Lockstep

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Once more to the breach!

Bank robber Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, answered "That's where the money is". It's the same with breaches. Large databases are the targets of people who want data. It's that simple.

Having said that, there are different sorts of breaches and corresponding causes. Most high profile breaches are obviously driven by financial crime, where attackers typically grab payment card details. Breaches are what powers most card fraud. Organised crime gangs don't pilfer card numbers one at a time from people's computers or insecure websites (and so the standard advice to consumers to change their passwords every month and to make sure they see a browser padlock is nice but don't think it will do anything to stop mass card fraud).

Instead of blaming end user failings, we need to really turn up the heat on enterprise IT. The personal data held by big merchant organisations (including even mundane operations like car parking chains) is now worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. If this kind of value was in the form of cash or gold, you'd see Fort Knox-style security around it. Literally. But how much money does even the biggest enterprise invest in security? And what do they get for their money?

The grim reality is that no amount of conventional IT security today can prevent attacks on assets worth billions of dollars. The simple economics is against us. It's really more a matter of luck than good planning that some large organisations have yet to be breached (and that's only so far as we know).

Organised crime is truly organised. If it's card details they want, they go after the big data stores, at payments processors and large retailers. The sophistication of these attacks is amazing even to security pros. The attack on Target's Point of Sale terminals for instance was in the "can't happen" category.

The other types of criminal breach include mischief, as when the iCloud photos of celebrities were leaked last year, hacktivism, and political or cyber terrorist attacks, like the one on Sony.

There's some evidence that identity thieves are turning now to health data to power more complex forms of crime. Instead of stealing and replaying card numbers, identity thieves can use deeper, broader information like patient records to either commit fraud against health system payers, or to open bogus accounts and build them up into complex scams. The recent Anthem database breach involved extensive personal records on 80 million individuals; we have yet to see how these details will surface in the identity black markets.

The ready availability of stolen personal data is one factor we find to be driving Identity and Access Management (IDAM) innovation; see "The State of Identity Management in 2015". Next generation IDAM will eventually make stolen data less valuable, but for the foreseeable future, all enterprises holding large customer datasets we will remain prime targets for identity thieves.

Now let's not forget simple accidents. The Australian government for example has had some clangers though these can happen to any big organisation. A few months ago a staffer accidentally attached the wrong a file to an email, and thus released the passport details of the G20 leaders. Before that, we saw a spreadsheet holding personal details of thousands of asylum seekers get mistakenly pasted into a government website HTML.

A lesson I want to bring out here is the terrible complexity and fragility of our IT systems. It doesn't take much for human error to have catastrophic results. Who among us has not accidentally hit 'Reply All' or attached the wrong file to an email? If you did an honest Threat & Risk Assessment on these sorts of everyday office systems, you'd have to conclude they are not safe to handle sensitive data nor to be operated by most human beings. But of course we simply can't afford notto use office IT. We've created a monster.

Again, criminal elements know this. The expert cryptographer Bruce Schneier once said "amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people". Access control on today's sprawling complex computer systems is generally poor, leaving the way open for inside jobs. Just look at the Chelsea Manning case, one of the worst breaches of all time, made possible by granting too high access privileges to too many staffers.

Outside government, access control is worse, and so is access logging - so system administrators often can't tell there's even been a breach until circumstantial evidence emerges. I am sure the majority of breaches are occurring without anyone knowing. It's simply inevitable.

Look at hotels. There are occasional reports of hotel IT breaches, but they are surely happening continuously. The guest details held in hotels is staggering - payment card details, license plates, travel itineraries including airline flight details, even passport numbers are held by some places. And these days, with global hotel chains, the whole booking database is available to a rogue employee from any place in the world, 24-7.

Please, don't anyone talk to me about PCI-DSS! The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards for protecting cardholder details haven't had much effect at all. Some of the biggest breaches of all time have affected top tier merchants and payments processors which appear to have been PCI compliant. Yet the lawyers for the payments institutions will always argue that such-and-such a company wasn't "really" compliant. And the PCI auditors walk away from any liability for what happens in between audits. You can understand their position; they don't want to be accountable for wrong doings or errors committed behind their backs. However, cardholders and merchants are caught in the middle. If a big department store passes its PCI audits, surely we can expect them to be reasonably secure year-long? No, it turns out that the day after a successful audit, an IT intern can mis-configure a firewall or forget a patch; all those defences become useless, and the audit is rendered meaningless.

Which reinforces my point about the fragility of IT: it's impossible to make lasting security promises anymore.

In any case, PCI is really just a set of data handling policies and promises. They improve IT security hygiene, and ward off amateur attacks. But they are useless against organised crime or inside jobs.

