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The Constellation Research Disruption Checklist for 2015

The Constellation Research analyst team has assembled a "year end checklist", offering suggestions designed to enable you to take better control of your digital strategy in 2015. We offer these actions to help you dominate "digital disruption" in the new year.

1. Matrix Commerce: Scrub your data

Guy Courtin

When it comes to Matrix Commerce, companies need to focus on the basics first. What are the basics? Cleaning up and getting your data in order. Much is discussed about the evolution of supply chains and the surrounding technologies. However these solutions are only as useful as the data that feeds them. Many CxOs that we have spoken to have discussed the need to focus on cleaning up their data. First work on a data audit to identify the most important sources of data for your efforts in Matrix Commerce. Second, focus on the systems that can process and make sense of this data. Finally, determine the systems and business processes that will be optimized with these improvements. Matrix Commerce starts with the right data. The systems and business processes that layer on top of this data are only as useful as the data. CxOs must continue to organize and clean their data house.

2. Safety and Privacy - Create your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory

Steve Wilson

In 2015, get on top of your information assets. When information is the lifeblood of your business, make sure you understand what really makes it valuable. Create (or refresh) your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory, and then think beyond the standard security dimensions of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. What sets your information apart from your competitors? Is it more complete, more up-to-date, more original or harder to acquire? To maximise the value of information, innovative organisations are gauging it in terms of utility, currency, jurisdictional certainty, privacy compliance and whatever other facets matter the most in their business environment. These innovative organizations structure their information technology and security functions to not merely protect the enterprise against threats, but to deliver the right data when and where it's needed most. Shifting from defensive security to strategic informatics is the key to success in the digital economy. Learn more about creating an information asset inventory.

3. Data to Decisions - Create your Big Data Plan of Action

Andy Mulholland

Big Data is arriving at the end of the hype cycle. In 2015, real-time decision support using ‘smart data’ extracted from Big Data will manifest as a requirement for competitiveness. Digital Business, or even just online sellers, are all reducing reaction and response times. Enterprises have huge business and technology investments in data that need to support their daily activities better, so its time to pivot from using Big Data for analysis and start examining how to deliver Smart Data to users and automated online systems. What is Smart Data? Well, let's say creating your organization's definition of Smart Data is priority number one in your Big Data strategy. Transformation in Digital markets requires a transformation in the competitive use of Big Data. Request a meeting with Constellation's CTO in residence, Andy Mulholland.

4. Next Gen CXP - Make Customer Experience Instinctual

Natalie Petouhoff

Stop thinking of Customer Experience as a functional or departmental initiative and start thinking about experience from the customer’s point of view.

Customers don’t distinguish between departments when they require service from your organization. Customer Experience is a responsibility shared amongst all employees. However, the division of companies into functional departments with separate goals means that customer experience is often fractured. Rid your company of this ethos in 2015 by using design thinking to create a culture of cohesive customer experience.

Ensure all employees live your company mythology, employ the right customer and internal-facing technologies, collect the right data, and make changes to your strategy and products as soon as possible. Read "Five Approaches to Drive Customer Loyalty in a Digital World".

5. Future of Work - Take Advantage of Collaboration

Alan Lepofsky

Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement in the way people communicate and collaborate with their colleagues and customers, shifting from closed systems like email and chat, to more transparent tools like social networks and communities. That trend will continue in 2015 as people become more comfortable with sharing and as collaboration tools become more integrated with the business software they use to get their jobs done. Employees should familiarize themselves with the tools available to them, and learn how to pick the right tool for each of the various scenarios that make up their work day. Read "Enterprise Collaboration: From Simple Sharing to Getting Work Done".

6. Future of Work - Prepare for Demographic Shifts

Holger Mueller

In the next ten years 10% to 20% of the North American and European workforce will retire. Leaders need to understand and prepare for this tremendous shift so performance remains steady as many of the workforce's highly skilled workers retire.

To ensure smooth a smooth transition, ensure your HCM software systems can accommodate a massive number of retirements, successions and career path developments, and new hires from external recruiting.

Constellation fully expects employment to be a sellers market going forward. People leaders should ensure their HCM systems facilitate employee motivation, engagement and retention, lest they lose their best employees to competitors. Read "Globalization, HR, and Business Model Success". Additional cloud HR case studies here and here.

