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What's really happening to privacy?

This article was first published as
Wilson, S. (2013). What happened to privacy?". Issues, 104, 41-44
Wilson, S. (2013). What happened to privacy?". Australasian Science, Dec 2013, 30-33.

The cover of Newsweek magazine on 27 July 1970 featured a cartoon couple cowered by computer and communications technology, and the urgent all-caps headline “IS PRIVACY DEAD?”

Is Privacy Dead Newsweek

Four decades on, Newsweek is dead, but we’re still asking the same question.

Every generation or so, our notions of privacy are challenged by a new technology. In the 1880s (when Warren and Brandeis developed the first privacy jurisprudence) it was photography and telegraphy; in the 1970s it was computing and consumer electronics. And now it’s the Internet, a revolution that has virtually everyone connected to everyone else (and soon everything) everywhere, and all of the time. Some of the world’s biggest corporations now operate with just one asset – information – and a vigorous “publicness” movement rallies around the purported liberation of shedding what are said by writers like Jeff Jarvis (in his 2011 book “Public Parts”) to be old fashioned inhibitions. Online Social Networking, e-health, crowd sourcing and new digital economies appear to have shifted some of our societal fundamentals.

However the past decade has seen a dramatic expansion of countries legislating data protection laws, in response to citizens’ insistence that their privacy is as precious as ever. And consumerized cryptography promises absolute secrecy. Privacy has long stood in opposition to the march of invasive technology: it is the classical immovable object met by an irresistible force.

So how robust is privacy? And will the latest technological revolution finally change privacy forever?

Soaking in information

We live in a connected world. Young people today may have grown tired of hearing what a difference the Internet has made, but a crucial question is whether relatively new networking technologies and sheer connectedness are exerting novel stresses to which social structures have yet to adapt. If “knowledge is power” then the availability of information probably makes individuals today more powerful than at any time in history. Search, maps, Wikipedia, Online Social Networks and 3G are taken for granted. Unlimited deep technical knowledge is available in chat rooms; universities are providing a full gamut of free training via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The Internet empowers many to organise in ways that are unprecedented, for political, social or business ends. Entirely new business models have emerged in the past decade, and there are indications that political models are changing too.

Most mainstream observers still tend to talk about the “digital” economy but many think the time has come to drop the qualifier. Important services and products are, of course, becoming inherently digital and whole business categories such as travel, newspapers, music, photography and video have been massively disrupted. In general, information is the lifeblood of most businesses. There are countless technology-billionaires whose fortunes are have been made in industries that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago. Moreover, some of these businesses only have one asset: information.

Banks and payments systems are getting in on the action, innovating at a hectic pace to keep up with financial services development. There is a bewildering array of new alternative currencies like Linden dollars, Facebook Credits and Bitcoins – all of which can be traded for “real” (reserve bank-backed) money in a number of exchanges of varying reputation. At one time it was possible for Entropia Universe gamers to withdraw dollars at ATMs against their virtual bank balances.

New ways to access finance have arisen, such as peer-to-peer lending and crowd funding. Several so-called direct banks in Australia exist without any branch infrastructure. Financial institutions worldwide are desperate to keep up, launching amongst other things virtual branches and services inside Online Social Networks (OSNs) and even virtual worlds. Banks are of course keen to not have too many sales conducted outside the traditional payments system where they make their fees. Even more strategically, banks want to control not just the money but the way the money flows, because it has dawned on them that information about how people spend might be even more valuable than what they spend.

Privacy in an open world

For many for us, on a personal level, real life is a dynamic blend of online and physical experiences. The distinction between digital relationships and flesh-and-blood ones seems increasingly arbitrary; in fact we probably need new words to describe online and offline interactions more subtly, without implying a dichotomy.

Today’s privacy challenges are about more than digital technology: they really stem from the way the world has opened up. The enthusiasm of many for such openness – especially in Online Social Networking – has been taken by some commentators as a sign of deep changes in privacy attitudes. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for instance said in 2010 that “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people - and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time”. And yet serious academic investigation of the Internet’s impact on society is (inevitably) still in its infancy. Social norms are constantly evolving but it’s too early to tell to if they have reached a new and more permissive steady state. The views of information magnates in this regard should be discounted given their vested interest in their users' promiscuity.