There is an increasingly good argument to outsource data management. Rather than maintain brittle databases in the face of so much risk, companies are instead turning to large reputable cloud services, where the providers have the scale, resources and attention to detail to protect data in their custody. I previously looked at what matters in choosing cloud services from a geographical perspective in my Constellation Research report "Why Cloud Geography Matters in a Post-Snowden/NSA Era". And in forthcoming research I'll examine a broader set of contract-related KPIs to help buyers make the right choice of cloud service provider.

If you asked me what to do about data breaches, I'd say the short-to-medium term solution is to get with the strength and look for managed security services from specialist providers. In the longer term, we will have to see grassroots re-engineering of our networks and platforms, to harden them against penetration, and to lessen the opportunity for identity theft.

In the meantime, you can hope for the best, if you plan for the worst.

Actually, no, you can't hope.

Posted in Constellation Research, Security

The government cannot simply opt-out of opt-in

The Australian government is to revamp the troubled Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR). In line with the Royle Review from Dec 2013, it is reported that patient participation is to change from the current Opt-In model to Opt-Out; see "Govt to make e-health records opt-out" by Paris Cowan, IT News.

That is to say, patient data from hospitals, general practice, pathology and pharmacy will be added by default to a central longitudinal health record, unless patients take steps (yet to be specified) to disable sharing.

The main reason for switching the consent model is simply to increase the take-up rate. But it's a much bigger change than many seem to realise.

The government is asking the community to trust it to hold essentially all medical records. Are the PCEHR's security and privacy safeguards up to scratch to take on this grave responsibility? I argue the answer is no, on two grounds.

Firstly there is the practical matter of PCEHR's security performance to date. It's not good, based on publicly available information. On multiple occasions, prescription details have been uploaded from community pharmacy to the wrong patient's records. There have been a few excuses made for this error, with blame sheeted home to the pharmacy. But from a system's perspective -- and health care is all about the systems -- you cannot pass the buck like that. Pharmacists are using a PCEHR system that was purportedly designed for them. And it was subject to system-wide threat & risk assessments that informed the architecture and design of not just the electronic records system but also the patient and healthcare provider identification modules. How can it be that the PCEHR allows such basic errors to occur?

Secondly and really fundamentally, you simply cannot invert the consent model as if it's a switch in the software. The privacy approach is deep in the DNA of the system. Not only must PCEHR security be demonstrably better than experience suggests, but it must be properly built in, not retrofitted.

Let me explain how the consent approach crops up deep in the architecture of something like PCEHR. During analysis and design, threat & risk assessments (TRAs) and privacy impact assessments (PIAs) are undertaken, to identify things that can go wrong, and to specify security and privacy controls. These controls generally comprise a mix of technology, policy and process mechanisms. For example, if there is a risk of patient data being sent to the wrong person or system, that risk can be mitigated a number of ways, including authentication, user interface design, encryption, contracts (that obligate receivers to act responsibly), and provider and patient information. The latter are important because, as we all should know, there is no such thing as perfect security. Mistakes are bound to happen.

One of the most fundamental privacy controls is participation. Individuals usually have the ultimate option of staying away from an information system if they (or their advocates) are not satisfied with the security and privacy arrangements. Now, these are complex matters to evaluate, and it's always best to assume that patients do not in fact have a complete understanding of the intricacies, the pros and cons, and the net risks. People need time and resources to come to grips with e-health records, so a default opt-in affords them that breathing space. And it errs on the side of caution, by requiring a conscious decision to participate. In stark contrast, a default opt-out policy embodies a position that the scheme operator believes it knows best, and is prepared to make the decision to participate on behalf of all individuals.

Such a position strikes many as beyond the pale, just on principle. But if opt-out is the adopted policy position, then clearly it has to be based on a risk assessment where the pros indisputably out-weigh the cons. And this is where making a late switch to opt-out is unconscionable.

You see, in an opt-in system, during analysis and design, whenever a risk is identified that cannot be managed down to negligible levels by way of technology and process, the ultimate safety net is that people don't need to use the PCEHR. It is a formal risk management ploy (a part of the risk manager's toolkit) to sometimes fall back on the opt-in policy. In an opt-in system, patients sign an agreement in which they accept some risk. And the whole security design is predicated on that.

Look at the most recent PIA done on the PCEHR in 2011; section 9.1.6 "Proposed solutions - legislation" makes it clear that opt-in participation is core to the existing architecture. The PIA makes a "critical legislative recommendation" including:

    • a number of measures to confirm and support the 'opt in' nature of the PCEHR for consumers (Recommendations 4.1 to 4.3) [and] preventing any extension of the scope of the system, or any change to the 'opt in' nature of the PCEHR.