7. Digital Marketing Transformation - Brand Priorities Must Convey Authenticity

Ray Wang

Brand authenticity must dominate digital and analog channels in 2015. Digital personas must not only reflect the brand, but also expand upon the analog experience. Customers love the analog experience, so deliver the same experience digitally. Brand conscious leaders must invest in the digital experience with an eye towards mass personalization at scale. While advertising plays a key role in distributing the brand message, investment in the design of digital experiences presents itself as a key area of investment for 2015. Download free executive brief: Can Brands Keep Their Promise?

8. Consumerization of IT: Use Mobile as the Gateway to Digital Transformation Projects

Ray Wang

Constellation believes that mobile is more than just the device. While smartphones and other devices are key enablers of 'mobile', design in digital transformation should take into account how these technologies address the business value and business model transformation required to deliver on breakthrough innovation. If you have not yet started your digital transformation or are considering using mobile as an additional digital transformation point, Constellation recommends that clients assess how a new generation of enterprise mobile apps can change the business by identifying a cross-functional business problem that cannot be solved with linear thinking, articulating the business problem and benefit, showing how the solution orchestrates new experiences, identifying how analytics and insights can fuel the business model shift, exploiting full native device features, and seeking frictionless experiences. You'll be digital before you know it. Read "Why the Third Generation of Enterprise Mobile is Designed for Digital Transformation"

9. Technology Optimization & Innovation - Prepare Your Public Cloud Strategy

Holger Mueller

In 2015 technology leaders will need to create, adjust and implement their public cloud strategy. Considering estimates pegging Amazon AWS at 15-20% of virtualized servers worldwide, CIOs and CTOs need to actively plan and execute their enterprise’s strategy vis-à-vis the public cloud. Reducing technical debt and establishing next generation best practices to leverage the new ‘on demand’ IT paradigm should be a top priority for CIOs and CTOs seeking organizational competitiveness, greater job security and fewer budget restrictions.

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

Too smart?

An Engadget report today, "Hangouts eavesdrops on your chats to offer 'smart suggestions'" describes a new "spy/valet" feature being added to Google's popular video chat tool.

  • "Google's Hangouts is gaining a handy, but slightly creepy new feature today. The popular chat app will now act as a digital spy-slash-valet by eavesdropping on your conversations to offer 'smart suggestions.' For instance, if a pal asks 'where are you?' it'll immediately prompt you to share your location, then open a map so you can pin it precisely."

It's sad that this sort of thing still gets meekly labeled as "creepy". The privacy implications are serious and pretty easy to see.

Google is evidently processing the text of Hangouts as they fly through their system, extracting linguistic cues, interpreting what's being said using Artificial Intelligence, extracting new meaning and insights, and offering suggestions.

We need some clarification about whether any covert tests of this technology have been undertaken during the R&D phase. A company obviously doesn't launch a new product like this without a lot of research, feasibility testing, prototyping and testing. Serious work on 'smart suggestions' would not start without first testing how it works in real life. So I wonder if any of this evaluation was done covertly on live data? Are Google researchers routinely eavesdropping on hangouts to develop the 'smart suggestions' technology?

If so, is such data usage covered by their Privacy Policy (you know, under the usual "in order to improve our service" justification)? And is usage sanctioned internationally in the stricter privacy regimes?

Many people have said to me I'm jumping the gun, and that Google would probably test the new Hangouts feature on its own employees. Perhaps, but given that scanning gmails is situation normal for Google, and they have a "privacy" culture that joins up all their business units so that data may be re-purposed almsot without limit, I feel sure that running AI algorithms on text without telling people would be par for the course.

In development and in operation, we need to know what steps are taken to protect the privacy of hangout data. What personally identifiable data and metadata is retained for other purposes? Who inside Google is granted access to the data and especially the synthtised insights? How long does any secondary usage persist for? Are particularly sensitive matters (like health data, financial details, corporate intellectual property etc.) filtered out?

This is well beyond "creepy". Hangouts and similar video chat are certainly wonderdful technologies. We're using them routinely for teaching, education, video conferencing, collaboration and consultation. The tools may become entrenched in corporate meetings, telecommuting, healthcare and the professions. But if I am talking with my doctor, or discussing patents with my legal team, or having a clandestine chat with a lover, I clearly do not want any unsolicited contributions from the service provider. More fundamentally, I want assurance that no machine is ever tapping into these sorts of communications, running AI algorithms, and creating new insights. If I'm wrong about covert testing on live data, then Google could do what Apple did and publish an Open Letter clarifying their data usage practices and strategies.