At some level, privacy is about being closed. And curiously for a fundamental human right, the desire to close off parts of our lives is relatively fresh. Arguably it’s even something of a “first world problem”. Formalised privacy appears to be an urban phenomenon, unknown as such to people in villages when everyone knew everyone – and their business. It was only when large numbers of people congregated in cities that they became concerned with privacy. For then they felt the need to structure the way they related to large numbers of people – family, friends, work mates, merchants, professionals and strangers – in multi-layered relationships. So privacy was borne of the first industrial revolution. It has taken prosperity and active public interest to create the elaborate mechanisms that protect our personal privacy from day to day and which we take for granted today: the postal services, direct dial telephones, telecommunications regulations, individual bedrooms in large houses, cars in which we can escape or a while, and now of course the mobile handset.

In control

Privacy is about respect and control. Simply put, if someone knows me, then they should respect what they know; they should exercise restraint in how they use that knowledge, and be guided by my wishes. Generally, privacy is not about anonymity or secrecy. Of course, if we live life underground then unqualified privacy can be achieved, yet most of us exist in diverse communities where we actually want others to know a great deal about us. We want merchants to know our shipping address and payment details, healthcare providers to know our intimate details, hotels to know our travel plans and so on. Practical privacy means that personal information is not shared arbitrarily, and that individuals retain control over the tracks of their lives.

Big Data: Big Future

Big Data tools are being applied everywhere, from sifting telephone call records to spot crimes in the planning, to DNA and medical research. Every day, retailers use sophisticated data analytics to mine customer data, ostensibly to better uncover true buyer sentiments and continuously improve their offerings. Some department stores are interested in predicting such major life changing events as moving house or falling pregnant, because then they can target whole categories of products to their loyal customers.

Real time Big Data will become embedded in our daily lives, through several synchronous developments. Firstly computing power, storage capacity and high speed Internet connectivity all continue to improve at exponential rates. Secondly, there are more and more “signals” for data miners to choose from. No longer do you have to consciously tell your OSN what you like or what you’re doing, because new augmented reality devices are automatically collecting audio, video and locational data, and trading it around a complex web of digital service providers. And miniaturisation is leading to a whole range of smart appliances, smart cars and even smart clothes with built-in or ubiquitous computing.

The privacy risks are obvious, and yet the benefits are huge. So how should we think about the balance in order to optimise the outcome? Let’s remember that information powers the new digital economy, and the business models of many major new brands like Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and Google incorporate a bargain for Personal Information. We obtain fantastic services from these businesses “for free” but in reality they are enabled by all that information we give out as we search, browse, like, friend, tag, tweet and buy.

The more innovation we see ahead, the more certain it seems that data will be the core asset of cyber enterprises. To retain and even improve our privacy in the unfolding digital world, we must be able to visualise the data flows that we’re engaged in, evaluate what we get in return for our information, and determine a reasonable trade of costs and benefits

Is Privacy Dead? If the same rhetorical question needs to be asked over and over for decades, then it’s likely the answer is no.

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

Attribute wallets

There's little debate now that attributes are at least as important as "identity" in making decisions about authorization online. This was a recurring theme at the recent Cloud Identity Summit and in subsequent discussions on Twitter, my blog site and Kuppinger Cole's. The attention to attributes might mean a return to basics, with a focus on what it is we really need to know about each other in business. It takes me back to the old APEC definition of authentication: the means by which the recipient of a transaction or message can make an assessment as to whether to accept or reject that transaction.

A few questions remain, like what is the best way for attributes to be made available? And where does all this leave the IdP? The default architecture in many peoples' minds is that attributes should be served up online by Attribute Providers in response to Relying Party's needing to know things about Subjects instantaneously. The various real time negotiations are threaded together by one or more Identity Providers. Here I want to present an alternative but complementary vision, in which attributes are presented to Relying Parties out of digital wallets controlled by the Subjects concerned, and with little or no involvement of Identity Providers as such.

Terminology: In this post and in most of my works I use the nouns attribute, claim and [identity] assertion interchangeably. What we're talking about are specific factoids about the first party to a transaction (the "Subject") that are interesting to the second party in the transaction (the "Relying Party" or Service Provider). In general, each attribute is vouched for by an authoritative third party referred to as an Attribute Provider. In some special cases, an RP can trust the Subject to assert certain things about themselves, but the more interesting general case is where the Relying Party needs external assurance that a given attribute is true for the Subject in question. I don't have much to say about self-asserted attributes.

