Lockstep

Mobile: +61 (0) 414 488 851
Email: swilson@lockstep.com.au

It takes a Virtual Village

In "We are hopelessly hooked" (New York Review of Books, February 25), political historian Jacob Weisberg canvasses the social impact of digital technology. He describes mobile and social media as “self-depleting and antisocial” but I would prefer different-social not merely for the vernacular but because the new media's sadder side is a lot like what's gone before.

In reviewing four recent contributions to the field - from Sherry Turkle, Joseph Reagle and Nir Eyal - Weisberg dwells in various ways on the twee dichotomy of experience online and off. For many of us, the distinction between digital and "IRL" (the sardonic abbreviation of "in real life") is becoming entirely arbitrary, which I like to show through an anecdote.

I was a mid-career technology researcher and management consultant when I joined Twitter in 2009. It quickly supplanted all my traditional newsfeeds and bulletin boards, by connecting me to individuals who I came to trust to pass on what really mattered. More slowly, I curated my circles, built up a following, and came to enjoy the recognition that would ordinarily come from regular contact, if the travel was affordable from far flung Australia. By 2013 I had made it as a member of the “identerati” – a loose international community of digital identity specialists. Thus, on my first trip to the US in many years, I scored a cherished invitation to a private pre-conference party with 50 or so of these leaders.

On the night, as I made my way through unfamiliar San Francisco streets, I had butterflies. I had met just one of my virtual colleagues face-to-face. How would I be received “IRL”? The answer turned out to be: effortlessly. Not one person asked the obvious question – Steve, tell us about yourself! – for everyone knew me already. And this surprising ease wasn’t just about skipping formalities; I found we had genuine intimacy from years of sharing and caring, all on Twitter.

Weisberg quotes Joseph Reagle in "Reading the Comments..." looking for “intimate serendipity” in successful online communities. It seems both authors are overlooking how serendipity catalyses all human relationships. It’s always something random that turns acquaintances into friends. And happy accidents may be more frequent online, not in spite of all the noise but because of it. We all live for chance happenings, and the much-derided Fear Of Missing Out is not specific to kids nor the Internet. Down the generations, FOMO has always kept teenagers up past their bed time; but it’s also why we grown-ups outstay our welcome at dinner parties and hang out at dreary corporate banquets.

Weisberg considers Twitter’s decay into anarchy and despair to be inevitable, and he may be right, but is it simply for want of supervision? We know sudden social decay all too well; just think of the terribly real-life “Lord of the Flies”.

Sound moral bearings are set by good parents, good teachers, and – if we’re lucky – good peers. At this point in history, parents and teachers are famously less adept than their charges in the new social medium, but this will change. Digital decency will be better impressed on kids when all their important role models are online.

It takes a village to raise a child. The main problem today is that virtual villages are still at version 1.0.

Posted in Culture, Identity, Internet, Popular culture, Social Media, Trust

Mobility and the experience of identity

We all know that digital transformation is imminent, but getting there is far from easy. The digital journey is fraught with challenges, not least of which is customer access. "Online" is not what it used to be; the online world by many measures is bigger than the “real world” and it’s certainly not just a special corner of a network we occasionally log into. Many customers spend a substantial part of their lives online. The very word "online" is losing its meaning, with offline becoming a very unusual state. So enterprises are finding they need to totally rethink customer identity, bringing together the perspectives of CTO for risk management and engineering, and the CMO for the voice of the customer.

Consider this. The customer experience of online identity was set in concrete in the 1960s when information technology meant mainframes and computers only sat in “laboratories”. That was when we had the first network logon. The username and password was designed by sys admins for sys admins.

Passwords were never meant to be easy. Ease of use was irrelevant to system administrators; everything about their job was hard, and if they had to manage dozens of account identifiers, so be it. The security of a password depends on it being hard to remember and therefore, in a sense, hard to use. The efficacy of a password is in fact inversely proportional to its ease of use! Isn't that a unique property in all consumer technology?

The tragedy is that the same access paradigm has been inherited from the mainframe era and passed right on through the Age of the PCs in the 1980s, to the Internet in the 2000s. Before we knew it, we all turned into heavy duty “computer” users. The Personal Computer was always regarded as a miniaturized mainframe, with a graphical user interface layered over one or more arcane operating systems, from which consumers never really escaped.

But now all devices are computers. Famously, a phone today is more powerful than all of NASA’s 1969 moon landing IT put together). And the user experience of “computing” has finally changed, and radically so. Few people ever touch operating system anymore. The whole UX is at the app level. What people know now is all tiles and icons, spoken commands, and gestures. Wipe, drag, tap, flick.

Identity management is probably the last facet of IT to be dragged out of the mainframe era. It's all thanks to mobility. We don’t "log on" anymore, we unlockour device. Occasionally we might be asked to confirm who we are before we do something risky, like look up a health record or make a larger payment. The engineer might call it “trust elevation” or some such but the user feels it’s like a reassuring double check.