Come to think of it, if Google is running natural language processing algorithms over the Hangouts stream, might they be augmenting their gmail scanning the same way? Their business model is to extract insights about users from any data they get their hands on. Until now it's been a crude business of picking out keywords and using them to profile users' interests and feed targeted advertising. But what if they could get deeper information about us through AI? Is there any sign from their historical business practices that Google would not do this? And what if they can extract sensitive information like mental health indications? Even with good intent and transarency, predicting healthcare from social media is highly problematic as shown by the "Samaritans Radar" experience.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the new frontiers. Hot on the heels of the successes of IBM Watson, we're seeing Natural Language Processing and analytics rapidly penetrate business and now consumer applications. Commentators are alternately telling us that AI will end humanity, and not to worry about it. For now, I call on people to simply think clearly through the implications, such as for privacy. If AI programs are clever enough to draw deep insights about us from what we say, then the "datapreneurs" in charge of those algorithms need to remember they are just as accountable for privacy as if they have asked us reveal all by filling out a questionnaire.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Internet, Big Data

Thinking creatively about information assets in retail and hospitality

In my last blog Improving the Position of the CISO, I introduced the new research I've done on extending the classic "Confidentiality-Integrity-Availability" (C-I-A) frame for security analysis, to cover all the other qualities of enterprise information assets. The idea is to build a comprehensive account of what it is that makes information valuable in the context of the business, leveraging the traditional tools and skills of the CISO. After all, security professionals are particularly good at looking at context. Instead of restricting themselves to defending information assets against harm, CISOs can be helping to enhance those assets by building up their other competitive attributes.

Let's look at some examples of how this would work, in some classic Big Data applications in retail and hospitality.

Companies in these industries have long been amassing detailed customer databases under the auspices of loyalty programs. Supermarkets have logged our every purchase for many years, so they can for instance put together new deals on our favorite items, from our preferred brands, or from competitors trying to get us to switch brands. Likewise, hotels track when we stay and what we do, so they can personalise our experience, tailor new packages for us, and try to cross-sell services they predict we'll find attractive. Behind the scenes, the data is also used for operations to plan demand, fine tune their logistics and so on.

Big Data techniques amplify the value of information assets enormously, but they can take us into complicated territory. Consider for example the potential for loyalty information to be parlayed into insurance and other financial services products. Supermarkets find they now have access to a range of significant indicators of health & lifestyle risk factors which are hugely valuable in insurance calculations ... if only the data is permitted to be re-purposed like that.

The question is, what is it about the customer database of a given store or hotel that gives it an edge over its competitors? There many more attributes to think creatively about beyond C-I-A!

  • Utility
  • It's important to rigorously check that the raw data, the metadata and any derived analytics can actually be put to different business purposes.
    • Are data formats well-specified, and technically and semantically interoperable?
    • What would it cost to improve interoperability as needed?
    • Is the data physically available to your other business systems?
    • Does the rest of the business know what's in the data sets?
  • Completeness
    • Do you know more about your customers than your competitors do?
    • Do you supplement and enrich raw customer behaviours with questionaires, or linked data?
    • How far back in time do the records go?
    • Do you understand the reason any major gaps? Do the gaps themselves tell you anything?
    • What sort of metadata do you have? For example, do you retain time & location, trend data, changes, origins and so on?
  • Currency & Accuracy
    • Is your data up to date? Remember that accuracy can diminish over time, so the sheer age of a long term database can have a downside.
    • What mechanisms are there to keep data up to date?
  • Permissions & Consent
    • Have customers consented to secondary usage of data?
    • Is the consent specific, blanket or bundled?
    • Might customers be surprised and possibly put off to learn how their loyalty data is utilised?
    • Do the terms & conditions of participation in a loyalty program cover what you wish to do with the data?
    • Do the Ts&Cs (which might have been agreed to in the past) still align with the latest plans for data usage?
    • Are there opportunities to refresh the Ts&Cs?
    • Are there opportunities for customers to negotiate the value you can offer for re-purposing the data?

  • Compliance
  • When businesses derive new insights from data, it is possible that they are synthesising brand new Personal Information, and non-obvious privacy obligations can go along with that. The competitive advantage of Big Data can be squandered if regulations are overlooked, especially in international environments.
    • So where is the data held, and where does it flow?
    • Are applications for your data compliant with applicable regulations?
    • Is health information or similar sensitive Personal Information extracted or synthesised, and do you have specific consent for that?
    • Can you meet the Access & Correction obligations in many data protection regulations?

