Posts filed under ‘identity’

The next best thing to the next best thing

From the perspective of a person keen to see identity federation the norm, a single federation protocol is the best thing. That allows a focus on the real challenges of federation- the business and process challenges. It relegates arcane discussions about SAML and WS-Federation to the few people who really want to talk about the nuts and bolts.

In reality, that’s probably unachievable. If nothing else, that was the biggest lesson from the ODF vs. OOXML saga.

The next best thing is true interoperability between protocols with standard products supporting multiple protocols out of the box. This doesn’t take away all the costs, complexity, and risks but is still an acceptable outcome.

The next best thing to the next best thing is a major vendor promising to move towards the next best thing. To that end, Microsoft’s announcement that the beta version of Geneva will not only support SAML 2.0 as a token format but also as a single sign-on protocol is very welcome. Geneva is Microsoft’s future identity platform, replacing ADFS (Active Directory Federation Services).

Specifically, Geneva will support the SAML 2.0 Lite/Web SSO profile. Happily enough, it will also support the US Government’s GSA profile which seems to be an attractive offering for US Government agencies.

So, come 2010 or whatever the usual announcement-to-real world deployment cycle takes, deployers of federation can increasingly focus on benefiting from identity portability rather than the underlying technical challenges.

Cool.

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October 30, 2008 at 12:11 am Leave a comment

Anonymous, an Internet meme

On the Internet, Anonymous has become a badge, a group, an idea. It’s all a bit nebulous really. It could quickly just fizzle out. On the other hand, it might just be the start of something new, something big, an emergent phenomenon.

Let’s start with meme. According to Wikipedia, a meme is an “idea or behaviour that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation.” Examples of memes include ideas, theories, practices, fashions, habits, etc. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 that has caught on as “a convenient way of discussing a piece of thought copied from person to person.”

Next, Internet memes. Again, according to Wikipedia, an Internet meme is “used to describe a catchphrase or concept that spreads quickly from person to person via the Internet.” There is a very interesting timeline of Internet memes that has some of the great viral distractions that the Internet has spawned. Have a look but be warned that it can hook you for hours. Like George Bush and Google. Or, the Star Wars political commercial.

Most people are familiar with the use of anonymous as a default name for a person on the Internet whose identity is unknown. Post a comment without identifying yourself and it’s likely to be accredited to anonymous.

But then anonymous began emerging as Anonymous, a sort of an in-joke. Many people think it originated from the site 4chan, an image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images anonymously. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. Almost anything is acceptable. That’s led to a clique with their own language, norms, jokes, values… culture?

In turn, that’s led to a movement on the Internet, perhaps one that can be best described as an Internet meme.

In an often-quoted article in the Baltimore City Paper called Serious Business, “anons” are linked with repeated attacks on the Church of Scientology, called Project Chanology, “a battle that pits an anarchic, leaderless group of mostly young and tech-savvy activists organized through online forums and chat rooms against a religion formed in the 1950s whose adherents believe a science-fiction writer laid down the course to world salvation.”

Their words are ominous, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Anonymous has been linked with more attacks. Such as a DDoS attack on the SSOH (Support Online Hip Hop) website; even the attack on Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo! Mail email account.

Anonymous has now become a movement, a moniker for a wide range of leader-less groups, from fringe elements on a path of reckless destruction to activists united in a sort of superconsciousness.

It could amount to nothing, a passing ripple in Internet history. Or, it could also become something far more potent, such as a rallying cry for the anti-establishment, a new breed of cyber-vigilantes.

In many ways, Anonymous is the child of the Internet. Do we get the children we deserve?

September 25, 2008 at 11:59 pm Leave a comment

Notes from the Privacy Issues Forum

I spent the day at the privacy forum “Privacy is your business” today in Wellington and wanted to put down some notes while things are still fresh.

I haven’t seen any media coverage yet but understand there will be some. As usual, I expect to see the stories and wonder if they are reporting about the same event that I attended.

In any case, I missed the highlight of the day as I was at a parallel stream- of the usually mild-mannered John Edwards in full flight, taking on the reps from the Office of the Ombudsmen and Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Pity that (missing it, not the taking on bit). Other than that and a small jibe about direct marketing at the end, there was just too much agreement on how great privacy is so that discussions were somewhat uni-dimensional.

Things got off to a good start. I was intrigued by one concept in Minister Lianne Dalziel’s speech, “… trusting interpersonal relationships are no longer the primary enabler of personal information transfer; technology is. Modern privacy law either ensures the individual retains some degree of control over the transfer or approximates a trusting interpersonal relationship – an honest broker as it were.” The notion of an “honest broker” to build trust in an information age is worth thinking about.

The next interesting point came from an insight into the Law Commission’s thinking about its Review Of Privacy. Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Professor John Burrows made it clear that wholesale restructuring of the Privacy Act was not on the agenda. The principles-based approach will be retained and only holes- surveillance, the tort of privacy, and sentencing anomalies- will be filled.

