The sorry state of id and authentication

I had a problem with my PayPal account: I used it in China, and it got blocked as the result of some kind of fraud screening.

I ended up having to promise the guys at Bike Beijing that I will sort this out when I get back to the UK and then send them their money.

[From Digital Money: Holding court]

They still haven’t got their money. In order to unblock the account, you had to log in to your account and then have a code sent via your home telephone number. I clicked, the phone rang, I punched in the number and hung up. Nothing. I clicked again, the phone rang, I punched in the number and waited. Nothing. I clicked again, the phone rang, I punched in the number. After a while, I got an e-mail telling me that the authentication process had failed and so PayPal would send a letter containing some kind of code to my home address and that I could then use this code to unblock my account. It mentioned that the letter might takes six weeks to arrive.

So the nice guys at Bike Beijing still don’t have their money and I’m still embarrassed.

Now, all the time that this nonsense about codes and letters was going on, I had on my desk a Barclays’ PINSentry (which I can’t even use to log on to Barclaycard, let alone PayPal) and a O2 mobile phone (I’ve been with O2 for two decades and have a billing relationship with them – their system knew that I was in China) and a keyring OTP generator that we used for our corporate VPN. Any one of these could provide a better solution then messing about typing in code numbers, but they all sit in their own silos and don’t provide the kind of general-purpose services that they should.

What should have happened, of course, is that I should have been able to log in to PayPal using OpenID and then logged in to a 2FA OpenID using my (say) PINSentry. So now PayPal knows that I have been 2FA logged in from an “acceptable” source (ie, Barclays Bank) and we could move on. So why doesn’t this happen? Is it because OpenID has failed?

But if OpenID is a failure, it’s one of the web’s most successful failures. OpenID is available on more than 50,000 websites. There are over a billion OpenID enabled URLs on the web thanks to providers like Google, Yahoo and AOL. Yet, for most people, trying to log in to every website using OpenID remains a difficult task, which means that while thousands of websites support it, hardly anyone uses OpenID.

[From OpenID: The Web’s Most Successful Failure | Webmonkey | Wired.com]

It can’t be that. OpenID has plenty of support, and even the US government got behind it.

Who would have predicted say, 5 years ago, that you would some day be able to use commercial identities on government websites? Evidently, this raises questions about privacy and security but if these initiatives can garner enough public support, government validation of open identity frameworks could be a boon for the ecosystem of the open, distributed web. Plus, it can make dealing with the government a lot easier for you, too.

[From US Government To Embrace OpenID, Courtesy Of Google, Yahoo, PayPal Et Al.]

It’s not about the technology. I make no judgement as to whether OpenID is the best technology or not (although it does actually exist, which is a good start), but the truth is that it simply doesn’t matter whether it is or it isn’t.

The unresolved business and legal challenges implicit in federated identity are to blame for the under-delivery of OpenID

[From OpenID, Successful Failures And New Federated Identity Options | Forrester Blogs]

Indeed they are. So the problem isn’t really anything to do with OpenID, or any other framework that might come along in cyberspace, but the legal framework that it has to sit inside. This is where we need the breakthrough. We need potential identity providers (eg, Barclays, O2) to be able to set up OpenID responders for their customers inside a well-known and well-understood legal framework. Now, you can do this contractually (as IdenTrust has done), but to scale to the open web, we need something more than that, perhaps an equivalent of the “creative commons” licences that are used for content but for credentials.

Even then, would someone like PayPal rely on them? Or would it only rely on identities from regulated financial institutions in the EU? Or only such institutions that met some minimum authentication standard? We’re a long way from fixing my Chinese problem, despite having all of the technology needed to do so.

Not magic bullets, but bullets nonetheless

How do you identify people? This is a difficult problem. Let’s set aside what you need to identify people for, and just concentrate on large scale solutions.

The Indian government is trying to give all 1.2 billion Indians something like an American Social Security number, but more secure. Because each “universal identity number” (UID) will be tied to biometric markers, it will prove beyond reasonable doubt that anyone who has one is who he says he is. In a country where hundreds of millions of people lack documents, addresses or even surnames, this will be rather useful. It should also boost a wide range of businesses.

[From India: Identifying a billion Indians | The Economist]

The “but more secure” is obvious, because otherwise “something like” a US SSN will be as disastrous as a UK National Insurance number as a viable means of identifying individuals.

The study found that rather than serving as a unique identifier, more than 40 million SSNs are associated with multiple people. 6% of Americans have at least two SSNs associated with their name. More than 100,000 Americans have five or more SSNs associated with their name.