For more detail, my new report, "Strategic Opportunities for the CISO", is available now.

Posted in Big Data, Constellation Research, Management theory, Privacy, Security

Improving the position of the CISO

Over the years, we security professionals have tried all sorts of things to make better connections with other parts of the business. We have broadened our qualifications, developed new Return on Security Investment tools, preached that security is a "business enabler", and strived to talk about solutions and not boring old technologies. But we've had mixed success.

Once when I worked as a principal consultant for a large security services provider, a new sales VP came in to the company with a fresh approach. She was convinced that the customer conversation had to switch from technical security to something more meaningful to the wider business: Risk Management. For several months after that I joined call after call with our sales teams, all to no avail. We weren't improving our lead conversions; in fact with banks we seemed to be going backwards. And then it dawned on me: there isn't much anyone can tell bankers about risk they don't already know.

Joining the worlds of security and business is easier said than done. So what is the best way for security line managers to engage with their peers? How can they truly contribute to new business instead of being limited to protecting old business? In a new investigation I've done at Constellation Research I've been looking at how classical security analysis skills and tools can be leveraged for strategic information management.

Remember that the classical frame for managing security is "Confidentiality-Integrity-Availability" or C-I-A. This is how we conventionally look at defending enterprise information assets; threats to security are seen in terms of how critical data may be exposed to unauthorised access, or lost, damaged or stolen, or otherwise made inaccessible to legitimate users. The stock-in-trade for the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is the enterprise information asset register and the continuous exercise of Threat & Risk Assessment around those assets.

I suggest that this way of looking at assets can be extended, shifting from a defensive mindset to a strategic, forward outlook. When the CISO has developed a birds-eye view of their organisation's information assets, they are ideally positioned to map the value of the assets more completely. What is it that makes information valuable exactly? It depends on the business - and security professionals are very good at looking at context. So for example, in financial services or technology, companies can compete on the basis of their original research, so it's the lead time to discovery that sets them apart. On the other hand, in healthcare and retail, the completeness of customer records is a critical differentiator for it allows better quality relationships to be created. And when dealing with sensitive personal information, as in the travel and hospitality industry, the consent and permissions attached to data records determine how they may be leveraged for new business. These are the sorts of things that make different data valuable in different contexts.

CISOs are trained to look at data through different prisms and to assess data in different dimensions. I've found that CISOs are therefore ideally qualified to bring a fresh approach to building the value of enterprise information assets. They can take a more pro-active role in information management, and carve out a new strategic place for themselves in the C-suite.

My new report, "Strategic Opportunities for the CISO", is available now.

Posted in Big Data, Constellation Research, Management theory

Letter: Online threats do damage

A letter to the editor of The Saturday Paper, published Nov 15, 2014.

In his otherwise fresh and sympathetic “Web of abuse” (November 8-14), Martin McKenzie-Murray unfortunately concludes by focusing on the ability of victims of digital hate to “[rationally] assess their threat level”. More’s the point, symbolic violence is still violent. The threat of sexual assault by men against women is inherently terrifying and damaging, whether it is carried out or not. Any attenuation of the threat of rape dehumanises all of us.

There’s a terrible double standard among cyber-libertarians. When good things happen online – such as the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, social networking and free education – they call the internet a transformative force for good. Yet they can play down digital hate crimes as “not real”, and disown their all-powerful internet as just another communications medium.

Stephen Wilson, Five Dock, NSW.

Posted in Culture, Internet, Popular culture

The Prince of Data Mining

Facial recognition is digital alchemy. It's the prince of data mining.

Facial recognition takes previously anonymous images and conjures peoples' identities. It's an invaluable capability. Once they can pick out faces in crowds, trawling surreptitiously through anyone and everyone's photos, the social network businesses can work out what we're doing, when and where we're doing it, and who we're doing it with. The companies figure out what we like to do without us having to 'like' or favorite anything.

So Google, Facebook, Apple at al have invested hundreds of megabucks in face recognition R&D and buying technology start-ups. And they spend billions of dollars buying images and especially faces, going back to Google's acquisition of Picasa in 2004, and most recently, Facebook's ill-fated $3 billion offer for Snapchat.

