Lockstep

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Postcard from Monterey 2 #CISmcc

Second Day Reflections from CIS Monterey.

Follow along on Twitter at #CISmcc (for the Monterey Conference Centre).

The attributes push

At CIS 2013 in Napa a year ago, several of us sensed a critical shift in focus amongst the identerati - from identity to attributes. OIX launched the Attributes Exchange Network (AXN) architecture, important commentators like Andrew Nash were saying, 'hey, attributes are more interesting than identity', and my own #CISnapa talk went so far as to argue we should forget about identity altogether. There was a change in the air, but still, it was all pretty theoretical.

Twelve months on, and the Attributes push has become entirely practical. If there was a Word Cloud for the NSTIC session, my hunch is that "attributes" would dominate over "identity". Several live NSTIC pilots are all about the Attributes.

ID.me is a new company started by US military veterans, with the aim of improving access for the veterans community to discounted goods and services and other entitlements. Founders Matt Thompson and Blake Hall are not identerati -- they're entirely focused on improving online access for their constituents to a big and growing range of retailers and services, and offer a choice of credentials for proving veterans bona fides. It's central to the ID.me model that users reveal as little as possible about their personal identities, while having their veterans' status and entitlements established securely and privately.

Another NSTIC pilot Relying Party is the financial service sector infrastructure provider Broadridge. Adrian Chernoff, VP for Digital Strategy, gave a compelling account of the need to change business models to take maximum advantage of digital identity. Broadridge recently annoucned a JV with Pitney Bowes called Inlet, which will enable the secure sharing of discrete and validated attributes - like name, address and social security number - in an NSTIC compliant architecture.

Mind bending

Yesterday I said in my CISmcc diary that I hoped to change my mind at #CISmcc about something, and half way through Day 2, I was delighted it was already happening. I've got a new attitude about NSTIC.

Over the past six months, I had come to fear http://www.nist.gov/nstic/">NSTIC had lost its way. It's hard to judge totally accurately when lurking on the webcast from Sydney (at 4:00am) but the last plenary seemed pedestrian to me. And I'm afraid to say that some NSTIC committees have got a little testy. But today's NSTIC session here was a turning point. Not only are there a number or truly exciting pilots showing real progress, but Jeremy Grant has credible plans for improving accountability and momentum, and the new technology lead Paul Grassi is thinking outside the box and speaking out of school. The whole program seems fresh all over again.

In a packed presentation, Grassi impressed me enormously on a number of points:

  • Firstly, he advocates a pragmatic NSTIC-focused extension of the old US government Authentication Guide NIST SP 800-63. Rather than a formal revision, a companion document might be most realistic. Along the way, Grassi really nailed an issue which we identity professionals need to talk about more: language. He said that there are words in 800-63 that are "never used anywhere else in systems development". No wonder, as he says, it's still "hard to implement identity"!
  • Incidentally I chatted some more with Andrew Hughes about language; he is passionate about terms, and highlights that our term "Relying Party" is an especially terrible distraction for Service Providers whose reason-for-being has nothing to do with "relying" on anyone!
  • Secondly, Paul Grassi wants to "get very aggressive on attributes", including emphasis on practical measurement (since that's really what NIST is all about). I don't think I need to say anything more about that than Bravo!
  • And thirdly, Grassi asked "What if we got rid of LOAs?!". This kind of iconoclastic thinking is overdue, and was floated as part of a broad push to revamp the way government's orthodox thinking on Identity Assurance is translated to the business world. Grassi and Grant don't say LOAs can or should be abandoned by government, but they do see that shoving the rounded business concepts of identity into government's square hole has not done anyone much credit.

Just one small part of NSTIC annoyed me today: the persistent idea that federation hubs are inherently simpler than one-to-one authentication. They showed the following classic sort of 'before and after' shots, where it seems self-evident that a hub (here the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange FCCX) reduces complexity. The reality is that multilateral brokered arrangements between RPs and IdPs are far more complex than simple bilateral direct contracts. And moreover, the new forms of agreements are novel and untested in real world business. The time and cost and unpredictability of working out these new arrangements is not properly accounted for and has often been fatal to identity federations.

IMG 5412 BEFORE cropped
IMG 5413 AFTER cropped


The dog barks and this time the caravan turns around

One of the top talking points at #CISmcc has of course been FIDO. The FIDO Alliance goes from strength to strength; we heard they have over 130 members now (remember it started with four or five less than 18 months ago). On Saturday afternoon there was a packed-out FIDO show case with six vendors showing real FIDO-ready products. And today there was a three hour deep dive into the two flagship FIDO protocols UAF (which enables better sharing of strong authentication signals such that passwords may be eliminated) to and U2F (which standardises and strengthens Two Factor Authentication).

FIDO's marketing messages are improving all the time, thanks to a special focus on strategic marketing which was given its own working group. In particular, the Alliance is steadily clarifying the distinction between identity and authentication, and sticking adamantly to the latter. In other words, FIDO is really all about the attributes. FIDO leaves identity as a problem to be addressed further up the stack, and dedicates itself to strengthening the authentication signal sent from end-point devices to servers.

