Fintech South 2020 – Maintaining trust and safety in a digital world

At the (sadly, virtual) Fintech South event the year, I was asked to chair a discussion on identity and privacy with three extremely well-qualified experts who had informed perspectives on the state of, and trends in, those important pillars of a digital society. These were Adam Gunther (SVP, Digital Identity for Equifax), Andrew Gowasack (Co-Founder and President at TrustStamp) and Megan Heinze (President, Financial Institutions, North America for IDEMIA). It was great to talk to a group of people who were not only well-informed on these topics but had some passion for them too.

I won’t go over everything that was discussed, but I do want to pick up on a comment that was made in passing when I was chatting to the panelists: someone said that a guiding principle should be “no scary systems”. Hear hear! But what is a scary system? It is, in my opinion, a system that privileges security over privacy. This is not how we should be designing the identity systems for the 21st century!

Malware Wolves in Developer Sheep’s Clothing

internet screen security protection

When consumers install software on their devices, they often perform some sort of risk evaluation, even if they don’t consciously realise it.  They might consider who provides the software, whether it is from an app-store, what social media says, and whether they have seen any reviews.  But what if once a piece of software had been installed, the goalposts moved, and something that was a genuine software tool at the time of installation turned into a piece of malware overnight.

This is what happened to approximately 300,000 active users of Chrome ad blocking extension Nano Adblocker.  You see, at the beginning of October, the developer of Nano Adblocker sold it to another developer who promptly deployed malware into it that issued likes to hundreds of Instagram posts without user interaction.  There is some suspicion that it may have also been uploading session cookies.

Internet voting – challenging but necessary

i voted sticker lot

What did you think of the US election? I don’t mean the candidates and the outcome. What did you think of the election process? Should it be possible for national elections of this type to be done online? Last week the IET published a paper on internet voting in the UK, led by our good friend at the University of Surrey, Professor Steve Schneider. It’s well worth a read. As the paper explains, internet voting for statutory political elections is a uniquely challenging problem. Firstly voting systems have exacting requirements and secondly, the stakes are high with the threat of state level interference.

Contact-free public transport (Part 3)

person holding smartphone

This is the third of three blogs about technologies to support contact-free use of public transport.

The radio again – I hear that the Transport Minister for England had just reported that there have been fewer than 400 fines for people failed to wear face covering on public transport. More than 115,000 travellers have been stopped and reminded that face coverings are mandatory, and 9,500 people prevented from travelling.

Is your mobile banking app exposed by someone else’s software?

This post was written in collaboration with Neal Michie, Director, Product Management, Verimatrix.

Banks are facing massive disruption and change from many directions. The rise of app-only banks has made the need for traditional banks to have compelling app services an imperative. Banks have of course been building mobile apps for several years. If not already, they will soon be the most important channel for engaging with and serving customers. However, mobile banking apps will also become the primary focus of hackers, intent on getting access to other people’s information and money.

Who would have ex-Spectre-d this?

At Consult Hyperion we’re always interested in the latest news in cyber security and in case you haven’t heard, 2018 has started with the news that the most processors found inside current computers, tablets, phones and cloud servers are vulnerable to a new class of attack. These attacks have been named Meltdown and Spectre, and are caused by common optimisations built into modern processors. Processors designed by Intel, AMD and ARM are all affected to varying degrees and, as it is a hardware issue (possibly dating back to 1995 if some reports are correct), it could affect any operating system. It’s likely the machine you’re reading this on is affected – whether it’s running Windows, Macs, iOS, Android or is in “the cloud”!!

At a basic level, these vulnerabilities break down the fundamental security barriers between an application and the operating system (OS). This means that a malicious application running on your processor may be able to read your, or your OS’s, secrets which may include passwords, keys or possibly payment data, present in processor caches or memory.

I’m not going to discuss how the vulnerabilities achieve what they do (there’s plenty of sites which attempt to do this), however I’d rather consider its impact on people, such as our clients, who may be handling sensitive data on mobile devices – e.g. payments, banking information. If you do want to understand the low-level details of the vulnerabilities and how they work, I suggest looking at https://spectreattack.com/ which has links to the original papers on both Spectre and Meltdown.

So, what can be done about it? The good news is that whilst the current processors cannot be fixed, several operating system patches have already been released to try and mitigate these problems.

