Anywhere, anyone

I’ve been reading Emily Nagel’s book “Anywhere“. She’s the CEO of Yankee Group and the book is about global connectivity revolutionising business. I hope she won’t be offended if I say that it’s an “airport book”, but it’s an accurate description, at least for me, because I read it on the plane. There’s something that bothers me about it, though. It has lots of stories and examples and narrative about ways in which business is transformed as it goes online, but it doesn’t have “identity” or “authentication” in the index and says nothing about the identity problems that will need to be solved in order to realise the full potential of connectivity. As I’ve often observed before, using my favourite Kevin Kelly classification, connection isn’t the problem: it’s the disconnection technologies that will shape the medium-term roadmap for transforming new technology into business models: once everything is connected to everything else, the business model shifts to the creation and management of subgroups within that single, giant internet of everything.

Here, things aren’t going so well. By coincidence, the Saturday newspaper that I picked up after putting down Emily’s book had a technology advice column, and there was a letter from a typical consumer in it. I paraphrase:

I have a long list of passwords for home banking, shopping, social networks, magazines and so on. I’ve put them all in a Word document. How can I encrypt it?

This is, in a nutshell, the state of the mass market today. We all have masses of passwords, we’ve been complaining about it since 1994, and nothing much seems to happen, largely (I think) because the costs of our time don’t factor into business models. And yet… we don’t seem to be evolving any better business models and we don’t seem any closer to better identity infrastructure. Should we give up? No! I say we should remember William Samuel Henson.

It is sad that the name of William Samuel Henson is largely unknown today. A man of great vision, he petitioned Parliament for permission to set up an airline — with a business model largely based on post — flying to Egypt, India and China. Parliament turned his proposal down on the grounds that it was 1843 and no-one had invented airplanes yet. Henson knew this, obviously, but could see which way technology was evolving and correctly reasoned that just because he didn’t know how to get an airplane off the ground (he had been involved in numerous experiments around powered flight), that didn’t mean that no-one else would. And when they did, there would be a new business to build on aviation technology. So he started thinking about the businesses that would make sense and, since the post had just been invented in the UK, he looked at how that might work in the future.

This is a parable of our identity space now. We can’t get the technology to work, but we know that someone will, so we’re trying to think of business models (I should be clear in our case: we’re trying to think of business models for our clients) that will make sense when the technology works. But we’re thinking about web browsing and e-mail because these have just been invented and they’re our equivalent of the post service. Maybe we should challenge ourselves harder to look at wider possibilities, start from the perspective of social networking, virtual worlds and Twitter rather than Alice sending her credit card details to Bob.

Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today’s lack of identity-forging social experience.

[From Facebook: the heart in a heartless world | spiked]

I think many organisations should be focusing on the next phase of evolution of online business, and phase that will be fundamentally shaped by the emerging identity infrastructure. But we must be careful not to take what has just been invented (in this case, say, Facebook) and project it into the future as the key to new business models. We have to think more broadly to develop strategic roadmaps for business that can react to the general trends to exploit the technology downstream. An example? Well, it doesn’t matter which social network we’ll be using in five years time, we’ll still need to authenticate ourselves in a more effective way that a Word file full of passwords. It isn’t only me that thinks this.

The president wants consumers to use strong authentication, something more than user name and password, which will most likely add another security factor, say officials familiar with the project.

For example, user name and password is one-factor security, something you know. But additional factors can be added. A token or digital certificate can be a second factor, something you have, resulting in stronger two-factor authentication. If you add a fingerprint or other biometric, something you are, it’s increased to three-factor security.

[From NFCNews | Potential technologies that consumers may use for online ID]

There follows an interesting, but confused, list of options. I’d like to suggest a more straightforward taxonomy, based on a digital identity infrastructure (which doesn’t exist, of course). The article, to my mind, confuses the distinct bindings between the virtual identities that exist in the Net and the real identities that are connected to. This is why it is useful to introduce the notion of digital identity in the middle. So then we get the two categories of things that might be used to solve the

  • Linking virtual identities to digital identities. The article suggests that digital certificates and PKI might be a good way to do this and I agree. Think of a digital identity as a private-public key pair … tamper-resistance… smart cards, tokens, smart phones.
  • Linking digital identities to real-world entities. The article suggests that passwords will be supplanted by biometrics.