The PIA at section 2.2 also stresses that a "key design feature of the PCEHR System ... is opt in – if a consumer or healthcare provider wants to participate, they need to register with the system." And that the PCEHR is "not compulsory – both consumers and healthcare providers choose whether or not to participate".

A PDF copy of the PIA report, which was publicly available at the Dept of Health website for a few years after 2011, is archived here.

The fact is that if the government changes the PCEHR from opt-in to opt-out, it will invalidate the security and privacy assessments done to date. The PIAs and TRAs will have to be repeated, and the project must be prepared for major redesign.

The Royle Review report (PDF) did in fact recommend "a technical assessment and change management plan for an opt-out model ..." (Recommendation 14) but I am not aware that such a review has taken place.

To look at the seriousness of this another way, think about "Privacy by Design", the philosophy that's being steadily adopted across government. In 2014 NEHTA wrote in a submission (PDF) to the Australian Privacy Commissioner:

    • The principle that entities should employ “privacy by design” by building privacy into their processes, systems, products and initiatives at the design stage is strongly supported by NEHTA. The early consideration of privacy in any endeavour ensures that the end product is not only compliant but meets the expectations of stakeholders.

One of the tenets of Privacy by Design is that you cannot bolt on privacy after a design is done. Privacy must be designed into the fabric of any system from the outset. All the way along, PCEHR has assumed opt-in, and the last PIA enshrined that position.

If the government was to ignore its own Privacy by Design credo, and not revisit the PCEHR architecture, it would be an amazing breach of the public's trust in the healthcare system.

Posted in Security, Privacy, e-health

The security joke is on us all

Every now and then, a large organisation in the media spotlight will experience the special pain of having a password accidentally revealed in the background of a photograph or TV spot. Security commentator Graham Cluley has recorded a lot of these misadventures, most recently at a British national rail control room, and before that, in the Superbowl nerve centre and an emergency response agency.

Security folks love their schadenfreude but what are we to make of these SNAFUs? Of course, nobody is perfect. And some plumbers have leaky taps.

Rail control jpeg
Superbowl before jpeg
Sky password reg jpeg


But these cases hold much deeper lessons. These are often critical infrastructure providers (consider that on financial grounds, there may be more at stake in Superbowl operations than the railways). The outfits making kindergarten security mistakes will have been audited many times over. So how on earth do they pass?

Posting passwords on the wall is not a random error - it's systemic. Some administrators do it out of habit, or desperation. They know it's wrong, but they do it anyway, and they do it with such regularity it gets caught on TV.

I really want to know if none of the security auditors at any of these organisations ever noticed the passwords in plain view? Or do the personnel do a quick clean up on the morning of each audit, only to revert to reality in between audits? Either way, here's yet more proof that security audit, frankly, is a sick joke. And that security practices aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Security orthodoxy holds that people and process are more fundamental than technology, and that people are the weakest link. That's why we have security management processes and security audits. It's why whole industries have been built around security process standards like ISO 27000. So it's unfathomable to me that companies with passwords caught on camera can have have ever passed their audits.

Security isn't what people think it is. Instead of meticulous procedures and hawk-eyed inspections, too often it's just simple people going through the motions. Security isn't intellectually secure. The things we do in the name of "security" don't make us secure.

Let's not dismiss password flashing as a temporary embarrassment for some poor unfortunates. This should be humiliating for the whole information security industry. We need another way.

Picture credits: Graham Cluley.

Posted in Security

Digital Disruption - Melbourne

Ray Wang tells us now that writing a book and launching a company are incredibly fulfilling things to do - but ideally, not at the same time. He thought it would take a year to write "Disrupting Digital Business", but since it overlapped with building Constellation Research, it took three! But at the same time, his book is all the richer for that experience.

Ray is on a world-wide book tour (tweeting under the hash tag #cxotour). I was thrilled to participate in the Melbourne leg last week. We convened a dinner at Melbourne restaurant The Deck and were joined by a good cross section of Australian private and public sector businesses. There were current and recent executives from Energy Australia, Rio Tinto, the Victorian Government and Australia Post among others, plus the founders of several exciting local start-ups. And we were lucky to have special guests Brian Katz and Ben Robbins - two renowned mobility gurus.

The format for all the launch events has one or two topical short speeches from Constellation analysts and Associates, and a fireside chat by Ray. In Melbourne, we were joined by two of Australia's deep digital economy experts, Gavin Heaton and Joanne Jacobs. Gavin got us going on the night, surveying the importance of innovation, and the double edged opportunities and threats of digital disruption.