However, my concern is that as this is a new class of attack, Spectre and Meltdown may be the tip of a new iceberg. Even over the last week, the issue has changed from it only affecting Intel processors, to now including AMD and ARM to some extent. I suspect that over the coming weeks and months, as more security researchers (and probably less savoury characters as well) start looking into this class of attack, there may be additional vulnerabilities discovered. Whether they would already be mitigated by the patches coming out now, we’ll have to see.

It should also be understood that for the vulnerability to be exploited, there are a few conditions which must be met:

1. You must have a vulnerable processor (highly likely)
2. You must have a vulnerable OS (i.e. unpatched)
3. An attacker must be able to execute their malicious code on your device

 
For point 1, most modern devices will be vulnerable to some extent, so we can probably assume the condition is always met.

Point 2 highlights two perennial problems, a.) getting people to apply software updates to their devices and b.) getting access to appropriate software updates.

For many devices, software updates are frequent, reliable and easy to install (often automatic) and there are very few legitimate reasons for consumers to not just take the latest updates whenever they are made available. We would always recommend that consumers apply security updates as soon as possible.

A bigger problem for some platforms is the availability of updates in the first place. Within the mobile space, Microsoft, Apple and Google all regularly release software updates; however, many Android OEMs can be slow to release updates for their devices (if they release them at all). Android devices are notorious for not running the latest version of Android – for example, Google’s latest information (https://developer.android.com/about/dashboards/index.html – obtained 5th January 2018 and represents devices accessing the Google Play Store in the prior 7 days) shows that for the top 81% of devices in use:

• 0.5% of devices are running the latest version of Android – Oreo (v8.0, released August 2017)
• 25% are running Nougat (v7.x, released August 2016)
• 30% running Marshmallow (v6.0, released October 2015)
• 26% running Lollipop (v5.x, released November 2014).

 
It should be noted that Google’s Nexus and Pixel devices have a commitment to receiving updates for a set period of time, and Google is very keen to encourage OEMs to improve their support for prompt and frequent updates – for example, the Android One (https://www.android.com/one/) programme highlights that these devices get regular software updates.

If you compare to iOS, it’s estimated (https://data.apteligent.com/ios/) that less than a month after it was released in December 2017, over 75% of iOS devices are already running iOS 11.

The final requirement is Point 3 – getting malicious code onto your device. This could be via a malicious application installed on a device, however, the malicious code could also come via a website as it’s been shown that even JavaScript sandboxed in a browser can exploit these vulnerabilities. As its not unheard of for legitimate websites to unwittingly serve up 3rd-party adverts which contain malicious code, a user doesn’t have to be accessing malicious websites for the problem to occur. Several browsers are receiving patches to try and prevent Meltdown and Spectre working via this route. Regarding malicious applications, we’d always recommend that applications are only ever installed from legitimate sources, however malicious apps still regularly appear in legitimate app stores, so this is not fool-proof.

Thinking specifically about mobile banking and HCE payment applications, which is what interests many of our customers – these applications should already be including protections to prevent, or at least detect, malicious attacks. These protections typically include numerous measures such as root/jailbreak detection, code obfuscation, data minimisation, white-box cryptography and so on.

If anything, these latest vulnerabilities are a useful reminder that security is not a single task within a project plan, ticked off when complete before moving onto the next sprint or task. Rather, it is an ongoing concern for the lifetime of the system – something that Consult Hyperion quietly helps its customers with. A year ago, few would have considered this class of attack to either have been possible, let alone something which needs to be actively mitigated.

The blockchain’s salad days

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to have a favourite supply chain fraud or not but I do, and it is the famous case of the vegetable oil that almost bankrupted American Express (and went some way toward making Warren Buffet a multi-billionaire). The essence of the story is that a conman, Anthony “Tino” De Angelis, discovered that people would lend him money on the basis of commodities in the supply chain. His chosen commodity was vegetable oil (see How The Salad Oil Swindle Of 1963 Nearly Crippled The NYSE). Amex had a division that made loans to businesses using inventories as collateral. They gave De Angelis financing for vegetable oil and he took the Amex receipts to a broker who discounted them for cash. So he had tanks of vegetable oil and Amex had loaned him money against the value of the oil in those tanks, the idea being that they would get the money back with a bit extra when the oil was sold on. Now as it happened, the tanks didn’t much contain oil at all. They were mostly water with a layer of oil on top so that when the inspectors opened the tanks and looked inside they saw oil and signed off whatever documentation was required. Eventually the whole scam blew up and nearly took Amex down, enabling the sage of Omaha to buy up their stock and make a fortune.