Each of these will be a separate business that operates according to difference scale factors (scale in the first case, scope in the second). I don’t know how to make them work, but someone will.

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

What do they want us to do?

What do the politicians, regulators, police and the rest of them want us (technologists) to do about the interweb tubes? It might be easier to work out what to do if we had a clear set of requirements from them. Then, when confronted with a problem such as, for example, identity theft, we could build systems to make things better. In that particular case, things are currently getting worse.

Mr Bowron told the MPs this week that although recovery rates were relatively low, the police detection rate was 80 per cent. However, the number of cases is rising sharply with nearly 2m people affected by identity fraud every year.

[From FT.com / UK / Politics & policy – MP calls cybercrime Moriarty v PC Plod]

So, again, to pick on this paricular case, what should be done?

Mr Head also clarified his position on the safety of internet banking, insisting that while traditional face-to-face banking was a better guarantee against fraud, he accepted that society had moved on. “If you take precautions, it’s safe,” he said.

[From FT.com / UK / Politics & policy – MP calls cybercrime Moriarty v PC Plod]

Yet I remember reading in The Daily Telegraph (just googled it: 20th November 2010) there was a story about an eBay fraud perpetrated by fraudsters who set up bank accounts using forged identity documents, so face-to-face FTF does not, as far as I can see, mean any improvement in security at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it is worse than nothing, because people are easier to fool than computers. I would argue that Mr. Head has things exactly wrong here, because we an integrated identity infrastructure should not discriminate between FTF and remote transactions.

I think this sort of thing is actually representative of a much bigger problem around the online world. Here’s another example. Bob Gourley. the former CTO of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, poses a fundamental and important question about the future identity infrastructure.

We must have ways to protect anonymity of good people, but not allow anonymity of bad people. This is going to be much harder to do than it is to say. I believe a structure could be put in place, with massive engineering, where all people are given some means to stay anonymous, but when a certain key is applied, their cloak can be peeled back. Hmmm. Who wants to keep those keys

[From A CTO analysis: Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom | IT Leadership | TechRepublic.com]

So, just to recap, Hillary says that we need an infrastructure that stops crime but allows free assembly. I have no idea how to square that circle, except to say that prevention and detection of crime ought to be feasible even with anonymity, which is the most obvious and basic way to protect free speech, free assembly and whistleblowers: it means doing more police work, naturally, but it can be done. By comparison, “knee jerk” reactions, attempting to force the physical world’s limited and simplistic identity model into cyberspace, will certainly have unintended consequences.

Facebook’s real-name-only approach is non-negotiable – despite claims that it puts political activists at risk, one of its senior policy execs said this morning.

[From Facebook’s position on real names not negotiable for dissidents • The Register]

I’ve had a Facebook account for quite a while, and it’s not in my “real” name. My friends know that John Q. Doe is me, so we’re linked and can happily communicate, but no-one else does. Which suits me fine. If my real name is actually Dave bin Laden, Hammer of the Infidel, but I register as John Smith, how on Earth are Facebook supposed to know whether “John Smith” is a “real” name or not? Ludicrous, and just another example of how broken the whole identity realm actually is.

For Facebook to actually check the real names, and then to accept the liabilities that will inevitably result, would be expensive and pointless even if it could be achieved. A much better solution is for Facebook to help to the construction and adoption of a proper digital identity infrastructure (such as USTIC, for example) and then use it.

The implementation of NSTIC could force some companies, like Facebook, to change the way it does business.

[From Wave of the Future: Trusted Identities In Cyberspace]

That’s true, but it’s a good thing, and it’s good for Facebook as well as for other businesses and society as a whole. So, for example, I might use a persistent pseudonymous identity given to me by a mobile operator, say Vodafone UK. If I use that identity to obtain a Facebook identity, that’s fine by Facebook: they have a certificate from Vodafone UK to say that I’m a UK citizen or whatever. I use the Vodafone example advisedly, because it seems to me that mobile operators would be the natural providers of these kinds of credentials, having both the mechanism to interact FTF (shops) and remotely, as well as access to the SIM for key storage and authentication. Authentication is part of the story too.

