[Dave Birch] Any viable mass market digital identity system will need public confidence.  In particular, it will need public confidence in its most public manifestation, the smart card.  Can we find an example of a widespread smart card system to see if it has public confidence?  Yes, of course: chip-and-PIN.  There appears to public confidence in the chip-and-PIN system in the UK despite almost daily reports of its vulnerability to attack.  The public confidence is maintained by APACS.  Their spokesperson recently said (of the "tampered terminal" attack) that ‘There is no evidence to suggest this has actually happened in the UK at all… It is on the list of potential threats, as lots of other things are" and went on say that "the fraud would be difficult to carry out because it requires an in-store accomplice and an external fraudster working simultaneously on the theft" apparently unaware that this is just what happened in the widely publicised "Shell case".  So here we have a case of an attack that is not only theoretically possible but has actually happened.  Yet the general public don’t seem to care, for the obvious reason that it’s not their problem.  If someone counterfeits my credit card, the bank gives me the money back.  Why should I worry?

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But what if it’s something more important than money at stake?  How can confidence be maintained?  Remember the example discussed a couple of weeks ago.  Staff at the South Warwickshire NHS Trust have been logging into their new government computer system.  This system is being installed in all hospitals (and elsewhere) and since everyone in Britain will have their health records stored on it, it’s important that it is secure.  Now, I know that it is secure because I went to the Parliamentary IT Committee (PITCOM) meeting at which the head of the project said that everyone who works for the NHS (which, from a risk analysis point of view, is essentially everyone in Britain) would get a super new smart card.  This was very reassuring.  He also said that getting access to medical records would not be as "simple as sticking a card in a machine".

No matter that some of the smart cards were sent out with the same PIN number and that the PIN number was writen on the backs of the cards, although to be fair the the relevant government person Liam Byrne said that this breach of procedures has not posed a significant risk to the confidentiality of patient information and he used to work for Accenture, so that’s quite reassuring.

The system is now up and running, and NHS staff need to use their smart card to access to the system.  Well, they need to use someone’s smart card. In fact, at the South Warwickshire NHS Trust, staff just stick a card in a machine.  In fact, they stick their supervisor’s card in to the system and then leave it logged in for them all to share, because they can’t be bothered to log-in and log-out every time they want to use the system.  Not surprising, since log-in to the hospital’s new iSoft iPM patient administration system (PAS) is averaging 60-90 seconds, which is not acceptable in a busy A&E environment.

I’m interested in this case study because of what it says about the practical use of smart cards in large-scale government projects, so I googled around and I found the meeting record where the acting head of IT for the Trust says that there’s no security problem around staff using other people’s smart cards to log in.  So, the trajectory appears to be "don’t worry, it’s secure because all the users have personal smart card" to "there’s no risk in people sharing smart cards" to (someday soon, I’m sure) Scott McNealy’s famous "you have no privacy, get over it".  As a spokesman for the British Medical Association’s GP IT subcommittee told Computer Weekly, the behaviour  "[drove] a coach and horses through the so-called privacy in the new systems".

No one would, for one moment, argue that what the NHS is trying to do is simple.  It isn’t.  But I’m sure that this approach isn’t the best way to build and maintain public confidence.  Nor are the statements from Connecting for Health, the actual programme responsible for the new NHS computer system.  They had originally said that the sharing of smart cards would be treated as misconduct, requiring disciplinary procedures.  Now, however, they’ve washed their hands of it saying that "responsibility for the security of patient information ultimately lies with individual Trusts, hospitals and NHS organisations" and not, apparently, with the people who designed the system.

How does this sort of thing happen? I don’t mean technically — we were advising clients several years ago that they should plan for the advent of PKI-based contactless smart cards if they wanted fast, secure transactions — but organisationally.  Presumably the government people in charge of all of this, and their management consultants, had some idea about how it would all work but I don’t know how it was ever communicated or scrutinised properly.  Wouldn’t transparency be the best way to build confidence for this kind of scheme?  Explain how the smart cards (and the cryptography) work, use widely-understood standards, invite public comment and inspection, develop a public specification and then invite the industry to build competitive solutions.  Telling people that something is going to be secure and asking them to simply trust you is sub-optimal in so many ways.

My opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public.
[posted with ecto]


  1. “the fraud would be difficult to carry out because it requires an in-store accomplice and an external fraudster working simultaneously on the theft” To be fair to APACS, which I’m not normally in the mood to be, I think they are refering to the Cambridge “relay” attack where “simultaneously” actually means “in real time” and is therefore quite tricky to do. Whereas the Shell breach appeared to be batch harvesting of PANs and PINs over time.
    And I think the public will start to care, given that the banks are apparently starting to treat Chip&PIN as infallible i.e. not refunding alleged cloning incidents using the “it’s secure, you must have disclosed your PIN” tactic.
    He used to work for Accenture, so that’s quite reassuring.” Ouch.
    Now I’m dreaming but if they were using NFC enabled USIMs in that A&E instead of smartcards, who’d want to leave their mobile lying around on the reader all day……?

  2. I wasn’t commenting on the relay attack itself, but on the terminal tampering and collusion, which I don’t see as particularly improbable. But you’re right, I should have been clearer. As for the comment on Liam Byrne, I was merely pointing out that the Minister of State for nationality, citizenship and immigration used to work for Accenture and should therefore know about IT in government. In fact, he wrote a book called “Information Age Government”.

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