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for conmen like Tino, the supply chain is one of the many industries that the blockchain is going to disrupt. As my good friend Michael Casey and his co-author Pindar Wong explain in their recent Harvard Business Review piece on the topic (Global Supply Chains are about to get Better, Thanks to Blockchain in HBR, 13th March 2017), blockchain technology allows computers from different organisations to collaborate and validate entries in a blockchain. This removes the need for error prone reconciliation between the different organisation’s internal records and therefore allows stakeholders better and timelier visibility of overall activity. The idea discussed in this HBR piece (and elsewhere) is that some combination of “smart contracts” and tagging and tracing will mean that supply chains become somehow more efficient and more cost-effective.

An aside. I put “smart contracts” in quotes because, of course, they are not actually contracts. Or smart. Bill Maurer and DuPont nailed this in their superb King’s Review article on Ledgers and Law in the Blockchain (22nd June 2015), where they note that smart contracts are not contracts at all but computer programs and so strictly speaking just an “automaticity” on the ledger. (Indeed, they go on to quote Ethereum architect Vitalik Buterin saying that “I now regret calling the objects in Ethereum ‘contracts’ as you’re meant to think of them as arbitrary programs and not smart contracts specifically”.) 

Using the blockchain and “smart contracts” sounds like an excellent idea and there’s no doubt that supply chain participants are taking this line of thinking pretty seriously. Foxconn (best known as the makers of the iPhone) are a recent case study. In March 2017 they demonstrated a blockchain prototype that they used to loan more than six million dollars to suppliers. I should note in passing that the article didn’t make it clear why they were using a blockchain (as opposed to any other form of shared ledger) or why they were using a shared ledger rather than a database but, like Merck and Walmart and many others, Foxconn is a serious business that sees promise in the technology so we should take the case study seriously.
 
While I was reading about Foxconn, and a couple of other related articles in connection with a project for a client, I started to wonder just how exactly would the supply chain industry be disrupted? How would the blockchain have fixed the salad oil problem? It’s very easy to think of a fancy fintech setup whereby smart contracts took care of passing money from the lender to the conman when the tanks were certified by the inspectors but as sceptical commentators (e.g., the redoubtable Steve Wilson of Lockstep) frequently point out, transactions using blockchain technology are only “trustless” insofar as they relate to assets on the blockchain itself. As soon as the blockchain has to be connected to some real-world asset, like vegetable oil, then it is inevitable that someone has to trust a third-party to make that connection.

Trusting these third parties can be a risk. Another of my favourite scandals (I have quite a few, I should have mentioned that) is the horsemeat scandal that swept Europe on the 50th anniversary of the salad oil scandal. Basically horsemeat was being mixed with beef in the supply chain and then sold on to the suppliers of major supermarkets in, for example, the UK. One of the traders involved was sentenced to jail for forging labels on 330 tonnes of meat as being 100% beef when they were not. Once again, I am curious to know how a blockchain would have helped the situation since the enterprising Eastern European equine entrepreneur would simply have digitally-signed that the consignment of donkey dongs were Polish dogs and no-one would have been any the wiser. It is not clear how a fintech solution based on blockchains and smart contracts would have helped, other than to make the frauds propagate more quickly.

The reason that I am interested in scandals like this one is that the tracking of food features as a one of the main supply chain problems that advocates hope the blockchain will solve for us. Work is already under way in a number of areas. I understand that Walmart have carried out some sort of pilot with IBM to try to track pork from China to the US and another pilot was used to track tuna from Indonesia all the way to the US. But if someone has signed a certificate to say that the ethically-reared pork is actually tuna, or whatever, how is the shared ledger going to know any different? A smart contract that pays the Chinese supplier when the refrigerated pork arrives in a US warehouse, as detected by RFID tags and such like, has no idea whether the slabs in the freezer are pork or platypus.

If you do discover platypus in your chow mein, then I suppose you could argue that the blockchain provides an immutable record that will enable you to track back along the supply chain to find out where it came from. But how will you know when or where the switcheroo took place? Some of the representations of the blockchain’s powers are frankly incredible, but it isn’t magic. It’s a data structure that recapitulates the consensus of its construction, not a Chain of True Seeing with +2 save against poison. So is there any point in considering a form of shared ledger technology (whether a blockchain or anything else) for this kind of supply chain application? Well, yes. We think there is.