But perhaps the US government’s four convenient “levels of assurance” (LOAs), which tie strong authentication to strong identity proofing, don’t apply to every use case under the sun. On the recent teleconference where I discussed these findings, we ended up looking at the example of World of Warcraft, which offers strong authentication but had to back off strong proofing.

[From Identity Assurance Means Never Having To Say “Who Are You, Again?” | Forrester Blogs]

Eve is, naturally, absolutely right to highlight this. There is no need for Facebook to know who I really am if I can prove that Vodafone know who I am (and, importantly, that I’m over 13, although they may not be for much longer given Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent comments on age limits).

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

Two-faced, at the least

The end of privacy is in sight, isn’t it? After all, we are part of a generation that twitters and updates its path through the world, telling everyone everything. Not because Big Brother demands it, but because we want to. We have, essentially, become one huge distributed Big Brother. We give away everything about ourselves. And I do mean everything.

Mr. Brooks, a 38-year-old consultant for online dating Web sites, seems to be a perfect customer. He publishes his travel schedule on Dopplr. His DNA profile is available on 23andMe. And on Blippy, he makes public everything he spends with his Chase Mastercard, along with his spending at Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.com.

“It’s very important to me to push out my character and hopefully my good reputation as far as possible, and that means being open,” he said, dismissing any privacy concerns by adding, “I simply have nothing to hide.”

[From T.M.I? Not for Sites Focused on Sharing – NYTimes.com]

We’ll come back to the reputation thing later on, but the point I wanted to make is that I think this is dangerous thinking, the rather lazy “nothing to hide” meme. Apart from anything else, how do you know whether you have anything to hide if you don’t know what someone else is looking for?

To Silicon Valley’s deep thinkers, this is all part of one big trend: People are becoming more relaxed about privacy, having come to recognize that publicizing little pieces of information about themselves can result in serendipitous conversations — and little jolts of ego gratification.

[From T.M.I? Not for Sites Focused on Sharing – NYTimes.com]

We haven’t had the Chernobyl yet, so I don’t privilege the views of the “deep thinkers” on this yet. In fact, I share the suspicion that these views are unrepresentative, because they come from such a narrow strata of society.

“No matter how many times a privileged straight white male tech executive tells you privacy is dead, don’t believe it,” she told upwards of 1,000 attendees during the opening address. “It’s not true.”

[From Privacy still matters at SXSW | Tech Blog | FT.com]

So what can we actually do? Well, I think that the fragmentation of identity and the support of multiple personas is one good way to ensure that the privacy that escapes us in the physical world will be inbuilt in the virtual world. Not everyone agrees. If you are a rich white guy living in California, it’s pretty easy to say that multiple identities are wrong, that you have no privacy get over it, that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, and such like. But I disagree. So let’s examine a prosaic example to see where it takes us: not political activists trying to tweet in Iran or Algerian pro-democracy Facebook groups or whatever, but the example we touched on a few weeks ago when discussing comments on newspaper stories: blog comments.

There’s an undeniable problem with people using the sort-of-anonymity of the web, the cyber-equvalent of the urban anonymity that began with the industrial revolution, to post crap, spam, abuse and downright disgusting comments on blog posts. And there is no doubt that people can use that sort-of-anonymity to do stupid, misleading and downright fraudulent things.

Sarah Palin has apparently created a second Facebook account with her Gmail address so that this fake “Lou Sarah” person can praise the other Sarah Palin on Facebook. The Gmail address is available for anyone to see in this leaked manuscript about Sarah Palin, and the Facebook page for “Lou Sarah” — Sarah Palin’s middle name is “Louise” — is just a bunch of praise and “Likes” for the things Sarah Palin likes and writes on her other Sarah Palin Facebook page

[From Sarah Palin Has Secret ‘Lou Sarah’ Facebook Account To Praise Other Sarah Palin Facebook Account]

Now, that’s pretty funny. But does it really matter? if Lou Sarah started posting death threats or child pornography then, yeah, I suppose it would, but I’m pretty sure there are laws about that already. But astrosurfing with Facebook and posting dumb comments on tedious blogs, well, who cares? If Lou Sarah were to develop a reputation for incisive and informed comment, and I found myself looking forward to her views on key issues of the day, would it matter to me that she is an alter-ego. I wonder.

