Semantic Web & OAuth

I must confess that for a long time I never got this semantic web thing. Now, with the zeal of the recently converted, I see possibilities everywhere.

Part of the reason it took time was an automatic reaction against something being called Web 3.0 (or is it 4.0?). I’m still trying to really understand Web 2.0. Learning about the next big thing could always wait.

Another reason was how early enthusiasts described the semantic web. Calling it the machine readable web doesn’t even begin to make sense.

As far back as 1999, Tim Berners-Lee in Weaving the Web said, “I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.”

Now that’s visionary. Even today, I’m barely beginning to understand that vision.

Thankfully, and perhaps ironically, the very Web 2.0 service Slideshare has some presentations that explain things in a way that we mere mortals can understand. My first pick are the two presentations from Freek Bijl- the first one covers the basics and the second one the technologies. Another one is from Marta Strikland called The Evolution of Web 3.0. This has a great Web 3.0 Meme Map on slide 15 and a comparative list of Web 2.0 and 3.0 on slide 27.

Being more of a graphics person, the final aha came from the one below, thanks to Project 10x (also worth looking at is the original Semantic Social Computing presentation from Mills Davis).

With the semantic web also comes a whole new set of acronyms. A starter list is RDF, SPARQL, SWRL, XFN, OWL, and OAuth. In particular, OAuth being the authentication one is interesting.

OAuth is described as “An open protocol to allow secure API authentication in a simple and standard method from desktop and web applications.” The basic promise is attractive- access to data while still protecting the account credentials. That has the advantage of not requiring people to give up their usernames and passwords to get access to their data. OAuth is a much-improved version of closed proprietary protocols such as Flickr’s API. Importantly, it has support for non-browser access such as desktop applications and mobile services.

So, what are the practical applications of the semantic web? Within the government space, a clear winner is being able to automate the collection of data from multiple government websites and search, filter, or otherwise manipulate the result.

As a simple example, if all government websites had the contact details of their media contact using hCard, it would be easy to have an always up-to-date list that can be displayed, indexed, searched, loaded into an address book, mapped, etc. Even as a relatively simple first step, this would be a big step forward for government.

September 3, 2008 at 11:43 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

Invitation to become a bot herder

What else would you call it? Consider the facts:

– Owen Walker, aka AKILL, the Kiwi bot herder who was stupid enough to get caught, couldn’t stop smiling in court when the judge called him a “very bright young man.”

– He spent over two years building bot nets- not a person who was a mule but someone who actively recruited people for his A Team- and would have kept going if not stopped. The judge still sees no criminal intent on his part, just curiosity.

– Even the prosecution called for leniency. So much for the vaunted FBI operation Bot Roast.

– He controlled 1.3 million computers around the world yet escaped conviction (also video) since it might ruin the prospects of using his skills in a positive way. No doubt those 1.3 million people are thrilled at that prospect as is UPenn, which he crashed for a couple of days with an accidental distributed denial of service attack

– All he got was a fine of $9,526 or about US$ 7,300 for damage that runs into millions of dollars because all the police actually proved was the UPenn attack.

OK, so he was 16 when he started and suffers from mild Asperger’s syndrome but what message does the sentence send to bored teenagers? That the Internet is a lawless wild west? That if you’re stupid enough to get caught, don’t worry, there’s not going to be a hanging? Instead, the police and overseas companies will line up to give you a job? That all you’re going to get is a fine that you can probably pay from your first month’s salary (as you’ve already blown the $40,000 you’ve made)?

From the news coverage, it seems to me that all of the hinting that he might work for the police is just a red herring.

Owen Walker was not that good a programmer, even though the police think so (video), just a person with a very relaxed sense of right and wrong.

The message is physical crime is not worth it- you actually do get sent to jail and no prosecutor is going to ask a judge to discharge you without a conviction. The Internet is where the smart guys go to- it seems that everyone is on your side then.

On TV (video) they aren’t willing to speak out against the sentence. So what’s next? A book deal? An invitation to speak at the RSA Conference a la Frank Abagnale?


Do we get the crime that we deserve?

July 17, 2008 at 12:00 am Leave a comment

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

Older Posts Newer Posts

This blog is no longer updated. See the About page for more info. I'm currently active on Twitter.

Follow me on twitter