Let’s go back to the first example, the great vegetable oil swindle.  Had American Express and other stakeholders had access to a shared ledger that recorded the volumes of vegetable oil being used as collateral, the fraud would have been easily discovered. 

“If American Express had done their homework, they would have realized that De Angelis’s reported vegetable oil ‘holdings’ were greater than the inventories of the entire United States as reported by the Department of Agriculture. “

via How The Salad Oil Swindle Of 1963 Nearly Crippled The NYSE

Interesting. So if the amounts of vegetable oil had been gathered together in one place, the fraud would have been noticed. What could that one place be? A federation of credit provider’s databases? A shared service operated by the regulator? Some utility funded by industry stakeholders? How would they work? What if the stakeholders instead of paying some third party to run such a utility used a shared ledger for their own use? It would be as if each market participant and regulator had a gateway computer to a central utility except that there would be no central utility. The gateways would talk to each other and if one of them failed for any reason it would have no impact on the others. That sounds like an idea to explore further.

How might such a ledger might operate? Would American Express want a rival to know how much vegetable oil it had on its books? Would it want anyone to know? The Bank of Canada, in their discussion of lessons learned from their first blockchain project, said that “in an actual production system, trade-offs will need to be resolved between how widely data and transactions are verified by members of the system, and how widely information is shared”. In other words, we have to think very carefully about what information we put in a shared ledger and who is allowed to say whether that information is valid or not. Luckily, there are cryptographic techniques known as “Zero Knowledge Proofs” (ZKPs) that can deliver the apparently paradoxical functionality of allowing observers to check that ledger entries are correct without revealing their contents and these, together with other well-known cryptographic techniques, are what allow us to create a whole new and surprising solution to the problem of the integrity of private information in a public space.

It is clear from this description that a workable solution rests on what Casey and Wong call “partial transparency”. At Consult Hyperion we agree, and we borrowed the term translucency from Peter Wagner for the concept. For the past couple of years we have used a narrative built around this to help senior management to understand the potential of shared ledger technology and form strategies to exploit it. Indeed, in some contexts we focus on translucent transactions as the most important property of shared ledgers and as a platform for new kinds of marketplaces that will be cheaper and safer, a position that you can find explored in more detail in the paper that I co-authored with my colleague Salome Parulava and Richard Brown, CTO of R3CEV. See Towards ambient accountability in financial services: shared ledgers, translucent transactions and the legacy of the great financial crisis. Journal of Payment Strategy and Systems 10(2): 118-131 (2016).

As you might deduce from the title, in this paper we co-opt the architectural term “ambient accountability” to describe the combination of practical Byazantine fault tolerance consensus protocols and replicated incorruptible data structures (together forming “shared ledger” technology) to deliver a transactional environment with translucency.  As Anthony Lewis from R3CEV describes in an insightful piece on this new environment, it is much simpler to operate and regulate markets that are built from such structures.

The reconciliation comes as part of the fact recording; not after. Organisations can “confirm as they go“, rather than recording something, then checking externally afterwards.

From Distributed ledgers: “Confirm-as-you-go” | Bits on blocks

In this way the traditional disciplines of accounting and auditing are dissolved, re-combined and embedded in the environment. Smart contracts wouldn’t have disrupted Tino’s business, but ambient accountability would have uncovered his plot at a much earlier stage, when the near real-time computation of vegetable oil inventories would delivered data on his dastardly plot. You’d hardly need Watson to spot that inventories greater than the United States entire annual production ought to be looked into in more detail.

Perhaps we need to shift perspective. It is the industry-wide perspective of the shared ledger, the shared ledger as a regtech, that makes the disruptive difference to supply chains, just as it is the shared ledger as a regtech that will reshape financial markets by creating environments for faster, cheaper and less opaque transactions between intermediaries that have to add value to earn their fees rather than rely on information asymmetries to extract their rent. As the World Economic Forum’s report on the Future of Financial Services says, “New financial services infrastructure built on [shared ledgers] will redraw processes and call into question orthodoxies that are foundational to today’s business models”. We agree, and if you want to make this a reality for your organisation, give me or my colleagues at Consult Hyperion a call. We will provide help, not hype.