[From One In Seven Social Security Numbers Are Shared]

So what do we mean by “more secure”? How do you go about uniquely identifying people? In the case of India, it means a biometric universal ID (UID). Once the word “biometric” appears, people seem to think there is now a magic bullet against identity theft and fraud and they want to use it for everything (which is why I have previously argued that – given convenience – the market will automatically shift to demand the highest level of assurance of identity for every transaction, whether it requires it or not).

Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI)… has constituted an internal group with members from various departments to examine the modalities for making UID applicable for KYC norms and to formulate their views. This information was given by the Minister of State for Finance, Shri Namo Narain Meena in written reply to a question raised in Rajya Sabha today.

[From Press Information Bureau English Releases]

This kind of behaviour builds a tower on shifting sand, introducing a single point of failure into all systems. In fact, it introduces exactly the same single point of failure into all systems, which is why I like the NSTIC approach of multiple identity providers (of which the government in merely one, and a non-priviledged one at that). In India, biometrics have not had a good start. The first attempts to register people for the UID saw only a fifth of the attempts succeed.

Though the department conducted proof-of-concept (pilot project) on over 266,000 people in Mysore and Tumkur districts, only 52,238 UIDs could be generated.

[From Pilot project yielded few UIDs – The Times of India]

Is there something unusual about Indian biometrics? I suspect not. I suspect that biometrics are being used in systems designed by management consultants who have been watching Hollywood movies rather than by technologists who understand the appropriate modalities and bounds. You wouldn’t get that sort of thing here in the UK. No, wait…

Biometric face scanners at Manchester Airport have been switched off after a couple walked through one after swapping passports.

[From Aircargo Asia Pacific – Face scanners switched off at Manchester]

I’ve been through the e-passport face scanners at LHR a few times (I don’t use the IRIS scheme after it rejected me three trips in a row) and I can’t say I haven’t wondered whether it is real or not. We all know that iris scanning is more secure.

A woman from eastern Europe who was deported from the UAE re-entered weeks after her departure using a new identity… To prevent her from returning, her eyes were scanned before she left. But, according to her testimony in court this week, she returned to the UAE through Dubai International Airport using a forged passport and a different name. She said her eyes were scanned upon entry.

[From Iris scan fails to stop returning deportee – The National Newspaper]

Hhhmmm. It seems as if building big databases of biometrics may not be the way forward for the time being. Is there any other way to make biometrics more practical at a large scale? I’m sure there is. Perhaps a good place to start would be to marry some capability and convenience. One thing that we know from examples around the world is that customers like biometrics because of convenience. So what else is convenient? I know: contactless, wireless and RIFD technology.

Standard Chartered is issuing RFID chips to select customers at its newest Korean location, eliminating the need for affluent individuals to wait in lines at the branch. When a customer holding an RFID tag enters the facility, the system immediately notifies the branch manager and a relationship manager who can greet the customer personally at the door.

[From RFID Chips Spell End to Branch Lines for High-Value Customers | The Financial Brand: Marketing Insights for Banks & Credit Unions]

Ah, but when you get to the counter, how does the bank know that you are indeed the valued customer and not an imposter, intent on transferring funds off to Uzbekistan? Well, you could ask the customer to put their finger on a pad, or look at a camera, or speak into a microphone, or what ever, and then send the captured biometric to the RFID device for matching. Instead of rummaging through a giant database, the system can now do an efficient 1-1 comparison offline. If the device returns the correct, digitally-signed response, then the customer is verified. No PINs, no passwords: the combination of biometrics, contactless and tamper-resistant chips can deliver a workable solution to a lot of problems.

Ageing problem

The simple and prosaic case of age verification has always been a litmus test for digital identity infrastructure and it’s taken on new dimensions because of social networking. We need some clear thinking to see through fog of moral panic, made worse by the turbocharging impact of the mobile phone, because it is such an individual and personal device. The spectre of legions of perverts luring children via their mobile phones is, indeed, disturbing. If only there were some way to know whether your new social networking friend is actually a child of your age and not an adult masquerading as such.

A mobile phone application which claims to identify adults posing as children is to be released. The team behind Child Defence says the app can analyse language to generate an age profile, identifying potential paedophiles.

[From BBC News – Researchers launch mobile device ‘to spot paedophiles’]

Of course, it ought to work the other way round as well. One of my son’s friends told me that members of his World of Warcraft Guild (all 13- and 14-year olds) enjoy pretending to be “grown ups” online (by pretending to have jobs and wives). But this seems an odd way to move forward, as well as something that will surely be gamed by determined perverts.