Then Ray spoke off-the-cuff about his book, summarising years of technology research and analysis, and the a great many cases of business disruption, old and new. Ray has an encyclopedic grasp of tech-driven successes and failures going back decades, yet his presentations are always up-to-the-minute and full of practical can-do calls to action. He's hugely engaging, and having him on a small stage for a change lets him have a real conversation with the audience.

Speaking with no notes and PowerPoint-free, Ray ranged across all sorts of disruptions in all sorts of sectors, including:


  • Sony's double cassette Walkman (which Ray argues playfully was their "last innovation")
  • Coca Cola going digital, and the speculative "ten cent sip"
  • the real lesson of the iPhone: geeks spend time arguing about whether Apple's technology is original or appropriated, when the point is their phone disrupted 20 or more other business models
  • the contrasting Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 mega jumbo - radically different ways to maximise the one thing that matters to airlines: dollars per passenger-miles, and
  • Uber, which observers don't always fully comprehend as a rich mix of mobility, cloud and Big Data.

And I closed the scheduled part of the evening with a provocation on privacy. I asked the group to think about what it means to call any online business practice "creepy". Have community norms and standards really changed in the move online? What's worse: government surveillance for political ends, or private sector surveillance for profit? If we pay for free online services with our personal information, do regular consumers understand the bargain? And if cynics have been asking "Is Privacy Dead?" for over 100 years, doesn't it mean the question is purely rhetorical? Who amongst us truly wants privacy to be over?!

The discussion quickly attained a life of its own - muscular, but civilized. And it provided ample proof that whatever you think about privacy, it is complicated and surprising, and definitely disruptive! (For people who want to dig further into the paradoxes of modern digital privacy, Ray and I recently recorded a nice long chat about it).

Here are some of the Digital Disruption tour dates coming up:

Enjoy!

Posted in Social Media, Privacy, Internet, Constellation Research, Cloud, Big Data

You can de-identify but you can't hide

Acknowledgement: Daniel Barth-Jones kindly engaged with me after this blog was initially published, and pointed out several significant factual errors, for which I am grateful.

In 2014, the New York Taxi & Limousine Company (TLC) released a large "anonymised" dataset containing 173 million taxi rides taken in 2013. Soon after, software developer Vijay Pandurangan managed to undo the hashed taxi registration numbers. Subsequently, privacy researcher Anthony Tockar went on to combine public photos of celebrities getting in or out of cabs, to recreate their trips. See Anna Johnston's analysis here.

This re-identification demonstration has been used by some to bolster a general claim that anonymity online is increasingly impossible.

On the other hand, medical research advocates like Columbia University epidemiologist Daniel Barth-Jones argue that the practice of de-identification can be robust and should not be dismissed as impractical on the basis of demonstrations such as this. The identifiability of celebrities in these sorts of datasets is a statistical anomaly reasons Barth-Jones and should not be used to frighten regular people out of participating in medical research on anonymised data. He wrote in a blog that:

    • "However, it would hopefully be clear that examining a miniscule proportion of cases from a population of 173 million rides couldn’t possibly form any meaningful basis of evidence for broad assertions about the risks that taxi-riders might face from such a data release (at least with the taxi medallion/license data removed as will now be the practice for FOIL request data)."

As a health researcher, Barth-Jones is understandably worried that re-identification of small proportions of special cases is being used to exaggerate the risks to ordinary people. He says that the HIPAA de-identification protocols if properly applied leave no significant risk of re-id. But even if that's the case, HIPAA processes are not applied to data across the board. The TLC data was described as "de-identified" and the fact that any people at all (even stand-out celebrities) could be re-identified from data does create a broad basis for concern - "de-identified" is not what it seems. Barth-Jones stresses that in the TLC case, the de-identification was fatally flawed [technically: it's no use hashing data like registration numbers with limited value ranges because the hashed values can be reversed by brute force] but my point is this: who among us who can tell the difference between poorly de-identified and "properly" de-identified?

And how long can "properly de-identified" last? What does it mean to say casually that only a "minuscule proportion" of data can be re-identified? In this case, the re-identification of celebrities was helped by the fact lots of photos of them are readily available on social media, yet there are so many photos in the public domain now, regular people are going to get easier to be identified.

But my purpose here is not to play what-if games, and I know Daniel advocates statistically rigorous measures of identifiability. We agree on that -- in fact, over the years, we have agreed on most things. The point I am trying to make in this blog post is that, just as nobody should exaggerate the risk of re-identification, nor should anyone play it down. Claims of de-identification are made almost daily for really crucial datasets, like compulsorily retained metadata, public health data, biometric templates, social media activity used for advertising, and web searches. Some of these claims are made with statistical rigor, using formal standards like the HIPAA protocols; but other times the claim is casual, made with no qualification, with the aim of comforting end users.