Incidentally, the brilliant Maya Zahavi from QED-it will be explaining how ZKPs can transform supply chains at the 20th annual Consult Hyperion Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum on April 26th and 27th in London. Run, don’t walk, over to that link and sign up now for one of the few remaining delegate places and to be kept up-to-date in the future, sign up for our mailing list as well.

[Sincere thanks to my colleague Tim Richards and to my former colleague Salome Parulava for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.]

It doesn’t have to be “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Once again I’ve been involved in a series of Twitter exchanges about the relationship between cash and anonymity. Many in the Bitcoin community see Bitcoin’s sort-of-anonymity as an important characteristic because it defends the individual against state power and they berate me for wanting to replace cash “in circulation” with a digital alternative. Cash, they claim, is freedom. One odd aspect of this argument is that the cash is, of course, a byproduct of the leviathan they affect to despise.

Narayana Kocherlakota, formerly the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and now a prolific economics blogger, penned a recent article on the abolition of cash. Kocherlakota makes the point that if you don’t like government meddling in the proper functioning of free markets, then you shouldn’t be a big fan of central bank-issued banknotes.

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

I’m not, as it happens. In fact, I think we should start to consign them to the dustbin of history, beginning with the $100 bill, the £50 note and that affront to law-abiding people everywhere, the Swiss 1,000 franc note. There are an increasing number of people coming around to my way of thinking, including the former chief economist to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kenneth Rogoff, who recently published a book entitled “The Curse of Cash” in which he argues that banknotes should be withdrawn not only because of their use in criminal endeavours but because they prevent central banks from using their full range of monetary policy tools.

Kocherlakota doesn’t mention it explicitly, but should cash be abolished in order to remove the lower bound to interest rates, a potential replacement would be a new central bank-issued emoney, either Fedcoin or what Dave Birch has dubbed FedPesa.

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

But without wishing to be accused of pedantry, what does he mean by “central bank-issued electronic money”? In his presentation on ’The Zero Lower Bound and Anonymity”, Kocherlakota tends toward some form of cryptocurrency to replace fiat currency rather than a central bank digital currency and one of the reasons for this is his (entirely reasonable) concern about anonymity. This point is illustrated by literary reference.

In Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, a theocratic government named the Republic of Gilead has taken away many of the rights that women currently enjoy. One of the tools the Republic uses to control women is a ban on cash, all transactions now being routed digitally through something called the Compubank

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

It’s been many, many years since I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” so I went to my bookshelf to dig it out and re-read that part. The narrator talks about how the evil junta in charge of future America took over and says that it would have been harder if there had still been paper money. I don’t see how. North Korea has everyone using paper money and virtually no cards. Denmark has virtually no paper money and everyone uses cards (and phones). To be frank, in the modern world, I don’t think cash is that closely related to dictatorship.

 The Handmaid's Tale

The point I wanted to make here, though, is that it is wrong to present the alternatives as total surveillance and anonymity. I simply do not accept that the alternative to the unconditional anonymity of cash and the crime that goes with it is a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare. That’s only one way to design a circulating medium of exchange and it’s not the way that I would design it. I would opt for something along the lines of a universal pseudonymous mechanism capable of supporting an arbitrary number of currencies, a Mondex de nos jours, an M-PESA with go-faster stripes. In a world where there are completely, unconditionally anonymous payment mechanisms in widespread use there’s no way to stop very bad people from using them to do very bad things, so I’d prefer a world in which there are pseudonymous mechanisms that defend against routine surveillance and petty intrusion but allow societies legitimate interests to protect against crime.

Does this mean that anonymous mechanisms should be banned? Probably not, for the good reason that it would be impossible to do so. More likely would be a situation shown in the diagram below where there is an anonymous layer that has a pseudonymous layer on top of it and a absonymous (I made this word up) on top of that. People, governments and businesses would use this pseudonymous layer: the anonymous money would be useless for almost all transactions for almost all people since no-one would accept it. I would love to give this kind of anonymous money the generic name ZeroCash, after the William Gibson novel (“Count Zero”) in which one of my all-time favourite quotes about the future of money appears:

‘He had his cash money, but you couldn’t pay for food with that. It wasn’t actually illegal to have the stuff, it was just that no- body ever did anything legitimate with it.’