Why on Earth can’t we just do this properly, at the infrastructural level. If we had a half-decent digital identity infrastructure, there would be no need for this sort of thing. Look, here’s a simple of example of this, in Japan. If you want to use social networks via your mobile phone then it is the operator who verifies your age to the social network service (SNS) provider. Since the operator has the billing relationship, this makes sense.

KDDI announces age verification service for mobile SNS platforms; Gree, Mixi and MobaGa to start at the end of Jan

[From Mobile SNS Age Verification Service by Wireless Watch Japan]

Note that this has no implications for privacy. The operator could require you to come to one of their outlets and prove that you are, say, 18. Then they set a flag for service providers to tell them that you are over 18. It doesn’t tell them your age, or your name or where you are. Just that you are over 18. Note that this system hasn’t been invented for social networking: it is already used to prove age at vending machines (you can’t buy cigarettes or sake or whatever unless your phone says that you are old enough). It ought to be simple enough to do the same thing but using proper technology. Suppose that your Facebook page came with a red border if you have not provided proof of age? Then you could provide that proof of age and have your border changed to blue for under 18 or green for over 18 – then make the rule that anyone with a red border is only allowed to connect to people with green borders.

You see what I mean. Have something that is understandable at the user level and implement it using certificates, digital signatures and keys in tamper-resistant storage (in, for example, mobile phones). There would be no need to try and explain to people how PKI actually works (which killed it in the mass consumer market last time), just show them how to log in to things using their phones. There’s a waiting mass market for this sort of thing if you can be clear to consumers that it will protect their privacy and that market is adult services: porn and gambling, primarily, either of which should generate a decent income stream for the successful service provider. Simple. As a complete aside, there’s another connection between the adult world and social networking.

The surprise relationship between social networking and adult-themed sites came last September, when total page visits for social networking sites for the first time eclipsed that of adult sites.

[From BBC NEWS | Technology | Porn putting on its Sunday best]

So the internet isn’t all about porn after all!

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

Internet driver’s license?

Last year I said that I thought that the US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) was heading in the right direction. I’m very much in favour of the private sector providing multiple identities into a framework that it used by the public sector and vice versa. I’m in favour of choice: if I choose to use my Barclays identity to access the DVLA or my DWP identity to access O2 it shouldn’t matter to the effective and efficient use of online transactions. There was one area where I felt it could have presented a slightly different vision, and that’s in the use of pseudonyms, which I think should be the norm rather than the exception.

People should consider it normal to get a virtual identity from their bank or their mobile phone operator in a pseudonymous name so that they can browse, transact and comment without revealing anything about themselves other than the facts relevant to a transaction.

[From Digital Identity: USTIC]

James Van Dyke, when discussing NSTIC (which seems have become known unofficially as “Obama’s Internet Identity System”) warned about

Apocalyptic fear-mongers. Yes I’m ending with the crazies here, but hear me out. The extreme cable networks and televangelists will surely jump on this as the digital incarnation of the Mark of either the Beast or “(gasp!) Obama liberals. Historians will recall that social security numbers were supposed to be an apocalyptic conspiracy.

[From Obama’s Internet Identity System: Could This Change Everything? – Javelin Strategy & Research Blog]

I don’t think the danger is the crazies — although I feel a little sheepish writing this a couple of days after a crazy did, in fact, murder several people and seriously injure a congresswoman — but the journalists, politicians, commentators and observers who don’t really understand the rather complex topic of digital identity. Or, as “Identity Woman” Kailya Hamlin (who some of you may remember from the first European Internet Identity Workshop that Consult Hyperion sponsored with our friends from Innopay and Mydex back in October) said about NSTIC:

I am optimistic about their efforts and frustrated by the lack of depth and insight displayed in the news cycle with headlines that focus on a few choice phrases to raise hackles about this initiative

[From National! Identity! Cyberspace!: Why we shouldn’t freak out about NSTIC. | Fast Company]

She’s bang on with this. Here’s a couple of typical examples from the blogosphere:

CNET reported on January 7, 2011 that Obama has signed authority over to U.S. Commerce Department to create new privacy laws that require American citizens to hold an Internet ID card.