"De-identified" is a helluva promise to make, with far-reaching ramifications. Daniel says de-identification researchers use the term with caution, knowing there are technical qualifications around the finite probability of individuals remaining identifiable. But my position is that the fine print doesn't translate to the general public who only hear that a database is "anonymous". So I am afraid the term "de-identified" is meaningless outside academia, and in casual use is misleading.

Barth-Jones objects to the conclusion that "it's virtually impossible to anonymise large data sets" but in an absolute sense, that claim is surely true. If any proportion of people in a dataset may be identified, then that data set is plainly not "anonymous". Moreover, as statistics and mathematical techniques (like facial recognition) improve, and as more ancillary datasets (like social media photos) become accessible, the proportion of individuals who may be re-identified will keep going up.

[Readers who wish to pursue these matters further should look at the recent Harvard Law School online symposium on "Re-identification Demonstrations", hosted by Michelle Meyer, in which Daniel Barth-Jones and I participated, among many others.]

Both sides of this vexed debate need more nuance. Privacy advocates have no wish to quell medical research per se, nor do they call for absolute privacy guarantees, but we do seek full disclosure of the risks, so that the cost-benefit equation is understood by all. One of the obvious lessons in all this is that "anonymous" or "de-identified" on their own are poor descriptions. We need tools that meaningfully describe the probability of re-identification. If statisticians and medical researchers take "de-identified" to mean "there is an acceptably small probability, namely X percent, of identification" then let's have that fine print. Absent the detail, lay people can be forgiven for thinking re-identification isn't going to happen. Period.

And we need policy and regulatory mechanisms to curb inappropriate re-identification. Anonymity is a brittle, essentially temporary, and inadequate privacy tool.

I argue that the act of re-identification ought to be treated as an act of Algorithmic Collection of PII, and regulated as just another type of collection, albeit an indirect one. If a statistical process results in a person's name being added to a hitherto anonymous record in a database, it is as if the data custodian went to a third party and asked them "do you know the name of the person this record is about?". The fact that the data custodian was clever enough to avoid having to ask anyone about the identity of people in the re-identified dataset does not alter the privacy responsibilities arising. If the effect of an action is to convert anonymous data into personally identifiable information (PII), then that action collects PII. And in most places around the world, any collection of PII automatically falls under privacy regulations.

It looks like we will never guarantee anonymity, but the good news is that for privacy, we don't actually need to. Privacy is the protection you need when you affairs are not anonymous, for privacy is a regulated state where organisations that have knowledge about you are restrained in what they do with it. Equally, the ability to de-anonymise should be restricted in accordance with orthodox privacy regulations. If a party chooses to re-identify people in an ostensibly de-identified dataset, without a good reason and without consent, then that party may be in breach of data privacy laws, just as they would be if they collected the same PII by conventional means like questionnaires or surveillance.

Surely we can all agree that re-identification demonstrations serve to shine a light on the comforting claims made by governments for instance that certain citizen datasets can be anonymised. In Australia, the government is now implementing telecommunications metadata retention laws, in the interests of national security; the metadata we are told is de-identified and "secure". In the UK, the National Health Service plans to make de-identified patient data available to researchers. Whatever the merits of data mining in diverse fields like law enforcement and medical research, my point is that any government's claims of anonymisation must be treated critically (if not skeptically), and subjected to strenuous and ongoing privacy impact assessment.

Privacy, like security, can never be perfect. Privacy advocates must avoid giving the impression that they seek unrealistic guarantees of anonymity. There must be more to privacy than identity obscuration (to use a more technically correct term than "de-identification"). Medical research should proceed on the basis of reasonable risks being taken in return for beneficial outcomes, with strong sanctions against abuses including unwarranted re-identification. And then there wouldn't need to be a moral panic over re-identification if and when it does occur, because anonymity, while highly desirable, is not essential for privacy in any case.

Posted in Social Media, Privacy, Identity, e-health, Big Data

Identity Management Moves from Who to What

The State Of Identity Management in 2015

Constellation Research recently launched the "State of Enterprise Technology" series of research reports. These assess the current enterprise innovations which Constellation considers most crucial to digital transformation, and provide snapshots of the future usage and evolution of these technologies.

My second contribution to the state-of-the-state series is "Identity Management Moves from Who to What". Here's an excerpt from the report:

Introduction

In spite of all the fuss, personal identity is not usually important in routine business. Most transactions are authorized according to someone’s credentials, membership, role or other properties, rather than their personal details. Organizations actually deal with many people in a largely impersonal way. People don’t often care who someone really is before conducting business with them. So in digital Identity Management (IdM), one should care less about who a party is than what they are, with respect to attributes that matter in the context we’re in. This shift in focus is coming to dominate the identity landscape, for it simplifies a traditionally multi-disciplined problem set. Historically, the identity management community has made too much of identity!