Unfortunately, someone else has already beaten me to it and not as a generic name! [See E. Ben-Sasson, A. Chiesa, C. Garman, M. Green,I. Miers, E. Tromer, and M. Virza, “Zerocash: Decentralized anonymous payments from bitcoin” in IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, SP 2014, Berkeley, CA, USA, May 18-21, 2014. IEEE Computer Society, pp.459–474 (2014)]. Well, I’m fighting back by starting use zerocash (with the lower case initial) to mean generic unconditionally anonymous electronic cash. The wallet that this electronic cash is stored in is an anonymous digital identity. It’s just a string of bits.

Now, you could imagine some form of zerocash in circulation as a cash alternative but not accepted in polite society (i.e., any attempt to spend it would be regarded as prima facie evidence of money laundering and exchanges would be barred from handling it). Polite society instead decides to protect privacy through managed conditional anonymity, or pseudonymity. A pseudonymous currency that is managed by a central bank but where transactions take place on a distributed ledger is much more like “RSCoin”, the cryptocurrency proposed by George Danezis and Sarah Meiklejohn at UCL [Danzis, G. and S. Meiklejohn. “Centrally Banked Cryptocurrencies”, NDSS ’16, 21-24 February 2016, San Diego, CA, USA] using Ben Laurie’s “mintettes” concept. By creating a pseudonym that is bound to the zerocash digital identity, we make it useful (provided that the binding is done by someone who trusted in the relevant transactional use cases).

Why bind it in this way? Well, there is the usual privacy paradox to be dealt with here: I want my transactions to be anonymous, but everyone else’s to be not anonymous in case they turn out to be criminals. I cannot see any way round this other than pseudonymity. There are people out there (e.g., my colleagues at Consult Hyperion) that know how to design systems that work like this, so there’s nothing stop the FATF, Bank of England, or Barclays or anyone else from starting to design the future, privacy-enhancing electronic money system that we need.

Let’s  move on. For certain purposes, pseudonymity might be deemed insufficient (e.g., KYC) and so that nym layer is needed too. This means we need to bind the pseudonym to real-world legal entity. A bank is a good place to form this binding, since they’ve already done the KYC and know who I am. So I give present my pseudonym to them and they can bind it to my “real” name to form a nym. In the example below, Barclays know who I really am, and I can present my Barclays nym where needed, but most transactions with counterparties take place at the pseudonymous layer and I can present my Vodafone pseudonym “Neuromancer” there if I want to. My counterparty doesn’t know that I am Dave Birch, only that Vodafone know who (and presumably, where) I am. For the overwhelming majority of day-to-day transactions, this is more than adequate. This layered approach (show below) seems to me a viable vision of a working infrastructure. Few transactions in the top layer (for privacy), most transactions in the middle layer, few transactions at the lower layer.

Anonymity and Levels

 

So in this made-up example, Barclays know my “real” identity and Vodafone knows a persistent pseudonym tied to my phone number. (Of course, I could go to Barclays and choose to bind my Vodafone identity to my Barclays identity, but we don’t need to think about this sort of thing here.) I’m going to reflect on how these bindings might work in practice more in the future, but for now I want to circle back to that opening concern about losing the anonymity of cash. Here’s another version of that meme that I read I day or two ago.

Cash—the familiar, anonymous paper money and metallic coins that most of us grew up using—isn’t just convenient, it’s also a powerful shield for our autonomy and our privacy.

From Cash Means Freedom, Which Is Why So Many Officials Hate It – Reason.com

It really isn’t. Your privacy is being taken away because of Facebook, people wearing Snapchat shades and drones, not because of debit cards. And none of this has anything to do with dictatorship. I wouldn’t want to live in the America of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” whether it had anonymous payments or not.  I understand the concerns of those concerned with privacy (as I am) that there might be an inevitable tendency for a government to want to trespass on the pseudonymous infrastructure in the name of money laundering or terrorism, but that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with by society, not by technology. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I do know that we need to get the conversation started in a more sophisticated way.

The WEF blueprint for digital identity – the middle way

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has just published their report on “A Blueprint for Digital Identity”. It begins with a disclaimer from “Deloitte”* saying that “This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business”. But what’s the point of reading a report that isn’t going change any decision or action that you make? I think quite the opposite: you should read the document and make the decision to have a strategy towards digital identity and start to explore different scenarios covering how it will affect your business right away.