[From Internet Anonymity: Obama Pushes for an American Internet ID]

And

President Obama has signaled that he will give the United States Commerce Department the authority over a proposed national cybersecurity measure that would involve giving each American a unique online identity

[From Obama administration moves forward with unique internet ID for all Americans, Commerce Department to head system up — Engadget]

As far as I can see, NSTIC being managed by the Commerce Department has nothing to do with “privacy laws” and the idea that it will require Americans to have an “Internet ID” is a journalistic invention. The actual situation is that NSTIC is to go from being an idea to an actual system:

The Obama administration plans to announce today plans for an Internet identity system that will limit fraud and streamline online transactions, leading to a surge in Web commerce, officials said. While the White House has spearheaded development of the framework for secure online identities, the system led by the U.S. Commerce Department will be voluntary and maintained by private companies,

[From Internet Identity System Said Readied by Obama Administration – BusinessWeek]

What this means is not that Americans will get an “Internet Driver’s License” but that they will be able to log in to their bank, the Veteran’s Administration, the DMV and their favourite blogs using a variety of IDs provided by their bank, their mobile phone operators and others.

[White House Cybersecurity Coordinator] Howard Schmidt stressed today that anonymity and pseudonymity will remain possible on the Internet. “I don’t have to get a credential, if I don’t want to,” he said.

[From Obama to hand Commerce Dept. authority over cybersecurity ID | Privacy Inc. – CNET News]

As long as it’s a matter of choice, I really don’t see a problem with this. The idea of NSTIC is that it is the infrastructure that is standardised, and this is good. We need standards for credentials and such like so that I can use my Woking Council ID to log in central government services and my Barclays Bank ID so that I can log in to do my taxes online: but I might pay Barclays for an additional ID that has some key credentials (IS_A_PERSON, IS_OVER_18, IS_NOT_BANKRUPT, that sort of thing) but does not reveal my identity. This sort of Joe Bloggs (or, for our cousins over the water, John Doe) identity would be more than adequate for the vast majority of web browsing and if other people want to wander the highways and byways of the interweb with a Manchester United, Prince or BBC ID, then it’s up to them. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as they say (well, as Chairman Mao said).

If the crazies want to be concerned about a single ID mark of the e-beast infocalypse, they’re perfectly entitled to, but I don’t understand why they are convinced it will come from the government in general or Obama in particular – there are half-a-billion people out there (including me) who have already handed over their personal information to a single unaccountable entity.

Facebook Login lets any website on the planet use its identity infrastructure—and underlying security safeguards. It’s easy to implement Facebook Login, simply by adding few lines of code to a web server. Once that change is made, the site’s users will see a “Connect with Facebook” button. If they’re already logged into Facebook (having recently visited the site), they can just click on it and they’re in. If they haven’t logged in recently, they are prompted for their Facebook user name and password.

[From Facebook Wants to Supply Your Internet Driver’s License – Technology Review]

Now, at the moment Facebook Connect just uses a password, so it’s no more secure than banks or government agencies, but it could move to a 2FA implementation implementation in the future. Widespread 2FA access to online services really should have become a business for banks or mobile operators already (think how long Identrus has been around) but it just hasn’t happened: I can’t use my Barclays PINSentry to log on to Barclaycard, let alone the government or an insurance company. But suppose my Facebook login required access to my mobile phone so it was much more secure: you know the sort of thing, enter e-mail address, wait for code to arrive on mobile phone, enter code (a proper UICC-based digital signature solution would be much better, but that’s another topic). Then I could use Facebook Connect for serious business. This would have an interesting side-effect: Facebook would know where I go on the web, which seems to me to be much more like the mark of the e-beast.

An interesting side benefit for website operators is that Facebook Login provides the site with users’ real names (in most cases) and optionally a variety of other information, such as the users’ “friends” and “likes.”

[From Facebook Wants to Supply Your Internet Driver’s License – Technology Review]

Which is, of course, why I don’t use it. On the other hand, if Facebook decided to use cryptography to secure and protect this sort of information, they could at a stroke create a desirable internet passport: by “blinding” the passport to prevent service providers from tracking the identity across web sites Facebook could significantly improve both convenience and privacy for the average users.

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

Commercial activities

[Dave Birch] Identity management technologies have to get into the consumer space and go with the grain of what companies and their customers want to do. Clearly we can’t just start from scratch and redesign all commercial interactions on top of a (currently non-existent) identity infrastructure. Yet the technology that we need to improve the customer-business interaction is coming together, so it would be a good idea to try and figure how it can be made useful or attractive.

The good news is that these problems are already being addressed. Technology now makes possible an identity infrastructure that simultaneously addresses the security and public service needs of government as well as those of private sector organisations and the privacy needs of individuals. Privacy-enhancing security technologies now exist that enable the secure sharing of identity-related information in a way that ensures privacy for all parties involved in the data flow.

[From IdentityBlog – Digital Identity, Privacy, and the Internet’s Missing Identity Layer]

The (albeit limited) marketplace concept of identity management as a way making logging in to web sites and filling out online forms less painful is there, so it would be a good place to start.


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