But if most people find face recognition rather too creepy, then there is cause for optimism. The technocrats have gone too far. What many of them still don't get is this: If you take anonymous data (in the form of photos) and attach names to that data (which is what Facebook photo tagging does - it guesses who people are in photos are, attaches putative names to records, and invites users to confirm them) then you Collect Personal Information. Around the world, existing pre-biometrics era black letter Privacy Law says you can't Collect PII even indirectly like that without am express reason and without consent.

When automatic facial recognition converts anonymous data into PII, it crosses a bright line in the law.

Posted in Social Networking, Privacy, Biometrics, Big Data

From Information Security to Digital Competitiveness

Exploring new strategic opportunities for CIOs and CISOs.

For as long as we've had a distinct information security profession, it has been said that security needs to be a "business enabler". But what exactly does that mean? How can security professionals advance from their inherently defensive postures, into more strategic positions, and contribute actively to the growth of the business? This is the focus of my latest work at Constellation Research. It turns out that security professionals have special tools and skills ideally suited to a broader strategic role in information management.

The role of Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is a tough one. Security is red hot. Not a week goes by without news of another security breach.

Information now is the lifeblood of most organisations; CISOs and their teams are obviously crucial in safeguarding that. But a purely defensive mission seldom allows for much creativity, or a positive reputation amongst one's peers. A predominantly reactive work mode -- as important as it is from day to day -- can sometimes seem precarious. The good news for CISOs' career security and job satisfaction is they happen to have special latent skills to innovate and build out those most important digital assets.

Information assets are almost endless: accounts, ledgers and other legal records, sales performance, stock lists, business plans, R&D plans, product designs, market analyses and forecasts, customer data, employee files, audit reports, patent specifications and trade secrets. But what is it about all this information that actually needs protecting? What exactly makes any data valuable? These questions take us into the mind of the CISO.

Security management is formally all about the right balance of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability in the context of the business. Different businesses have different needs in these three dimensions.

Think of the famous industrial secrets like the recipes for KFC or Coca Cola. These demand the utmost confidentiality and integrity but the availability of the information can be low (nay, must be low) because it is accessed as a whole so seldomly. Medical records too have traditionally needed confidentiality more than availability, but that's changing. Complex modern healthcare demands electronic records, and these do need high availability especially in emergency care settings.

In contrast, for public information like stock prices there is no value in confidentiality whatsoever, and instead, availability and integrity are paramount. On the other hand, market-sensitive information that listed companies periodically report to stock exchanges must have very strict confidentiality for a relatively brief period.

Security professionals routinely compile Information Asset Inventories and plan for appropriate C-I-A for each type of data held. From there, a Threat & Risk Assessment (TRA) is generally undertaken, to examine the adverse events that might compromise the Confidentiality, Integrity and/or Availability. The likelihood and the impact of each adverse event are estimated and multiplied together to gauge the practical risk posed by each known threat. By prioritising counter-measures for the identified threats, in line with the organisation's risk appetite, the TRA helps guide a rational program of investment in security.

Now their practical experience can put CISOs in a special position to enhance their organisation's information assets rather than restrict themselves to hardening information against just the negative impacts.

Here's where the CISO's mindset comes into play in a new way. The real value of information lies not so much in the data itself as in its qualities. Remember the cynical old saw "It's not what you know, it's who you know". There's a serious side to the saying, which highlights that really useful information has pedigree.

So the real action is in the metadata; that is, data about data. It may have got a bad rap recently thanks to surveillance scandals, but various thinkers have long promoted the importance of metadata. For example, back in the 1980s, Citibank CEO Walter Wriston famously said "information about money will become almost as important as money itself". What a visionary endorsement of metadata!

The important latent skills I want to draw out for CISOs is their practiced ability to deal with the qualities of data. To bring greater value to the business, CISOs can start thinking about the broader pedigree of data and not merely its security qualities. They should spread their wings beyond C-I-A, to evaluate all sorts of extra dimensions, like completeness, reliability, originality, currency, privacy and regulatory compliance.

The core strategic questions for the modern CISO are these: What is it about your corporate information that gives you competitive advantage? What exactly makes information valuable?

The CISO has the mindset and the analytical tools to surface these questions and positively engage their executive peers in finding the answers.

My new Constellation Research report will be published soon.

Posted in Security, Privacy, Management theory, Constellation Research

An unpublished letter on The Right To Be Forgotten

In response to "The Solace of Oblivion", Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, September 29th, 2014.