I agree with websites such as LinkedIn and Quora that enforce real names, because there is a strong “reputation” angle to their businesses.

[From Dean Bubley’s Disruptive Wireless: Insistence on a single, real-name identity will kill Facebook – gives telcos a chance for differentiation]

Surely, the point here is that on LinkedIn and Quora (to be honest, I got a bit bored with Quora and don’t go there much now), I want the reputation for work-related skills, knowledge, experience and connections, so I post with my real name. When I’m commenting at my favourite newspaper site, I still want reputation – I want people to read my comments – but I don’t always want them connected either with each other or with the physical me (I learned this lesson after posting in a discussion about credit card interest rates and then getting some unpleasant e-mails from someone ranting on about how interest is against Allah’s law and so on).

My identity should play ZERO part in the arguments being made. Otherwise, it’s just an appeal to authority.

[From The Real “Authenticity Killer” (and an aside about how bad the Yahoo brand has gotten) — Scobleizer]

To be honest, I think I pretty much agree with this. A comment thread on a discussion site about politics or football should be about the ideas, the argument, not “who says”. I seem to remember, from when I used to teach an MBA course on IT Management a long time ago, that one of the first lessons of moving to what was then called computer-mediated communication (CMC) for decision-making was that it led to better results precisely because of this. (I also remember that women would often create male pseudonyms for these online communications because research showed that their ideas were discounted when they posted as women.)

It isn’t just about blog comments. Having a single identity, particularly the Facebook identity, it seems to me, is fraught with risk. It’s not the right solution. It’s almost as if it was built in a different age, where no-one had considered what would happen when the primitive privacy model around Facebook met commercial interests with the power of the web at their disposal.

that’s the approach taken by two provocateurs who launched LovelyFaces.com this week, with profiles — names, locations and photos — scraped from publicly accessible Facebook pages. The site categorizes these unwitting volunteers into personality types, using a facial recognition algorithm, so you can search for someone in your general area who is “easy going,” “smug” or “sly.”

[From ‘Dating’ Site Imports 250,000 Facebook Profiles, Without Permission | Epicenter | Wired.com]

Nothing to hide? None of my Facebook profiles is in my real name. My youngest son has great fun in World of Warcraft and is very attached to his guilds, and so on, but I would never let him do this in his real name. There’s no need for it and every reason to believe that it would make identity problems of one form or another far worse (and, in fact, the WoW rebellion over “real names” was led by the players themselves, not privacy nuts). But you have to hand it to Facebook. They’ve been out there building stuff while people like me have been blogging about identity infrastructure.

Although it’s not apparent to many, Facebook is in the process of transforming itself from the world’s most popular social-media website into a critical part of the Internet’s identity infrastructure

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

Now Facebook may very well be an essential part of the future identity infrastructure, but I hope that people will learn how to use it properly.

George Bronk used snippets of personal information gleaned from the women’s Facebook profiles, such as dates of birth, home addresses, names of pets and mother’s maiden names to then pass the security questions to reset the passwords on their email accounts.

[From garlik – The online identity experts]

I don’t know if we should expect the public, many of who are pretty dim, to take more care over their personal data or if we as responsible professionals, should design an infrastructure that at least makes it difficult for them to do dumb things with their personal data, but I do know that without some efforts and design and vision, it’s only going to get worse for the time being.