At a later stage, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff repeatedly referred to the Privacy Act as a modern piece of legislation. I think the sub-text was that the Act didn’t need major restructuring but the message was delivered in a classically indirect manner.

The next nugget was a point made by TradeMe’s Mike O’Donnell. In his usual straightforward manner, he squarely took on the issue of TradeMe requiring to release customer information to the authorities.

He talked about their disappointment that personal details of 10,000 customers was handed over to the police who then passed it on to defence lawyers and, from there, a person in jail. TradeMe has a stringent requirement that information requests “must specify enabling legislation, be specific and limited- no fishing trips.” But, once these criteria were met, they will and do hand over customer information. Whether it’s Google or TradeMe or any other firm dependent upon maintaining peoples’ trust, handing over their customers’ information is painful.

One other thing I missed out on was asking Inspector John Walker of NZ Police why people “volunteer” to give their DNA samples. This was something that the 2007 Privacy & Human Rights Report issued by Privacy International highlighted as worrying.

Finally, two more interesting things. First, the very sensible perspective of local government (from Laurie Gabites of Wellington City Council) that CCTVs have a very limited role in public spaces. They look at them as a way of pro-actively avoiding incidents escalating but that requires active monitoring and big resources- money and people- that are better spent on more effective things.

Secondly, from Barbara Craig of Victoria University, the notion of mediated public spaces as the new commons for teenagers. Another concept worthy of further thought as we struggle to understand the “third space” (after home and school) of today’s kids.

Overall, the forum today had some interesting moments. If only they had some mavericks to stir things up…

August 27, 2008 at 11:08 pm 3 comments

Snapping at privacy

There have been some negative reports around Snapper and its approach to privacy so I decided to take a look.

Snapper is a stored-value contactless smartcard that can be used in Wellington’s buses and as an alternative to cash/EFTPOS for low value purchases. It’s similar to Oyster, Octopus, etc. but with a more secure chip.

Losing a Snapper card is like losing cash. So people will soon be able to register their cards online. If a registered card is lost, the person can transfer the balance to a new card.

That’s a good feature but the personal information Snapper collects has reportedly got the Privacy Commissioner “concerned” and “is asking the company to rewrite its privacy policy.” The concerns are around “the potential for the Snapper card to track an individual’s movements and spending, and the indefinite retention of this information.”

Next stop then, a look at its privacy policy.

As expected, Snapper’s privacy policy declares that “We are committed to protecting your privacy” which is a good start. One would hardly have expected them to say anything else.

After that, it’s all downhill. A very slippery, steep decline at that.

Part 4 of the privacy policy provides details of what and when personal information is collected. Over twelve sections, it then lays out the absolutely amazing jaw-dropping amount of personal information it will collect. For a company that has pretty slick marketing and advertising, it’s as if they’ve given Mr Hyde (the evil side of Dr Jekyll) the job of developing the most privacy-invasive approach possible.

For example, to set up an online account, Snapper says “we will collect personal information from you, including your name, title, email address, password, gender, date of birth, telephone numbers, postal or physical addresses, preferences, demographic information, and other personal information.”

Why? What possible justification can they have to collect this information? Incidentally, this probably makes it downright illegal.

Not being satisfied with that, they go on to say that “the information we collect when that Card is used will be associated with any personal information about the card holder that you supply.” So, they want both personal information plus profiling information. Wow! Considering the range of uses for the Snapper card outlined- everyday purchases, loyalty card, building access control, ticketing and event access- they seem more intent on being a datamart than a smartcard company.

Still not satisfied with that, they go on further to envisage Snapper being used as an identity card. They will then “collect additional information about you, which may include:

  • your date of birth
  • any relevant licences or endorsements that you hold
  • other attributes relevant for identification purposes (for example, which school or university you attend)”

I’m left shaking my head in wonder. Did a dinosaur somehow survive the Ice Age?

I can’t see how they can verify the information people give. So, despite their warnings of giving incorrect personal information, I’m willing to bet that a lot of people will do just that.

And yet, the solution for the most part is actually quite simple. Snapper could use pseudonymous identity rather than real identity. Leaving aside tracking usage or their notion of becoming an identity card (which I can’t even begin to imagine as even remotely realistic), using pseudonymous identity could keep everyone happy.

Otherwise, I’ll just stick to good old anonymous cash, thank you.

August 20, 2008 at 12:33 am 2 comments

UK: e-petition and proof of citizenship

I was both moved and intrigued by Robin Wilton’s plea to support an e-petition “to create a dedicated Military & Veterans Hospital within the UK.”

Moved because it seemed to be a worthy thing to do; intrigued because I wanted to see how they would verify that I met the condition of being a British citizen or resident to sign the petition.

Turns out that all that’s required is a valid address and postcode. If you’re an expat, you don’t even need that. So, “Earnest Hope” became the 41,380th person to sign the e-petition.