The "Right to be Forgotten" is an unfortunate misnomer for a balanced data control measure decided by the European Court of Justice. The new rule doesn't seek to erase the past but rather to restore some of its natural distance. Privacy is not about secrecy but moderation. Yet restraint is toxic to today's information magnates, and the response of some to even the slightest throttling of their control of data has been shrill. Google doth protest too much when it complains that having to adjust its already very elaborate search filters makes it an unwilling censor.

The result of a multi-billion dollar R&D program, Google's search engine is a great deal more than a latter-day microfiche. Its artificial intelligence tries to predict what users are really looking for, and as a result, its insights are all the more valuable to Google's real clients -- the advertisers. No search result is a passive reproduction of data from a "public domain". Google makes the public domain public. So if search reveals Personal Information that was hitherto impossible to find, then Google should at least participate in helping to temper the unintended privacy consequences.

Stephen Wilson
October 1, 2014.

Posted in Big Data, Internet, Privacy

The worst privacy misconception of all

I was discussing definitions of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) with some lawyers today, one of whom took exception to the US General Services Administration definition: information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other personal or identifying information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual". This lawyer concluded rather hysterically that under such a definition, "nobody can use the internet without a violation".

Similarly, I've seen engineers in Australia recoil at the possibility that IP and MAC Addresses might be treated as PII because it is increasingly easy to link them to the names of device owners. I was recently asked "Why are they stopping me collecting IP addresses?". The answer is, they're not.

There are a great many misconceptions about privacy, but the idea that 'if it's personal you can't use it' is by far the worst.

Nothing in any broad-based data privacy law I know of says personal information cannot be collected or used.

Rather, what data privacy laws actually say is: if you're collecting and using PII, be careful.

Privacy is about restraint. The general privacy laws of Australia, Europe and 100-odd countries say things like don't collect PII without consent, don't collect PII beyond what you demonstrably need, don't use PII collected for one purpose for other unrelated purposes, tell individuals if you can what PII you hold about them, give people access to the PII you have, and do not retain PII for longer than necessary.

Such rules are entirely reasonable, and impose marginal restrictions on the legitimate conduct of business. And they align very nicely with standard security practice which promotes the Need To Know principle and the Principle of Least Privilege.

Compliance with Privacy Principles does add some overhead to data management compared with anonymous data. If re-identification techniques and ubiquitous inter-connectedness means that hardly any data is going to stay anonymous anymore, then yes, privacy laws mean that data should be treated more cautiously than was previously the case. And what exactly is wrong with that?

If data is the new gold then it's time data custodians took more care.

Posted in Big Data, Privacy

PKI as nature intended

Few technologies are so fundamental and yet so derided at the same time as public key infrastructure. PKI is widely thought of as obsolete or generically intrusive yet it is ubiquitous in SIM cards, SSL, chip and PIN cards, and cable TV. Technically, public key infrastructure Is a generic term for a management system for keys and certificates; there have always been endless ways to build PKIs (note the plural) for different communities, technologies, industries and outcomes. And yet “PKI” has all too often come to mean just one way of doing identity management. In fact, PKI doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with identity at all.

This blog is an edited version of a feature I once wrote for SC Magazine. It is timely in the present day to re-visit the principles that make for good PKI implementations and contextualise them in one of the most contemporary instances of PKI: the FIDO Alliance protocols for secure attribute management. In my view, FIDO realises PKI ‘as nature intended’.

“Re-thinking PKI”

In their earliest conceptions in the early-to-mid 1990s, digital certificates were proposed to authenticate nondescript transactions between parties who had never met. Certificates were construed as the sole means for people to authenticate one another. Most traditional PKI was formulated with no other context; the digital certificate was envisaged to be your all-purpose digital identity.

Orthodox PKI has come in for spirited criticism. From the early noughties, many commentators pointed to a stark paradox: online transaction volumes and values were increasing rapidly, in almost all cases without the help of overt PKI. Once thought to be essential, with its promise of "non repdudiation", PKI seemed anything but, even for significant financial transactions.

There were many practical problems in “big” centralised PKI models. The traditional proof of identity for general purpose certificates was intrusive; the legal agreements were complex and novel; and private key management was difficult for lay people. So the one-size-fits-all electronic passport failed to take off. But PKI's critics sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the absence of any specific context for its application, “big” PKI emphasized proof of personal identity. Early certificate registration schemes co-opted identification benchmarks like that of the passport. Yet hardly any regular business transactions require parties to personally identify one another to passport standards.