“We are now making a user’s address and mobile phone number accessible as part of the User Graph object,”

[From The Next Facebook Privacy Scandal: Sharing Phone Numbers, Addresses – Nicholas Jackson – Technology – The Atlantic]

Let’s say, then, for sake of argument, that I want to mitigate the dangers inherent in allowing any one organisation to gather too much data about me so I want to engage online using multiple personas to at least partition the problem of online privacy. Who might provide these multiple identities? In an excellent post on this, Forum friend Dean Bubley aggresively asserts

I also believe that this gives the telcos a chance to fight back against the all-conquering Facebook – if, and only if, they have the courage to stand up for some beliefs, and possibly even push back against political pressure in some cases. They will also need to consider de-coupling identity from network-access services.

[From Dean Bubley’s Disruptive Wireless: Insistence on a single, real-name identity will kill Facebook – gives telcos a chance for differentiation]

The critical architecture here is pseduonymity, and an obvious way to implement it is by using multiple public-private key pairs and then binding them to credentials to form persona that can be selected from the handset, making the mobile phone into an identity remote control, allowing you to select which identity you want to asset on a per transaction basis if so desired. I’m sure Dean is right about the potential. Now, I don’t want to sound the like grumpy old man of Digital Identity, but this is precisely the idea that Stuart Fiske and I put forward to BT Cellnet back in the days of Genie – the idea was the “Genie Passport” to online services. But over the last decade, the idea has never gone anywhere with any of the MNOs that we have worked for. Well, now is the right time to start thinking about this seriously in MNO-land.

But mark my words, we WILL have a selector-based identity layer for the Internet in the future. All Internet devices will have a selector or a selector proxy for digital identity purposes.

[From Aftershocks of an untimely death announcement | IdentitySpace]

The most logical place for this selector is in the handset, managing multiple identities in the UICC, accessible OTA or via NFC. I use case is very appealing: I select ‘Dave Birch’ on my hansdset, tap it to my laptop and there is all of the ‘Dave Birch’ stuff. Change the handset selector to ‘David G.W. Birch’ and then tap the handset to the laptop again and all of the ‘Dave Birch’ stuff is gone and all of the ‘David G.W. Birch’ stuff is there. It’s a very appealing implementation of a general-purpose identity infrastructure and it would a means for MNOs to move to smart pipe services. But is it too late? Perhaps the arrival of non-UICC secure elements (SEs) mean that more agile organisations will move to exploit the identity opportunity.

How smart?

I had an interesting conversation with the CTO of a multi-billion company at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He, like me, felt that something has been going wrong in the world of identity, authentication, credentials and reputation as we try to create electronic versions of physical world legacy constructs instead of starting from a new sets of requirements for the virtual world and working back. He was talking about machines, though, not people.

Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia. European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world. Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

[From BBC News – Robots to get their own internet]

RoboEarth? No! Skynet, please. And Skynet needs to share an identity infrastructure with the interweb tubes, because of the rich interaction between personal identity and machine identity that will be integral to future living. The internet of things infrastructure needs an identity of things infrastructure to work properly. Our good friend Rob Bratby from Olswang wrote, accurately, that

The deployment of smart meters is one of the most significant deployments of what is often described as ‘the internet of things’, but its linkage to subscriber accounts and individual homes, and the increasing prevalence of data ‘mash-ups’ (cross-referencing of multiple databases) will require these issues to be thought about in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.

[From Watching the connectives | A lawyer’s insight into telecoms and technology]

I can confirm from our experiences advising organisations in the smart metering value chain that these issues are certainly not being thought about in either sophisticated or nuanced ways.

“The existing business policies and practices of utilities and third-party smart grid providers may not adequately address the privacy risks created by smart meters and smart appliances,

[From Grid Regulator: The Internet & Privacy Concerns Will Shape Grid: Cleantech News and Analysis «]

Not my words, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the US. Too right. The lack of an identity infrastructure isn’t just a matter of Facebook data getting into the wrong hands or having to have a different 2FA dongle for each of your bank accounts. It’s a matter of critical infrastructure starting down the wrong path, from which it will be hard to recover after the first Chernobyl of the smart meter age, the first time some kids, or the North Korean government, or a software error at the gas company shuts down all the meters, or publishes all of the meter readings in a Google maps-style mashup so that burglars can find out which houses in a street are empty, or the News of World can get a text alert when a sleb gets home, or whatever.

