt over on his blog. He points to this paper 9210: the zip code of another IT-soap:

"Nine-to-ten (9210) refers to the problem that the Dutch banks are running out of 9-digit bank account numbers and need to convert to 10-digit numbers. At the same time, the Dutch government wants bank account numbers to be portable to encourage competition; this may become European policy. A recent European standard for cross-border money transfers proposes totally nonportable bank account numbers. These orthogonal policies have such a high IT-soap caliber that we sometimes refer to it as 9210 Policy Nils. Whatever the plot of ``nine-two-one-o'', major challenges are at stake for European banks and other ``number crunchers'' like tax authorities, mail-order firms, etc. This paper gives insight in cost aspects, the possibilities, and impossibilities of 9210 and related problems."

Unless you really enjoy chortling at comparisons between the business of banking and the game of twister, I wouldn't suggest you read the rest of the paper. Poor guys, is all I can say.

The notion of the one true number - for a bank account, for a person, for anything - does sort of make life difficult. So much so that many software systems when freely written tend to ditch the very notion, allocate numbers on demand, and retire them when not demanded [1]. Peer to peer systems especially have revelled in the freedom of discardable accounts and resources. The alternate to the "one true number" might be called "use many numbers, they're free! [2]"

But, the world is moving more to the one true number. Over in the US rumour has it that hey have recently slipped into Patriot 2 (passed last week) enough clauses to jump-start the US citizen identity program. Future US citizens will acquire their numbers from birth on a more or less compulsory basis, have these marked on their papers, and use their government-issued papers to purchase goods. If the administration succeeds in making Patriot 2 stick then the rest of the world will follow suit.

Which leaves the formal bank-built payment systems heading for a permanent season of IT-soaps, as it tries to deal with the explosion of incompatibilities and inadequacies of the many one true numbers.

[1] My own favourite case is that of Ricardian Contracts: the classification system is a hash (or cryptographic message digest) over the text of the contract. One unique number for the contract, but no allocation policies, no central party and no incompatibility headaches. It's simple, it's scaleable, and it matches the real world of "anyone can write a contract."

[2] I need a better aphorism!

Posted by iang at December 15, 2004 09:12 AM | TrackBack

it was sometime in mid-95 that the internet policy changed from arbitrary/anarchy/discovery routing to hierarchical routing ... because of the increasing difficulty of doing a totally unique routing discovery for all possible ip-packets.

you could take your domain name with you ... but DNS would be updated so that the domain name mapped to a different place in the IP address hierarchy.

Posted by: Lynn Wheeler at December 15, 2004 07:39 PM

You could use the (unique) ITU codes as a prefix for the bank account number. Hence, Irish bank account numbers would have 353 appended to them, Dutch would have 31, British 44, German 49, Italian, 39, French 33 and so on. Then it wouldn't matter what the system of a country would be, because all one would need to do is look at the prefix.

Posted by: Hasan Diwan at December 16, 2004 09:11 PM

Hasan, do you know, this is exactly what DigiCash tried to do with their currencies.

Actually, I think the banks would prefer to use the ISO 3-digit codes, as they hate the idea of any other sector telling them what to do ...

But, it still wouldn't work. Occasionally the state numbers change. And, worse, sometimes the state changes, often enough that it is a real pain. In this case, the banks have been told that they need to start thinking about doing cross-border portability. This all on the top of their just completed conversion to the Euro, all at the banks' expense thank you very much.

It's in the paper, it really is a laugh.

Posted by: Iang at December 16, 2004 09:45 PM