”Electronic business cards”

Instead in business we deal with others routinely on the basis of their affiliations, agency relationships, professional credentials and so on. The requirement for orthodox PKI users to submit to strenuous personal identity checks over and above their established business credentials was a major obstacle in the adoption of digital certificates.

It turns out that the 'killer applications' for PKI overwhelmingly involve transactions with narrow contexts, predicated on specific credentials. The parties might not know each other personally, but invariably they recognize and anticipate each other's qualifications, as befitting their business relationship.

Successful PKI came to be characterized by closed communities of interest, prior out-of-band registration of members, and in many cases, special-purpose application software featuring additional layers of context, security and access controls.

So digital certificates are much more useful when implemented as application-specific 'electronic business cards,' than as one-size-fits-all electronic passports. And, by taking account of the special conditions that apply to different e-business processes, we have the opportunity to greatly simplify the registration processes, user experience and liability arrangements that go with PKI.

The real benefits of digital signatures

There is a range of potential advantages in using PKI, including its cryptographic strength and resistance to identity theft (when implemented with private keys in hardware). Many of its benefits are shared with other technologies, but at least two are unique to PKI.

First, digital signatures provide robust evidence of the origin and integrity of electronic transactions, persistent over time and over 'distance’ (that is, the separation of sender and receiver). This greatly simplifies audit logging, evidence collection and dispute resolution, and cuts the future cost of investigation and fraud. If a digitally signed document is archived and checked at a later date, the quality of the signature remains undiminished over many years, even if the public key certificate has long since expired. And if a digitally signed message is passed from one relying party to another and on to many more, passing through all manner of intermediate systems, everyone still receives an identical, verifiable signature code authenticating the original message.

Electronic evidence of the origin and integrity of a message can, of course, be provided by means other than a digital signature. For example, the authenticity of typical e-business transactions can usually be demonstrated after the fact via audit logs, which indicate how a given message was created and how it moved from one machine to another. However, the quality of audit logs is highly variable and it is costly to produce legally robust evidence from them. Audit logs are not always properly archived from every machine, they do not always directly evince data integrity, and they are not always readily available months or years after the event. They are rarely secure in themselves, and they usually need specialists to interpret and verify them. Digital signatures on the other hand make it vastly simpler to rewind transactions when required.

Secondly, digital signatures and certificates are machine readable, allowing the credentials or affiliations of the sender to be bound to the message and verified automatically on receipt, enabling totally paperless transacting. This is an important but often overlooked benefit of digital signatures. When processing a digital certificate chain, relying party software can automatically tell that:

    • the message has not been altered since it was originally created
    • the sender was authorized to launch the transaction, by virtue of credentials or other properties endorsed by a recognized Certificate Authority
    • the sender's credentials were valid at the time they sent the message; and
    • the authority which signed the certificate was fit to do so.

One reason we can forget about the importance of machine readability is that we have probably come to expect person-to-person email to be the archetypal PKI application, thanks to email being the classic example to illustrate PKI in action. There is an implicit suggestion in most PKI marketing and training that, in regular use, we should manually click on a digital signature icon, examine the certificate, check which CA issued it, read the policy qualifier, and so on. Yet the overwhelming experience of PKI in practice is that it suits special purpose and highly automated applications, where the usual receiver of signed transactions is in fact a computer.

Characterising good applications

Reviewing the basic benefits of digital signatures allows us to characterize the types of e-business applications that merit investment in PKI.

Applications for which digital signatures are a good fit tend to have reasonably high transaction volumes, fully automatic or straight-through processing, and multiple recipients or multiple intermediaries between sender and receiver. In addition, there may be significant risk of dispute or legal ramifications, necessitating high quality evidence to be retained over long periods of time. These include:

    • Tax returns
    • Customs reporting
    • E-health care
    • Financial trading
    • Insurance
    • Electronic conveyancing
    • Superannuation administration
    • Patent applications.

This view of the technology helps to explain why many first-generation applications of PKI were problematic. Retail internet banking is a well-known example of e-business which flourished without the need for digital certificates. A few banks did try to implement certificates, but generally found them difficult to use. Most later reverted to more conventional access control and backend security mechanisms.Yet with hindsight, retail funds transfer transactions did not have an urgent need for PKI, since they could make use of existing backend payment systems. Funds transfer is characterized by tightly closed arrangements, a single relying party, built-in limits on the size of each transaction, and near real-time settlement. A threat and risk assessment would show that access to internet banking can rest on simple password authentication, in exactly the same way as antecedent phone banking schemes.