The need to know

As much as we're all interested in identity and "trust" online, the authentication currency of most transactions is attributes. The context of a transaction often determines (and determines completely) the set of attributes and their target values that together determine whether a party is authorised or not. For example, in the retail shopping context, if the Subject is a shopper, the RP a merchant and the transaction a credit card purchase, then the attributes of interest are the cardholder name, account number, billing address and maybe the card verification code. In the context of dispensing an electronic prescription, the only attribute might be the doctor's prescriber number (pharmacists of course don't care who the doctor 'really is'; notoriously they can't even read the doctor's handwriting). For authorising a purchase order on behalf of a company, the important attributes might be the employee position and staff ID. For opening a new bank account, Know-Your-Customer (KYC) rules in most jurisdictions will dictate that such attributes as legal name, address, date of birth and so on be presented in a prescribed form (typically by way of original government issued ID documents).

For most of the common attributes of interest in routine business, there are natural recognised Attribute Authorities. Some are literally authoritative over particular attributes. Professional bodies for instance issue registration numbers to accountants, doctors, engineers and so on; employees assign staff IDs; banks issue credit card numbers. In other cases, there are de facto authorities; most famously, driver licenses are relied on almost universally as proof of age around the world.

Sometimes rules are laid down that designate certain organisations to act as Attribute Providers - without necessarily using that term. Consider how KYC rules in effect designate Attribute Authorities. In Australia, the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988 (FTRA) has long established an identity verification procedure called the "100 point check". FTRA regulations prescribe a number of points to various identification documents, and in order to open a bank account here, you need to present a total of 100 points worth of documents. Notable documents include:

  • Birth certificate: 70 points
  • Current passport: 70 points
  • Australian driver licence [bearing a photo]: 40 points
  • Foreign driver licence [not necessarily bearing a photo]: 25 points
  • Credit card: 25 points.

So in effect, the financial regulators in Australia have designated driver license bureaus and credit card issuers to be Attribute Providers for names (again, without actually using the label "AP"). Under legislated KYC rules, a bank creating a new customer account can rely on assertions made by other banks or even foreign driver license authorities about the customer's name, without needing to have any relationship with the "APs". Crucially, the bank need not investigate for itself nor understand the detailed identification processes of the "APs" listed in the KYC rules. Of course we can presume that KYC legislators took advice on the details of how various identity documents are put together, and in the event that an error is found somewhere in the production of an identity feeder document then forensic investigation would follow, but the important point is that routinely, the inner workings of all the various APs are opaque to most relying parties. The bank as RP does not need to know how a license bureau does its job.

And yet we do know that the recognised Attribute Providers continuously improve what they do. Consider driver licenses. In Australia up until the 1970s, driver licenses were issued on paper. Then plastic cards were introduced with photographs. Numerous anti-copying measures have been rolled out since then, such as holograms, and guilloche, optically variable and micro printing. Now the first chipped driver licenses are being issued, in which cryptographic technology not only makes counterfeiting difficult but also enables digitally signed cardholder details to be transmitted electronically (the same trick utilised in EMV to stop skimming and carding). Less obvious to users, biometric facial recognition is also used now during issuance and renewal to detect fraudsters. So over time the attributes conveyed by driver licenses have not changed at all - name, address and date of birth have always meant the same thing - but the reliability of these attributes when presented via licenses is better than ever.

Imposters are better detected during the issuance process, the medium has become steadily more secure, and, more subtly, the binding between each licence and its legitimate holder is stronger.

We are accustomed in traditional business to dealing with others on the basis of their official credentials alone, without needing to know much about who they 'really are'. When deciding if we can accept someone in a particular transaction context, we rely on recognised providers of relevant attributes. Hotel security checks a driver license for a patron's age; householders check the official ID badges of repair people and meter readers; a pathologist checks the medical credentials of an ordering doctor; an architect only deals with licensed surveyors and structural engineers; shareholders only need to know that a company's auditors are properly certified accountants. In none of these routine cases is the personal identity of the first party of any real interest. What matters is the attributes that authorise them to deal in each context.