My CTO friend was, I’m certain, right to suggest that we need to start by working out what we what identity to look like in general and then work out what the subset of that in the physical world needs to look like. If we do start building an EUTIC or a UKTIC to complement NSTIC then I think it should work for smart meters as well as for dumb people.

Having another go

The UK’s last attempt to introduce a national identity infrastructure, the national ID card, failed pretty badly and left everyone involved under a cloud (except for the management consultancies who billed tens of millions of pounds to the project).

The Home Office slipped out the final report of the Independent Scheme Advisory Panel (ISAP) this week, more than a year after it was written. The ostensibly independent report, which reveals how the ID system had been compromised by poor design and management, was submitted to the Home Office in December 2009.

[From Henry Porter – Home Office suppressed embarrassing ID cards report]

The report says that there are no specifications for usage or verification (which we knew – this was one of my constant complaints at the time) and, revealingly, that (in section 3.3) that “it is likely that European travel” will emerge as the key consumer benefit. This, I think, is an interesting comment. As I have pointed before in tedious detail, what the Identity & Passport Service (IPS) built was, well, a passport. It had no other functionality and, given the heritage, was never going to have. Hence my idea of renaming it “Passport Plus” and selling it to frequent travellers (eg, me) as a convenience.

As an aside, the report also says (in section 5.5) the “significant” number of change requests after the contracts had been awarded would likely increase risk, cost and timescale. Again, while this is a predictable comment, it is a reflection on the outdated consultation, specification and procurement processes used. Instead of a flagship government project heralding a new economy, we ended up with the usual fare: incomplete specifications, huge management consultant bills, massive and inflexible supply contracts.

The report repeated the same warnings ISAP had given the Home Office every year since the system blueprint was published in December 2006 by Liam Byrne and Joan Ryan, then Home Office Ministers, and James Hall, then head of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS).

[From Home Office suppressed embarrassing ID cards report – 1/7/2011 – Computer Weekly]

How did it all go do wrong? Liam Byrne should have known something about IT as he used to work for Accenture, as did James Hall (Joan Ryan was a sociology teacher who later became famous for having claimed for more than £1,000,000 in MP’s expenses). Yet somehow the “vision” that emerged was profoundly untechnological, backward-looking and lacking in inspiration. What’s different now?

Well, a key change is that the new administration is heading more along the lines of the US (with USTIC) and the Nordics, where people use their bank IDs to access public services. We’re working on a project with Visa Europe and our good friend Fred Piper at Royal Holloway to develop a pilot implementation right now.

Consult Hyperion, working with Visa Europe and Codes & Ciphers, is the industry lead for a Technology Strategy Board funded research project; Sure Identity, for Secure Authentication of Online Government Services. This innovative pilot scheme will investigate the security and cost benefits of consumers using new bank-issued electronic Visa debit cards to securely access online government services

[From Digital Systems – DS KTN Member receives funding from Trusted Services Competition for research into the secure authentication of online Government Services – Articles – Technology Strategy Board]

It’s possible to at least imagine some form of “UKTIC” that is interoperable with the US version, certainly to the extent that an American with a US bank account might be able to open a UK bank account, things like that. And it’s possible to imagine a kind of EUTIC that sets certain minimums in place so that UKTIC can interoperate with France TIC and Germany TIC and so on. I already have one or two ideas about where UKTIC may differ from USTIC. Let’s go back to the EFF’s comments on USTIC.

A National Academies study, Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy, warned that multiple, separate, unlinkable credentials are better for both security and privacy. Yet the draft NSTIC doesn’t discuss in any depth how to prevent or minimize linkage of our online IDs, which would seem much easier online than offline, and fails to discuss or refer to academic work on unlinkable credentials (such as that of Stefan Brands, or Jan Camenisch and Anna Lysyanskaya).

[From Real ID Online? New Federal Online Identity Plan Raises Privacy and Free Speech Concerns | Electronic Frontier Foundation]

If we were to make UKTIC something like USTIC but with the addition of a class of unlinkable credentials that might be mandated for certain uses, then we could take a really important step forward: instead of a physical national identity card, the administration could trumpet and virtual national privacy card. (Actually, I’d be tempted call it a Big Society Card in order to get funding!)