Six Digital Identity Trends for 2015

SoS IdM Summary Pic

1. Mobile becomes the center of gravity for identity. The mobile device brings convergence for a decade of progress in IdM. For two-factor authentication, the cell phone is its own second factor, protected against unauthorized use by PIN or biometric. Hardly anyone ever goes anywhere without their mobile - service providers can increasingly count on that without disenfranchising many customers. Best of all, the mobile device itself joins authentication to the app, intimately and seamlessly, in the transaction context of the moment. And today’s phones have powerful embedded cryptographic processors and key stores for accurate mutual authentication, and mobile digital wallets, as Apple’s Tim Cook highlighted at the recent White House Cyber Security Summit.

2. Hardware is the key – and holds the keys – to identity. Despite the lure of the cloud, hardware has re-emerged as pivotal in IdM. All really serious security and authentication takes place in secure dedicated hardware, such as SIM cards, ATMs, EMV cards, and the new Trusted Execution Environment mobile devices. Today’s leading authentication initiatives, like the FIDO Alliance, are intimately connected to standard cryptographic modules now embedded in most mobile devices. Hardware-based identity management has arrived just in the nick of time, on the eve of the Internet of Things.

3. The “Attributes Push” will shift how we think about identity. In the words of Andrew Nash, CEO of Confyrm Inc. (and previously the identity leader at PayPal and Google), “Attributes are at least as interesting as identities, if not more so.” Attributes are to identity as genes are to organisms – they are really what matters about you when you’re trying to access a service. By fractionating identity into attributes and focusing on what we really need to reveal about users, we can enhance privacy while automating more and more of our everyday transactions.

The Attributes Push may recast social logon. Until now, Facebook and Google have been widely tipped to become “Identity Providers”, but even these giants have found federated identity easier said than done. A dark horse in the identity stakes – LinkedIn – may take the lead with its superior holdings in verified business attributes.

4. The identity agenda is narrowing. For 20 years, brands and organizations have obsessed about who someone is online. And even before we’ve solved the basics, we over-reached. We've seen entrepreneurs trying to monetize identity, and identity engineers trying to convince conservative institutions like banks that “Identity Provider” is a compelling new role in the digital ecosystem. Now at last, the IdM industry agenda is narrowing toward more achievable and more important goals - precise authentication instead of general identification.

Digital Identity Stack (3 1)

5. A digital identity stack is emerging. The FIDO Alliance and others face a challenge in shifting and improving the words people use in this space. Words, of course, matter, as do visualizations. IdM has suffered for too long under loose and misleading metaphors. One of the most powerful abstractions in IT was the OSI networking stack. A comparable sort of stack may be emerging in IdM.

6. Continuity will shape the identity experience. Continuity will make or break the user experience as the lines blur between real world and virtual, and between the Internet of Computers and the Internet of Things. But at the same time, we need to preserve clear boundaries between our digital personae, or else privacy catastrophes await. “Continuous” (also referred to as “Ambient”) Authentication is a hot new research area, striving to provide more useful and flexible signals about the instantaneous state of a user at any time. There is an explosion in devices now that can be tapped for Continuous Authentication signals, and by the same token, rich new apps in health, lifestyle and social domains, running on those very devices, that need seamless identity management.

A snapshot at my report "Identity Moves from Who to What" is available for download at Constellation Research. It expands on the points above, and sets out recommendations for enterprises to adopt the latest identity management thinking.

Posted in Trust, Social Networking, Security, Privacy, Identity, Federated Identity, Constellation Research, Biometrics, Big Data

There's nothing precise about Precision Medicine

The media gets excited about gene therapy. With the sequencing of genomes becoming ever cheaper and accessible, a grand vision of gene therapy is now being put about all too casually by futurists in which defective genetic codes are simply edited out and replaced by working ones. At the same time there is broader idea of "Precision Medicine" which envisages doctors scanning your entire DNA blueprint, instantly spotting the defects that ail you, and ordering up a set of customized pharmaceuticals precisely fitted to your biochemical idiosyncrasies.

There is more to gene therapy -- genetic engineering of live patients -- than the futurists let on.

A big question for mine is this: How, precisely, will the DNA repairs be made? Lay people might be left to presume it's like patching your operating system, which is not a bad metaphor, until you think a bit more about how and where patches are made to a computer.

A computer has one copy of any given software, stored in long term memory. And operating systems come with library functions for making updates. Patching software involves arriving with a set of corrections in a file, and requesting via APIs that the corrections be slotted into the right place, replacing the defective code.