It left me wondering just how many other signatures are from people like me? And, does it really matter if the bulk of them are actually from eligible folks?

Also, isn’t there a better way for checking online whether a person is a UK citizen/resident?

That got me thinking about how to verify whether or not a person is a New Zealand citizen or resident. In-person checking is simple enough but what about an online check? Can’t think of a simple way that already exists.

That is where GOAAMS (slides) comes in…

August 3, 2008 at 9:14 pm Leave a comment

Identity systems and trust

On reflection, it turns out that a trusted system may actually be untrustworthy.

I was looking at some of the recorded presentations that I missed at the Managing Identity in New Zealand conference in April. If the delightful Wordle tool could make word clouds from videos, then one of the prominent words in the presentations would be “trust.” There were probably few, if any, presentations that didn’t use that word in conjunction with identity systems.

Just what is the relationship between identity systems and trust? Given that every presenter thought it is a critical component of an identity system, it’s worth trying to uncover the relationship between the two.

To me the word trust seemed to cover a wide spectrum of meanings- different people used the word to mean different things. At one extreme is what I’d call technical trust while at the other is business trust.

A good example of technical trust is Stefan Brand’s presentation about Credentica’s U-Prove™ technology. He would probably define trust in terms of protocols, cryptographic proof, encryption, non-repudiation, digital signatures, message integrity, unlinkability, etc. Trust would, in this case, be the outcome from the technical features of an identity system.

At the other extreme is what a person like the Privacy Commissioner means by trust. She used it to mean “protect them [people] from the many possible harms that can arise from misuse of their personal information”; “to give credible, proveable reassurances”; and “people to feel too insecure to give out their information, and crippling e-govt and e-commerce systems.” She goes on to quote a minister that “Damage the trust of citizens and you damage the notion of citizenship, and governing becomes that much harder.”

I visualise the relationship between technical trust and business trust as two concentric circles. The smaller, inner one is technical trust and the larger, outer one business trust to represent:

– technical trust is a sub-set of business trust, i.e. it is impossible to achieve business trust without first getting technical trust; and

– technical trust on its own is insufficient, i.e. for an identity system to be trustworthy, it must have both technical trust and business trust. Otherwise, we get a (technically) trusted system that is untrustworthy from a business or user perspective.

Vendors of identity systems tend to focus on technical trust and make passing references to business trust. That’s one of the things that make the Liberty Alliance attractive- it has a focus on both technical and business trust.

As an aside, locally we seem to be getting there as evidenced by a recent post Govt moves forward with online ID by Richard Wood.

July 27, 2008 at 11:38 pm 2 comments

Elusive SSO

I’ve been a fan of usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s regular update (Alertbox) for a long time. It’s admirable how he keeps re-emphasising the fundamentals again and again.

I suspect that half the reason I read the updates so regularly is the futile hope that somehow- maybe by osmosis- his common sense approach will percolate into my sub-conscious and lead to better outcomes for the online services I’m involved in.

Jakob Nielsen would no doubt laugh at such nonsense, throw up his hands, and demand that I user test to objectively determine that one way or another.

Anyway, his latest piece is on enterprise portals. That is not an area that I often venture into but he had some stuff about single sign-on (SSO) that caught my eye:

“Single sign-on is the Loch Ness monster of the intranet world: People hear about it and even believe it exists, but they’ve yet to see it for real…In our initial research 5 years ago, it was already clear that single sign-on could dramatically improve user productivity and satisfaction, as well as immensely reduce support costs.”

“Our second round of research confirmed single sign-on’s potential — and its elusiveness… True single sign-on was and is extraordinarily rare… We can only conclude that it’s very difficult to achieve, despite its promise.”

What’s true of the enterprise is even more so outside it, for the Internet.

The benefits and business case for enterprise SSO are undoubtedly great. But for the Internet? That’s an area that I personally struggle with, notwithstanding that SSO is the original use case for federation and, to some extent, can be provided by OpenID (provided the person has logged on to the OpenID Provider).

Now, Internet SSO does mean convenience. It surely is a good thing to log on once and then be able to do whatever a person wants across the Internet without logging in again.

What worry me are the security and privacy implications. Those aren’t that big a deal within an enterprise context but are on the Internet. And, within government online services on a national scale, even more so.

From a security perspective, it’s about the loss of keys to the kingdom- passwords are just too easy to compromise. Now, if passwords were used appropriately (i.e. only where there is a low level of identity-related risks) then the consequences from a compromised password wouldn’t be too bad. But, realistically, passwords today protect far too much and a compromised password can be a widespread disaster for the person.

Then, there’s privacy. Using the same username & password to do everything (or lots of things) then raises the possibility of aggregation of information and building profiles.

So is Internet SSO a good thing? Yes, provided it is implemented in a secure and privacy-protective manner. Problem is, can that be achieved in an economical manner (that rules out advanced crypto) for the Internet?

July 15, 2008 at 11:16 pm 1 comment

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