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]

Real-time identity

Naturally, given my obsessions, I was struck by a subset of the Real-Time Club discussions about identities on the web at their evening with Aleks Krotoski. In particular, I was struck by the discussion about multiple identities on the web, because it connects with some work we (Consult Hyperion) have been doing for the European Commission. One point that was common to a number of the discussions was the extent to which identity is needed for, or integral to, online transactions. Generally speaking, I think many people mistake the need for some knowledge about a counterparty with the need to know who they are, a misunderstanding that actually makes identity fraud worse because it leads to identities being shared more widely than they need be. There was a thread to the discussion about children using the web, as there always is in such discussions, and this led me to conclude that proving that you are over (or under) 18 online might well be the acid test of a useful identity infrastructure: if your kids can’t easily figure out a way to get round it, then it will be good enough for e-government, e-business and the like.

I think the conversation might have explored more about privacy vs. anonymity, because many transactions require the former but not the latter. But then there should be privacy rather than anonymity for a lot of things, and there should be anonymity for some things (even if this means friction in a free society, as demonstrated by the Wikileaks storm). I can see that this debate is going to be difficult to organise in the public space, simply because people don’t think about those topics in a rich enough way: they think common sense is a useful guide which, when it comes to online identity, it isn’t.

On a different subject, a key element of the evening’s discussion was whether the use of social media, and the directions of social media technology, lead to more or less serendipity. (Incidentally, did you know that the word “serendipity” was invented by Horace Walpole in 1754?) Any discussion about social media naturally revolves around Facebook.

Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today’s lack of identity-forging social experience.

[From Facebook: the heart in a heartless world | spiked]

I don’t agree, but I can see the perspective. But I don’t see my kids fleeing into Facebook, I see them using Facebook to multiply and enrich their interpersonal interactions. Do they meet new people on Facebook? Yes, they do. Is that true for all kids, of all educational abilities, of all socio-economic classes, I don’t know (and I didn’t find out during the evening, because everyone who was discussing the issue seemed to have children at expensive private schools, so they didn’t seem like a statistically-representative cross-section of the nation).

Personally, I would come down on the side of serendipity. Because of social media I know more people than I did before, but I’ve also physically met more people than I knew before: social media means that I am connected with people who a geographically and socially more dispersed. I suppose you might argue that its left me less connected with the people who live across the street from me, but then I don’t have very much in common with them.

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]

Paleo-crypto

In some of the workshops that I’ve been running, I’ve mentioned that I think that transparency will be one of the key elements of new propositions in the world of electronic transactions and that clients looking to develop new businesses in that space might want to consider the opportunities for sustained advantage. Why not let me look inside my bank and see where my money is, so to speak? If I log in to my credit card issuer I can see that I spent £43 on books at Amazon: if I log in to Amazon I can that I spent £43 but I can also see what books I bought, recommendations, reviews and so on. They have the data, so they let me look at it. If I want to buy a carpet from a carpet company, how do I know whether they will go bankrupt or not before they deliver? Can I have a look at their order book?
Transparency increases confidence and trust. I often use a story from the August 1931 edition of Popular Mechanics to illustrate this point. The article concerns the relationship between transparency and behaviour in the specific case of depression-era extra-judicial unlicensed wealth redistribution…

BANK hold-ups may soon become things of the past if the common-sense but revolutionary ideas of Francis Keally, New York architect, are put into effect. He suggests that banks be constructed with glass walls and that office partitions within the building likewise be transparent, so that a clear view of everything that is happening inside the bank will be afforded from all angles at all times.

[From Glass Banks Will Foil Hold-Ups]

I urge you to clink on the link, by the way, to see the lovely drawing that goes with the article. The point is well made though: you can’t rob a glass bank. No walls, no Bernie Madoff. But you can see the problem: some of the information in the bank is confidential: my personal details, for example. Thus, it would be great if I could look through the list of bank deposits to check that the bank really has the money it says it has, but I shouldn’t be able to see who those depositors are (although I will want third-party verification that they exist!).