But DNA doesn't work like this. While the genome is indeed something of an operating system, that's not the whole story. Sub-systems for making changes to the genome are not naturally built into an organism, because genes are only supposed to change at the time the software is installed. Our genomes are carved up en masse when germ cells (eggs and sperm) are made, and the genomes are put back together when we have sex, and then passed into our children. There is no part of the genetic operating system that allows selected parts of the genetic source code to be edited later, and -- this is the crucial bit -- spread through a living organism.

Genetic engineering, such as it is today, involves editing the genomes of embryos at a very early stage of their lifecycle, so the changes propagate as the embryo grows. Thus we have tomatoes fitted with arctic fish genes to stave off cold, and canola that resists pesticides. But the idea that's presented of gene therapy is very different; it has to impose changes to the genome in all the trillions of copies of the code in every cell in a fully developed organism. You see, there's another crucial thing about the DNA-is-software metaphor: there is no central long term program memory for our genes. Instead the DNA program is instantiated in every single cell of the body.

To change the DNA in a mature cell, geneticists have to edit it by means other than sexual reproduction. As I noted, there is no natural "API" for doing this, so they've invented a clever trick, co-opting viruses - nature's DNA hackers. Viruses work by squeezing their minuscule bodies through the cell walls of a host organism, latching onto DNA strands inside, and crudely adding their own code fragments, pretty much at random, into the host's genome. Viruses are designed (via evolution) to inject arbitrary genes into another organism's DNA (arbitrary relative to the purpose of the host DNA's that is). Viruses are just what gene therapists need to edit faulty DNA in situ.

I know a bit about cystic fibrosis and the visions for a genetic cure. The faulty gene that causes CF was identified decades ago and its effect on chlorine chemistry is well understood. By disrupting the way chlorine ions are handled in cells, CF ruins mucus membranes, with particularly bad results for the lungs and digestive system. From the 1980s, it was thought that repairs to the CF gene could be delivered to cells in the lung lining by an engineered virus carried in an aerosol. Because only a small fraction of cells exposed to the virus could have their genes so updated, scientists expected that the repairs would be both temporary and partial, and that fresh viruses would need to be delivered every few weeks, a period determined by the rate at which lung cells die and get replaced.

Now please think about the tacit promises of gene therapy today. The story we hear is essentially all about the wondrous informatics and the IT. Within a few years we're told doctors will be able to sequence a patient's entire genome for a few dollars in a few minutes, using a desk top machine in the office. It's all down to Moore's Law and computer technology. There's an assumption that as the power goes up and the costs go down, geneticists will in parallel work out what all the genes mean, including how they interact, and develop a catalog of known faults and logical repairs.

Let's run with that optimism (despite the fact that just a few years ago they found that "Junk DNA" turns out be active in ways that were not predicted; it's a lot like Dark Matter - important, ubiquitous and mysterious). The critical missing piece of the gene therapy story is how the patches are going to be made. Some reports imply that a whole clean new genome can be synthesised and somehow installed in the patient. Sorry, but how?

For thirty years they've tried and failed to rectify the one cystic fibrosis gene in readily accessible lung cells. Now we're supposed to believe that whole stretches of DNA are going to swapped out in all the cells of the body? It's vastly harder than the CF problem, on at least three dimensions: (1) the numbers and complexity of the genes involved, (2) the numbers of cells and tissue systems that need to be patched all at once, and (3) the delivery mechanism for getting modified viruses (I guess) where they need to do their stuff.

It's so easy being a futurist. People adore your vision, and you don't need to worry about practicalities. The march of technology, seen with 20:20 hindsight, appears to make all dreams come true. Practicalities are left to sort themselves out.

But I think it takes more courage to say, of gene therapy, it's not going to happen.

Posted in Software engineering, Science

The latest FIDO Alliance research

I have just updated my periodic series of researh reports on the FIDO Alliance. The fourth report, "FIDO Alliance Update: On Track to a Standard" will be available at Constellation Research shortly

The Identity Management industry leader publishes its protocol specifications at v1.0, launches a certification program, and attracts support in Microsoft Windows 10.

Executive Summary

The FIDO Alliance is the fastest-growing Identity Management (IdM) consortium we have seen. Comprising technology vendors, solutions providers, consumer device companies, and e-commerce services, the FIDO Alliance is working on protocols and standards to strongly authenticate users and personal devices online. With a fresh focus and discipline in this traditionally complicated field, FIDO envisages simply “doing for authentication what Ethernet did for networking”.

Launched in early 2013, the FIDO Alliance has now grown to over 180 members. Included are technology heavyweights like Google, Lenovo and Microsoft; almost every SIM and smartcard supplier; payments giants Discover, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa; several banks; and e-commerce players like Alibaba and Netflix.

