Identity and Trust
Folks who know me will know that I’ve been taking an interest for some time in the problems of online identity and trust:
- Passwords (as we know them today) are a sick joke.
- Monolithic certificate authorities (and browser trust lists) are a serious weakness in web trust.
- PGP and the Web of Trust remain the preserve of geekdom.
- People distrust and even fear centralised databases. At issue are both the motivations of those who run them, and security against intruders.
- Complexity and poor practice opens doors for phishing and identity theft.
- Establishing identity and trust can be a nightmare, to the extent that a competent fraudster might find it easier than the real person to establish an identity.
I’m not a cryptographer. But as mathematician, software developer, and old cynic, I have the essential ingredients. I can see that things are wrong and could so easily be a whole lot better at many levels. It’s not even a hard problem: merely a more rational deployment of existing technology! Some time back I thought about setting myself up in the business of making it happen, but was put off by the ghost of what happened last time I tried (and failed) to launch an innovative startup.
Recently – starting this summer – I’ve embarked on another mission towards improving the status quo. Instead of trying to run my own business, I’ve sought out an existing business doing good work in the field, to which I can hope to make a significant contribution. So the project’s fortunes tap into my strengths as techie rather than my weaknesses as a Suit.
I should add that the project does rather more than just improve the deployment of existing technology, as it significantly advances the underlying cryptographic framework. Most importantly it introduces a Distributed Trust Authority model, as an alternative to the flawed monolithic Certificate Authority and its single point of failure. The distributed model also makes it particularly well-suited to “cloud” applications and to securing the “Internet of Things”.
And it turns out, I arrived at an opportune moment. The project has been single-company open source for some time and generated some interest at github. Now it’s expanding beyond that: a second corporate team is joining development and I understand there are further prospects. So it could really use a higher-level development model than github: one that will actively foster the community and offer mutual assurance and protection to all participants. So we’ve put it forward as a candidate for incubation at Apache. The proposal is here.
If all goes well, this could be the core of my work for some time to come. Here’s hoping for a big success and a better, safer online world.