The sorry state of id and authentication

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

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

[From Digital Money: Holding court]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not magic bullets, but bullets nonetheless

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

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

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

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

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

[From One In Seven Social Security Numbers Are Shared]

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

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

[From Press Information Bureau English Releases]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faking it

[Dave Birch] I was in a discussion about this “internet of things” again today. It reminded me about my recent visit to the Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) European Centre of Excellence, which is in Halifax. They have a super facility with a shop, bank, hospital, town hall, library and main street set up on one floor of what I imagine to be a disused mill building. Their vision is to be able to demonstrate AIDC technologies (including some of our favourites such as biometrics and RFID) in “real” environments. During my tour, I came across a notable use of RFID tagging that flagged up — once again — just how widespread the use of RFID is likely to become and just how many niches there are for it to fill. I’m not skipping over the privacy issues. Nor, for that matter, are the European Commission…

One source told me that a requirement from the EU for consumers to positively opt-in to RFID in-store and for RFID tags to be decommissioned at the point-of-sale would kill RFID at item-level in Europe. Such a move, the source added, would put us internationally behind the curve, cost thousands of jobs in the RFID industry and be a terrible waste of a very useful opportunity.

[From Is the EU about to publish RFID privacy proposals? (Tune into RFID)]

Some form of RFID code of conduct — such as the one that Toby Stephens wrote for Digital Identity Management — is a good thing, but the opt-in and decommissioning ideas are not the right way forward.


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