Digital wallets

Now, in the online environment, what is the best way to access attributes? My vision is of digital wallets. I advocate that users be equipped to hold close any number of recognised attributes in machine readable formats, so they can present selected attributes as the need arises, directly to Relying Parties. This sort of approach is enabled by the fact that the majority of economically important transaction settings draw on a relatively small number of attributes, and we can define a useful attribute superset in advance. As discussed previously such a superset could include:

  • {Given name, Residential address, Postal address, Date of Birth, "Over 18", Residential status, Professional qualification(s), Association Membership(s), Social security number, Student number, Employee Number, Bank account number(s), Credit card number(s), Customer Reference Number(s), Medicare Number, Health Insurance No., Health Identifier(s), OSN Membership(s)}

Many of these attributes have just one natural authoritative provider each; others could be provided by a number of alternative organisations that happen to verify them as a matter of course and could stand ready to vouch for them. The decision to accept any AP's word for a given attribute is ultimately up to the Relying Party; each RP has its own standards for the required bona fides of the attributes it cares about.

There are a few obvious candidates for digital attribute wallets:

  • A smart phone could come pre-loaded with attributes that have been verified as a matter of course by the telephone company, like the credit card number associated with the account, or proof of age. A digital wallet on the phone could later be topped up with additional attributes, over the air or via some other more secure over-the-counter protocol.

  • A smart driver license could hold digital certificates signed by the licensing bureau, asserting name, address, date of birth, and/or simpler de-identified statements like "the older is over 18". Note that the assertions could be made separately or in useful combinations; for privacy, a proof of age certificate need not name the holder but simply specify that the assertion is carried on a particular type of chip, signed by the authoritative issuer.

  • When you receive a smart bank card, the issuer bank could load the chip with your name, address, date of birth, PANs and/or certified copies of identity documents presented to open the account. Such personal identity assertions could then be presented by the customer to other RPs like financial institutions or retailers to originate other accounts.

Do we need an "Identity Provider" to thread together these attributes? No. While it is important that RPs can trust that each attribute is in the right hands, the issuance process (including the provisioning of attribute carrying tokens like cards and mobile phones) is just one aspect of the Attribute Provider's job. If we can trust say a licensing bureau to verify the particulars of a license holder, then we can also trust them as part of that process to ensure that the license is in the hands of its rightful owner.

In contrast with the real time 'negotiated' attributes exchange architectures, the digital wallet approach has the following advantages:

  • Decentralised architecture: lower cost and quicker to deploy; we can start local and scale up as Attribute Providers gain ground;

  • Fast: digitally signed attributes presented from smart devices diret to Relying Parties can be cryptographically verified instantaneously, for higher performance, especially in bandwidth limited environments.

  • Intrinsically private: Direct presentation of attributes minimises the exposure of personal information to third parties.

  • ”Natural”: Digital wallets of attributes is congruent with the way we hold diverse pieces of personal documentation in regular wallets; unlike big federation model, no novel new intermediaries are involved.

  • Legally simpler: It is relatively simple matter for Attribute Authorities to warrant the accuracy of separate particulars like name, date of birth, account number, without any making any other broad representations of who the Subject 'really is'. There is none of the legal fine print that bedevilled Big PKI Certification Authorities in the past and which proved fatal in federation programs like the Internet Industry Association 2FA pilot.


  • On a case by case basis, as dictated by their risk management strategies, RPs can revert to an online AP to check the up-to-the-minute validity of an attribute. In practice this is not necessary in many cases; many of the common attributes in business are static, and once issued (or vouched for by a reputable body) do not change. If attributes are conveyed by digital certificates, then their validity can be efficiently checked online by OCSP and near-line by CRL.
  • The patient smartcards already widespread in Europe are an ideal carrier for a plurality of human services identifiers (such as public health insurance numbers, health record identifiers, medical social networking handles, and research tracking numbers; see also a previous presentation on anonymity and pseudonymity in e-research).
  • As other conventional plastic cards are progressively upgraded to chip - such as the proposed US Medicare card modernization - we have a natural opportunity to load them with secure digital assertions too.
  • In the medium to long term, digitally signed attributes could be made to chain through communities of CAs to a small number of globally recognised Root Authorities. For a model, refer to s4.4 "How to convey fitness for purpose" of my Public Key Superstructure presentation to the 2008 NIST IDTrust workshop.

Posted in Trust, Smartcards, Security, Identity, Federated Identity