First, let me admit that I was excited to see that WEF/Deloitte* have finally caught up with Consult Hyperion’s thinking on this kind of thing. Back in 2008, I wrote that:

Banks ought to be looking at both providing and consuming identity services and developing better identity and authentication services not merely for their internal use to reduce phishing and pharming but as a line of business in an online society. They are the obvious category of institution to provide credentials, manage personal information and deliver identity into the marketplace.

From Digital Identity: I’m sure banks have a strategy for this kind of thing

The WEF report says that “There is a strong business case for Financial Institutions to lead the development of digital identity systems” and goes out to categorise these are cost reduction, new revenue opportunities and transformational new models (i.e., outside core banking). I agree that it’s important to look at the saving money and making money opportunities in this way because in any bank that I’ve spoken to about this sort of thing, it’s been clear that the saving money business case has to stack up before there will be any investment.

As for the blueprint, the report suggests three approaches, – the institution, the consortium, the industry – which I paraphrase here:

  • A single institution could create its own system, focusing on cost saving but with limited potential for further adoption (but I think ”ChaseID” would struggle against “AppleID”);

  • A consortium could create a co-opetition infrastructure along the lines of the payment networks (some sort of financial services passport);

  • The financial services sector as a whole could create some form of industry identity utility that could be used to deliver “wholesale” identity services (I could get gas, electricity and identity all from the same retailer);

I’m rather in favour of the middle option as I think it delivers immediate improvements to the day-to-day transactions of modern life and it is, above all, feasible. But what exactly would it implement? The model of identity transactions that the WEF present (page 43), which divides identity transactions into authorisation, attributes and authentication is I think a little too narrow. The model we use at Consult Hyperion (“Three Domain Identity”, or 3DID) provides a better platform for discussion and exploration (but then I would say that wouldn’t I) because it makes the relationships between identities, attributes, credentials and so on more explicit.

3D Domain ID with FIDO

When it comes to discussing archetypes (or “marketectures”)  that will make sense (page 62), the use of the 3DID model makes it easier to understand the different options but considering who will control each of the domains. If, as WEF recommend, it is the financial institutions who control the Digital Identity and they link this to a variety of Mundane Identities from different sources and well as to a potentially large numbers of Virtual Identities (where credentials are held, essentially) it gives them a pivotal role. This might be in a federated structure, where each banks holds its own KYC and makes it available to other banks, or some other options. However it’s done, the authentication (proving you control the digital identity) is another matter.

One of the reason why I have such an interest in the “middle way” WEF blueprint is that I’ve been part of a techUK working group looking at this since 2014.

A ‘financial services passport’ refers to an aspirational digital identity, issued by UK financial services providers, and mutually recognised across the financial services industry.

From Workshop: Towards a Financial Services Passport

Such a passport would not only be used for financial services and for the benefit of financial institutions. It could be used to improve all sorts of services that desperately need a proper identity infrastructure. It could with internet dating, protecting people on twitter from trolls, access to adult services and other “sharp end” applications of digital identity that would be transformational not only for bank revenues but also for consumers in the mass market. The solutions to the big, immediate problems in these areas come not from the digital identity itself but from the virtual identities built on top of it, because the virtual identities are a way to communicate attributes rather than identity.

So what might banks do with your identity once they’ve got it safely locked away in their vaults? Well, one idea, particularly popular with me, is that they might give you a safe, pseudonymous virtual identity to go out an about with.

From Tired: Banks that store money. Wired: Banks that store identity | Consult Hyperion

The idea of strong pseudonymity is particularly appealing: a pseudonymous virtual identity with a bundle of credentials attested to by regulated financial institutions should be more than enough for almost all day-to-day transactions. This would allow for a new tranche of what economists call “incentive functions” to be created by banks, encouraging transactions where none would have taken place otherwise.

But back to the WEF report. In conclusion, despite my preference for our model (!), when it comes down to it, I think that the middle way (the consortium approach) is the place to start and I strongly agree with the principal recommendation of the report, which is that (page 101) “Implementation of a digital identity system should follow a bottom-up approach”. What the WEF calls “natural identity networks” I might be very tempted to label”communities”. So let’s create identity solutions for communities (starting with the financial services passport for the retail financial community of customers, providers and regulators) and find ways to interconnect them rather than trying to think up some kind of top-down “World ID” for the communities to implement.

* “Deloitte” refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a UK private company limited by guarantee (“DTTL”), its network of member firms, and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as “Deloitte Global”) does not provide services to clients.


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