We might even stop talking about “Two Factor Authentication” now the mobile is so ubiquitous. The phone is your second factor now, a constant part of your life, hardly ever out of sight, and instantly noticed if lost or stolen. And under the covers, mobile devices can make use of many other signals – history, location, activity, behaviour – to effect continuous or ambient authentication, and look out for misuse.

So the user experience of identity per se is melting away. We simply click on an app within an activated device and things happen. The authentication UX has been dictated for decades by technologists, but now, for the first time, the CTO and the CMO are on the same page when it comes to customer identity.

To explore these crucial trends, Ping Identity is hosting a webinar on June 2, Consumerization Killed the Identity Paradigm. To learn more about customer identity and how to implement it successfully in your enterprise, please join me and Ping Identity’s CTO Patrick Harding and CMO Brian Bell.

Posted in Internet, Identity, Constellation Research

Personal Information: What's it all 'about'?

For the past few years, a crucial case has been playing out in Australia's legal system over the treatment of metadata in privacy law. The next stanza is due to be written soon in the Federal Court.

It all began when a journalist with a keen interest in surveillance, Ben Grubb, wanted to understand the breadth and depth of metadata, and so requested that mobile network operator Telstra provide him a copy of his call records. Grubb thought to exercise his rights to access Personal Information under the Privacy Act. Telstra held back a lot of Grubb's call data, arguing that metadata is not Personal Information and is not subject to the access principle. Grubb appealed to the Australian Privacy Commissioner, who ruled that metadata is identifiable and hence represents Personal Information. Telstra took their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which found in favor of Telstra, with a surprising interpretation of "Personal Information". And the Commissioner then appealed to the next legal authority up the line.

At yesterday's launch of Privacy Awareness Week in Sydney, the Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim informed us that the full bench of the Federal Court is due to consider the case in August. This could be significant for data privacy law worldwide, for it all goes to the reach of these sorts of regulations.

I always thought the nuance in Personal Information was in the question of "identifiability" -- which could be contested case by case -- and those good old ambiguous legal modifiers like 'reasonably' or 'readily'. So it was a great surprise that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, in overruling the Privacy Commissioner in Ben Grubb v Telstra, was exercised instead by the meaning of the word "about".

Recall that the Privacy Act (as amended in 2012) defines Personal Information as:

    • "Information or an opinion about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable: (a) whether the information or opinion is true or not; and (b) whether the information or opinion is recorded in a material form or not."

The original question at the heart of Grubb vs Telstra was whether mobile phone call metadata falls under this definition. Commissioner Pilgrim showed that call metadata is identifiable to the caller (especially identifiable by the phone company itself that keeps extensive records linking metadata to customer records) and therefore counts as Personal Information.

When it reviewed the case, the tribunal agreed with Pilgrim that the metadata was identifiable, but in a surprise twist, found that the metadata is not actually about Ben Grubb but instead is about the services provided to him.

    • Once his call or message was transmitted from the first cell that received it from his mobile device, the [metadata] that was generated was directed to delivering the call or message to its intended recipient. That data is no longer about Mr Grubb or the fact that he made a call or sent a message or about the number or address to which he sent it. It is not about the content of the call or the message ... It is information about the service it provides to Mr Grubb but not about him. See AATA 991 (18 December 2015) paragraph 112.

To me it's passing strange that information about calls made by a person is not also regarded as being about that person. Can information not be about more than one thing, namely about a customer's services and the customer?

Think about what metadata can be used for, and how broadly-framed privacy laws are meant to stem abuse. If Ben Grubb was found, for example, to have repeatedly called the same Indian takeaway shop, would we not infer something about him and his taste for Indian food? Even if he called the takeaway shop just once, we might still conclude something about him, even if the sample size is small. We might deduce he doesn't like Indian (remember that in Australian law, Personal Information doesn't necessarily have to be correct).

By the AAT's logic, a doctor's appointment book would not represent any Personal Information about her patients but only information about the services she has delivered to them. But in fact the appointment list of an oncologist for instance would tell us a lot about peoples' cancer.

Given the many ways that metadata can invade our privacy (not to mention that people may be killed based on metadata) it's important that the definition of Personal Information be broad, and that it has a low threshold. Any amount of metadata tells us something about the person.

I appreciate that the 'spirit of the law' is not always what matters, but let's compare the definition of Personal Information in Australia with corresponding concepts elsewhere (see more detail beneath). In the USA, Personally Identifiable Information is any data that may "distinguish" an individual; in the UK, Personal Data is anything that "relates" to an individual; in Germany, it is anything "concerning" someone. Clearly the intent is consistent worldwide. If data can be linked to a person, then it comes under data privacy law.

Which is how it should be. Technology neutral privacy law is framed broadly in the interests of consumer protection. I hope the Federal Court in drilling into the definition of Personal Information upholds what the Privacy Act is for.

Personal Information definitions around the world.