Trading complexity for specificity

As discussed, orthodox PKI was formulated with the tacit assumption that there is no specific context for the transaction, so the digital certificate is the sole means for authenticating the sender. Consequently, the traditional schemes emphasized high standards of personal identity, exhaustive contracts and unusual legal devices like Relying Party Agreements. They also often resorted to arbitrary 'reliance limits,' which have little meaning for most of the applications listed on the previous page. Notoriously, traditional PKI requires users to read and understand certification practice statements (CPS).

All that overhead stemmed from not knowing what the general-purpose digital certificate was going to be used for. On the other hand, if particular digital certificates are constrained to defined applications, then the complexity surrounding their specific usage can be radically reduced.

The role of PKI in all contemporary 'killer applications' is fundamentally to help automate the online processing of electronic transactions between parties with well-defined credentials. This is in stark contrast to the way PKI has historically been portrayed, where strangers Alice and Bob use their digital certificates to authenticate context-free general messages, often presumed to be sent by email. In reality, serious business messages are never sent stranger-to-stranger with no context or cues as to the parties' legitimacy.

Using generic email is like sending a fax on plain paper. Instead, business messaging is usually highly structured. Parties have an expectation that only certain types of transactions are going to occur between them and they equip themselves accordingly (for instance, a health insurance office is not set up to handle tax returns). The sender is authorized to act in defined types of transactions by virtue of professional credentials, a relevant license, an affiliation with some authority, endorsement by their employer, and so on. And the receiver recognizes the source of those credentials. The sender and receiver typically use prescribed forms and/or special purpose application software with associated user agreements and license conditions, adding context and additional layers of security around the transaction.

PKI got smart

When PKI is used to help automate the online processing of transactions between parties in the context of an existing business relationship, we should expect the legal arrangements between the parties to still apply. For business applications where digital certificates are used to identify users in specific contexts, the question of legal liability should be vastly simpler than it is in the general purpose PKI scenario where the issuer does not know what the certificates might be used for.
The new vision for PKI means the technology and processes should be no more of a burden on the user than a bank card. Rather than imagine that all public key certificates are like general purpose electronic passports, we can deploy multiple, special purpose certificates, and treat them more like electronic business cards. A public key certificate issued on behalf of a community of business users and constrained to that community can thereby stand for any type of professional credential or affiliation.

We can now automate and embed the complex cryptography deeply into smart devices -- smartcards, smart phones, USB keys and so on -- so that all terms and conditions for use are application focused. As far as users are concerned, a smartcard can be deployed in exactly the same way as any magnetic stripe card, without any need to refer to - or be limited by - the complex technology contained within (see also Simpler PKI is on the cards). Any application-specific smartcard can be issued under rules and controls that are fit for their purpose, as determined by the community of users or an appropriate recognized authority. There is no need for any user to read a CPS. Communities can determine their own evidence-of-identity requirements for issuing cards, instead of externally imposed personal identity checks. Deregulating membership rules dramatically cuts the overheads traditionally associated with certificate registration.

Finally, if we constrain the use of certificates to particular applications then we can factor the intended usage into PKI accreditation processes. Accreditation could then allow for particular PKI scheme rules to govern liability. By 'black-boxing' each community's rules and arrangements, and empowering the community to implement processes that are fit for its purpose, the legal aspects of accreditation can be simplified, reducing one of the more significant cost components of the whole PKI exercise (having said that, it never ceases to amaze how many contemporary healthcare PKIs still cling onto face-to-face passport grade ID proofing as if that's the only way to do digital certificates).

Fast forward

The preceding piece is a lightly edited version of the article ”Rethinking PKI” that first appeared in Secure Computing Magazine in 2003. Now, over a decade later, we’re seeing the same principles realised by the FIDO Alliance.

The FIDO protocols U2F and UAF enable specific attributes of a user and their smart devices to be transmitted to a server. Inherent to the FIDO methods are digital certificates that confer attributes and not identity, relatively large numbers of private keys stored locally in the users’ devices (and without the users needing to be aware of them as such) and digital signatures automatically applied to protocol messages to bind the relevant attributes to the authentication exchanges.

Surely, this is how PKI should have been deployed all along.

Posted in Security, PKI, Internet, Identity