FIDO is radically different from any IdM consortium to date. We all know how important it is to fix passwords: They’re hard to use, inherently insecure, and lie at the heart of most breaches. The Federated Identity movement seeks to reduce the number of passwords by sharing credentials, but this invariably confounds the relationships we have with services and complicates liability when more parties rely on fewer identities.

In contrast, FIDO’s mission is refreshingly clear: Take the smartphones and devices most of us are intimately connected to, and use the built-in cryptography to authenticate users to services. A registered FIDO-compliant device, when activated by its user, can send verified details about the device and the user to service providers, via standardized protocols. FIDO leverages the ubiquity of sophisticated handsets and the tidal wave of smart things. The Alliance focuses on device level protocols without venturing to change the way user accounts are managed or shared.

The centerpieces of FIDO’s technical work are two protocols, called UAF and U2F, for exchanging verified authentication signals between devices and services. Several commercial applications have already been released under the UAF and U2F specifications, including fingerprint-based payments apps from Alibaba and PayPal, and Google’s Security Key from Yubico. After a rigorous review process, both protocols are published now at version 1.0, and the FIDO Certified Testing program was launched in April 2015. And Microsoft announced that FIDO support would be built into Windows 10.

With its focus, pragmatism and membership breadth, FIDO is today’s go-to authentication standards effort. In this report, I look at what the FIDO Alliance has to offer vendors and end user communities, and its critical success factors.

Posted in Smartcards, Security, PKI, Identity, Federated Identity, Constellation Research, Biometrics

Correspondence in Nature magazine

I had a letter to the editor published in Nature on big data and privacy.

Data protection: Big data held to privacy laws, too

Stephen Wilson
Nature 519, 414 (26 March 2015) doi:10.1038/519414a
Published online 25 March 2015

Letter as published

Privacy issues around data protection often inspire over-engineered responses from scientists and technologists. Yet constraints on the use of personal data mean that privacy is less about what is done with information than what is not done with it. Technology such as new algorithms may therefore be unnecessary (see S. Aftergood, Nature 517, 435–436; 2015).

Technology-neutral data-protection laws afford rights to individuals with respect to all data about them, regardless of the data source. More than 100 nations now have such data-privacy laws, typically requiring organizations to collect personal data only for an express purpose and not to re-use those data for unrelated purposes.

If businesses come to know your habits, your purchase intentions and even your state of health through big data, then they have the same privacy responsibilities as if they had gathered that information directly by questionnaire. This is what the public expects of big-data algorithms that are intended to supersede cumbersome and incomplete survey methods. Algorithmic wizardry is not a way to evade conventional privacy laws.

Stephen Wilson
Constellation Research, Sydney, Australia.
steve@constellationr.com

Posted in Science, Privacy, Big Data

What do privacy's critics have to hide?

Yawn. Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek (March 22) has penned yet another tirade against privacy.

His column is all strawman. No one has ever said privacy is more important than other rights and interests. The infamous Right to be Forgotten is a case in point -- the recent European ruling is expressly about balancing competing interests, around privacy and public interest. All privacy rules and regulations, our intuitions and habits, all concede there may be over-riding factors in the mix.

So where on earth does the author and his editors get the following shrill taglines from?

    • "You’re 100% Wrong About Privacy"
    • "Our expectation of total online privacy is unrealistic and dangerous"
    • "Total privacy is a dangerous delusion".

It is so tiresome that we advocates have to keep correcting grotesque misrepresentations of our credo. The right to be let alone was recognised in American law 125 years ago, and was written into the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. Every generation witnesses again the rhetorical question "Is Privacy Dead?" (see Newsweek, 27 July 1970). The answer, after fifty years, is still "no". The very clear trend worldwide is towards more privacy regulation, not less.

Funnily enough, Nazaryan makes a case for privacy himself, when he reminds us by-the-by that "the feds do covertly collect data about us, often with the complicity of high-tech and telecom corporations" and that "any user of Google has to expect that his/her information will be used for commercial gain". Most reasonable people look to privacy to address such ugly imbalances!

Why are critics of privacy so coldly aggressive? If Nazaryan feels no harm comes from others seeing him searching porn, then we might all admire his confidence. But is it any of his business what the rest of us do in private? Or the government's business, or Google's?

Privacy is just a fundamental matter of restraint. People should only have their personal information exposed on a need-to-know basis. Individuals don't have to justify their desire for privacy! The onus must be on the watchers to justify their interests.

Why do Alexander Nazaryan and people of his ilk so despise privacy? I wonder what political or commercial agendas they have to hide?

Posted in Privacy