Personal Information, Personal Data and Personally Identifiable Information are variously and more or less equivalently defined as follows (references are hyperlinked in the names of each country):

United Kingdom

    • data which relate to a living individual who can be identified

Germany

    • any information concerning the personal or material circumstances of an identified or identifiable individual

Canada

    • information about an identifiable individual

United States

    • information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity ...

Australia

    • information or an opinion ... about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable.

Posted in Privacy

Almost everything you read about the blockchain is wrong

Almost everything you read about the blockchain is wrong. No new technology since the Internet itself has excited so many pundits, but blockchain just doesn’t do what most people seem to think it does. We’re all used to hype, and we can forgive genuine enthusiasm for shiny new technologies, but many of the claims being made for blockchain are just beyond the pale. It's not going to stamp out corruption in Africa; it's not going to crowdsource policing of the financial system; it's not going to give firefighters unlimited communication channels. So just what is it about blockchain?

The blockchain only does one thing (and it doesn’t even do that very well). It provides a way to verify the order in which entries are made to a ledger, without any centralized authority. In so doing, blockchain solves what security experts thought was an unsolvable problem – preventing the double spend of electronic cash without a central monetary authority. It’s an extraordinary solution, and it comes at an extraordinary price. A large proportion of the entire world’s computing resource has been put to work contributing to the consensus algorithm that continuously watches the state of the ledger. And it has to be so, in order to ward off brute force criminal attack.

How did an extravagant and very technical solution to a very specific problem capture the imagination of so many? Perhaps it’s been so long since the early noughties’ tech wreck that we’ve lost our herd immunity to the viral idea that technology can beget trust. Perhaps, as Arthur C. Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. Perhaps because the crypto currency Bitcoin really does have characteristics that could disrupt banking (and all the world hates the banks) blockchain by extension is taken to be universally disruptive. Or perhaps blockchain has simply (but simplistically) legitimized the utopian dream of decentralized computing.

Blockchain is antiauthoritarian and ruthlessly “trust-free”. The blockchain algorithm is rooted in politics; it was expressly designed to work without needing to trust any entity or coalition. Anyone at all can join the blockchain community and be part of the revolution.

The point of the blockchain is to track every single Bitcoin movement, detecting and rejecting double spends. Yet the blockchain APIs also allow other auxiliary data to be written into Bitcoin transactions, and thus tracked. So the suggested applications for blockchain extend far beyond payments, to the management of almost any asset imaginable, from land titles and intellectual property, to precious stones and medical records.

From a design perspective, the most troubling aspect of most non-payments proposals for the blockchain is the failure to explain why it’s better than a regular database. Blockchain does offer enormous redundancy and tamper resistance, thanks to a copy of the ledger staying up-to-date on thousands of computers all around the world, but why is that so much better than a digitally signed database with a good backup?

Remember what blockchain was specifically designed to do: resolve the order of entries in the ledger, in a peer-to-peer mode, without an administrator. When it comes to all-round security, blockchain falls short. It’s neither necessary nor sufficient for any enterprise security application I’ve yet seen. For instance, there is no native encryption for confidentiality; neither is there any access control for reading transactions, or writing new ones. The security qualities of confidentiality, authentication and, above all, authorization, all need to be layered on top of the basic architecture. ‘So what’ you might think; aren’t all security systems layered? Well yes, but the important missing layers undo some of the core assumptions blockchain is founded on, and that’s bad for the security architecture. In particular, as mentioned, blockchain needs massive scale, but access control, “permissioned” chains, and the hybrid private chains and side chains (put forward to meld the freedom of blockchain to the structures of business) all compromise the system’s integrity and fraud resistance.

And then there’s the slippery notion of trust. By “trust”, cryptographers mean so-called “out of band” or manual mechanisms, over and above the pure math and software, that deliver a security promise. Blockchain needs none of that ... so long as you confine yourself to Bitcoin. Many carefree commentators like to say blockchain and Bitcoin are separable, yet the connection runs deeper than they know. Bitcoins are the only things that are actually “on” the blockchain. When people refer to putting land titles or diamonds “on the blockchain”, they’re using a short hand that belies blockchain’s limitations. To represent any physical thing in the ledger requires a schema – a formal agreement as to which symbols in the data structure correspond to what property in the real world – and a binding of the owner of that property to the special private key (known in the trade as a Bitcoin wallet) used to sign each ledger entry. Who does that binding? How exactly do diamond traders, land dealers, doctors and lawyers get their blockchain keys in the first place, and how does the world know who’s who? These questions bring us back to the sorts of hierarchical authorities that blockchain was supposed to get rid of.

There is no utopia in blockchain. The truth is that when we fold real world management, permissions, authorities and trust, back on top of the blockchain, we undo the decentralization at the heart of the design. If we can’t get away from administrators then the idealistic peer-to-peer consensus algorithm of blockchain is academic, and simply too much to bear.

I’ve been studying blockchain for two years now. My latest in-depth report was recently published by Constellation Research.

Posted in Security, Internet, Innovation, Identity, Blockchain