Why am I talking about this? Well, I read recently that Bank of America has called in management consultants to help them manage the fallout from an as-yet-nonexistent leak of corporate secrets, although why these secrets be prove embarrassing is not clear. In fact, no-one knows whether the leak will happen, or whether it will impact BofA, although Wikileaks’ Julian Assange had previously mentioned having a BofA hard disk in his possession, so the market drew its own conclusions.

Bank of America shares fell 3 percent in trading the day after Mr. Assange made his threat against a nameless bank

[From Facing WikiLeaks Threat, Bank of America Plays Defense – NYTimes.com]

Serious money. Anyway, I’m interested in what this means for the future rather than what it means now: irrespective of what Bank of America’s secrets actually are because

when WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website, promised to publish five gigabytes of files from an unnamed financial institution early next year, bankers everywhere started quaking in their hand-made shoes. And businesses were struck by an alarming thought: even if this threat proves empty, commercial secrets are no longer safe.

[From Business and WikiLeaks: Be afraid | The Economist]

Does technology provide any comfort here at all? I think it does. Many years ago, I had the pleasant experience of having dinner with Nicholas Negroponte, John Barlow and Eric Hughes, author of the cypherpunk manifesto, at a seminar in Palm Springs. This was in, I think, 1995. I can remember Eric talking about “encrypted open books”, a topic that now seems fantastically prescient. His idea was to develop cryptographic techniques so that you could perform certain kinds of operations on encrypted data: in other words, you could build glass organisations where anyone could run some software to check your books without actually being able to read your books. Nick Szabo later referred back to the same concepts when talking about the specific issue of auditing.

Knowing that mutually confidential auditing can be accomplished in principle may lead us to practical solutions. Eric Hughes’ “encrypted open books” was one attempt.

[From Szabo]

Things like this seem impossible when you think of books in terms of paper and index cards: how can you show me your books without giving away commercial data? But when we think in terms of bits, and cryptography, and “blinding” it is all perfectly sensible. This technology seems to me to open up a new model, where corporate data is encrypted but open to all so that no-one cares whether it is copied or distributed in any way. Instead of individuals being given the keys to the database, they will be given keys to decrypt only the data that they are allowed to see and since these keys can easily be stored in tamper-resistant hardware (whereas databases can’t) the implementation becomes cost-effective. While I was thinking about this, Bob Hettinga reminded me about Peter Wayner’s “translucent databases“, that build on the Eric’s concepts.

Wayner really does end up where a lot of us think databases will be someday, particularly in finance: repositories of data accessible only by digital bearer tokens using various blind signature protocols… and, oddly enough, not because someone or other wants to strike a blow against the empire, but simply because it’s safer — and cheaper — to do that way.

[From Book Review: Peter Wayner’s “Translucent Databases”]

There are other kinds of corporate data that it may at first seem need to be secret, but on reflection could be translucent (I’ll switch to Peter’s word here because it’s a much better description of practical implementations). An example might be salaries. Have the payroll encrypted but open, so anyone can access a company’s salary data and see what salaries are earned. Publish the key to decrypt the salaries, but not any other data. Now anyone who needs access to salary data (eg, the taxman, pressure groups, potential employees, customers etc) can see it and the relevant company data is transparent to them. One particular category of people who might need access to this data is staff! So, let’s say I’m working on a particular project and need access to our salary data because I need to work out the costs of a proposed new business unit. All I need to know is the distribution of salaries: I don’t need to know who they belong to. If our payroll data is open, I can get on and use it without having to have CDs of personal data sent through the post, of whatever.

I can see that for many organisations this kind of controlled transparency (ie, translucency) will be a competitive advantage: as an investor, as customer, as a citizen, I would trust these organsations far more than “closed” ones. Why wait for quarterly filings to see how a public company is doing when you could go on the web at any time to see their sales ledger? Why rely on management assurances of cost control when you can see how their purchase ledger is looking (without necessarily seeing what they’re buying or who they are buying it from) when you can see it on their web page? Why not check staffing levels and qualifications by accessing the personnel database? Is this any crazier than Blippy?

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


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