Category Archives: identity

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.

Who is blocking what?

I have a problem with identifying myself.  Again.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that if we haven’t yet reached a point where it’s harder for me than for a competent fraudster to prove my identity, we can’t have far to go!

Specifically, I need to provide proof of identity by means of a bank statement.  Not an electronic one, which is all I get.  This is in order to open a new account elsewhere, that’ll pay relatively decent interest.

OK, ask at my local agency.  No, they can’t supply it, but suggest I call their call centre.

Try the call centre (and navigate through a voice-driven system that is long but at least works surprisingly well).  They can send an interim statement (on headed paper, so *hopefully* OK), but a full one will cost a tenner.  Probably worth it in the circumstances, but …

It’s the end of the month, so my regular statement should be due.  If I go online and amend my options to receive paper statements, it’s free.  Simple enough.

Except …

The system just hangs when I try to submit the request.  Dammit, now I recollect it doing the same thing repeatedly over about a week when I tried to view my full creditcard statement (which is mid-January).  Hmmm …

All this while I’m on the phone to the call centre.  They can’t change my options for me, and tell me to go back to my branch.  Grrr ….

Plan 3, get it up on the pocket-puter, and go down to the branch with that.  Try resubmitting a few times as I walk down the street.

And lo … suddenly it works, acknowledges my request!

What had changed?  I’d just walked out of range of my wifi, and submitted over the ‘phone network (and the different IP address didn’t log me out – so at least something was right)!  Presumably all that’s changed is that I was accessing them through a different route, and it suddenly works!

I have something slightly similar with some Yahoo sites, where access from my IP just hangs (this has not always been the case), but it works fine if I go through a proxy.  What gives?

Relying on Identity

Yesterday’s news: Government agency loses sensitive data on 25 million people. Not encrypted. Head of agency resigns. El Reg reports something interesting has popped up on ebay.

Meeja gasp in astonishment: how could they? That’s half the country exposed to identity theft and fraud in a single incident. Shock, horror!

But the reality is that this kind of ‘accident’ is becoming a regular event. OK, 25 million at once is not the norm, but losses of six-figure numbers of such records are being reported every few weeks. The culprits are household names, like banks and government agencies. How many such incidents go unreported is unknown. Nor do we know whether this is anything new: what has changed recently is that such losses suddenly became sensitive.

Furthermore, a lot of personal information can be obtained legitimately and cheaply. There are companies who make a business of tracing holders of assets. I’ve recently been contacted by one such about some bonus-shares from one of the Thatcher privatisations, and registered to me at an address I’ve had no connection with since about 1990. My shares are apparently worth about £200, and their finders fee – if I choose to use their service – would be about £20. The fact they can run a business based on that kind of thing demonstrates just how easy it is to trace people!

Conclusion: this is something we’re going to have to live with.

So, how do we live with it? Indeed, why is it a problem in the first place? The idea that we should carefully guard our own personal information is new to those of us with nothing to hide: for example, it’s not so long ago I published my home address on my homepage on the ‘net. Some countries have different attitudes to privacy, and consider some of the information we jealously guard to be public.

The basic problem, as we hear it reported, is one of fraud:

Ring, Ring.

“Hello, this is Gordon Brown, of 10, Downing Street, SW1. I’d like a £50K loan for a flashy new car.”

“Yes Mr Brown. Your credit rating says that’ll be fine. We’ll need you to answer a couple of personal questions so we know it’s really you. What is your mother’s maiden name?”

[… cut …]

“OK, that’s all in order. When do you need the money?”

“Immediately, please. And since I’m away from home until the end of next week, can you send it to me c/o the Mended Drum, Ankh Morpork?”

“Yes sir, that will be fine.”

Apparently that kind of thing really does happen. Enumerating the problems with it is left as an exercise for the reader.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is not really who has access to information, but rather why do we allow basic, widely available or low-security information to be so profitable? It all smells of the race to the bottom, wherein companies put generating new business and market share above the quality, and in this case security, of that business.

The exception to that is tokens such as passwords and PIN numbers, and how to use strong ones, use them securely, remember them, and not re-use the same tokens for multiple different purposes. Public-key technology can indeed solve that (and without the need for a massive central identity database), but that’s another topic.