The protocol tutorials were excellent, going into detail about how "Attestation Certificates" are used to convey the qualities and attributes of authentication hardware (such as device model, biometric modality, security certifications, elapsed time since last user verification etc) thus enabling nice fine-grained policy enforcement on the RP side. To my mind, UAF and U2F show how nature intended PKI to have been used all along!

Some confusion remains as to why FIDO has two protocols. I heard some quiet calls for UAF and U2F to converge, yet that would seem to put the elegance of U2F at risk. And it's noteworthy that U2F is being taken beyond the original one time password 2FA, with at least one biometric vendor at the showcase claiming to use it instead of the heavier UAF.

Surprising use cases

Finally, today brought more fresh use cases from cohorts of users we socially privileged identity engineers for the most part rarely think about. Another NSTIC pilot partner is AARP, a membership organization providing "information, advocacy and service" to older people, retirees and other special needs groups. AARP's Jim Barnett gave a compelling presentation on the need to extend from the classic "free" business models of Internet services, to new economically sustainable approaches that properly protect personal information. Barnett stressed that "free" has been great and 'we wouldn't be where we are today without it' but it's just not going to work for health records for example. And identity is central to that.

There's so much more I could report if I had time. But I need to get some sleep before another packed day. All this changing my mind is exhausting.

Cheers again from Monterey.

Posted in Security, Privacy, PKI, Language, Identity, Federated Identity, e-health

Watson the Doctor is no laughing matter

For the past year, oncologists at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York have been training IBM’s Watson – the artificial intelligence tour-de-force that beat allcomers on Jeopardy – to help personalise cancer care. The Centre explains that "combining [their] expertise with the analytical speed of IBM Watson, the tool has the potential to transform how doctors provide individualized cancer treatment plans and to help improve patient outcomes". Others are speculating already that Watson could "soon be the best doctor in the world".

I have no doubt that when Watson and things like it are available online to doctors worldwide, we will see overall improvements in healthcare outcomes, especially in parts of the world now under-serviced by medical specialists [having said that, the value of diagnosing cancer in poor developing nations is questionable if they cannot go on to treat it]. As with Google's self-driving car, we will probably get significant gains eventually, averaged across the population, from replacing humans with machines. Yet some of the foibles of computing are not well known and I think they will lead to surprises.

For all the wondrous gains made in Artificial Intelligence, where Watson now is the state-of-the art, A.I. remains algorithmic, and for that, it has inherent limitations that don't get enough attention. Computer scientists and mathematicians have know for generations that some surprisingly straightforward problems have no algorithmic solution. That is, some tasks cannot be accomplished by any universal step-by-step codified procedure. Examples include the Halting Problem and the Travelling Salesperson Problem. If these simple challenges have no algorithm, we need be more sober in our expectations of computerised intelligence.

A key limitation of any programmed algorithm is that it must make its decisions using a fixed set of inputs that are known and fully characterised (by the programmer) at design time. If you spring an unexpected input on any computer, it can fail, and yet that's what life is all about -- surprises. No mathematician seriously claims that what humans do is somehow magic; most believe we are computers made of meat. Nevertheless, when paradoxes like the Halting Problem abound, we can be sure that computing and cognition are not what they seem. We should hope these conundrums are better understood before putting too much faith in computers doing deep human work.

And yet, predictably, futurists are jumping ahead to imagine "Watson apps" in which patients access the supercomputer for themselves. Even if there were reliable algorithms for doctoring, I reckon the "Watson app" is a giant step, because of the complex way the patient's conditions are assessed and data is gathered for the diagnosis. That is, the taking of the medical history.

In these days of billion dollar investments in electronic health records (EHRs), we tend to think that medical decisions are all about the data. When politicians announce EHR programs they often boast that patients won't have to go through the rigmarole of giving their history over and over again to multiple doctors as they move through an episode of care. This is actually a serious misunderstanding of the importance in clinical decision-making of the interaction between medico and patient when the history is taken. It's subtle. The things a patient chooses to tell, the things they seem to be hiding, and the questions that make them anxious, all guide an experienced medico when taking a history, and provide extra cues (metadata if you will) about the patient’s condition.

Now, Watson may well have the ability to navigate this complexity and conduct a very sophisticated Q&A. It will certainly have a vastly bigger and more reliable memory of cases than any doctor, and with that it can steer a dynamic patient questionnaire. But will Watson be good enough to be made available direct to patients through an app, with no expert human mediation? Or will a host of new input errors result from patients typing their answers into a smart phone or speaking into a microphone, without any face-to-face subtlety (let alone human warmth)? It was true of mainframes and it’s just as true of the best A.I.: Bulldust in, bulldust out.

Finally, Watson's existing linguistic limitations are not to be underestimated. It is surely not trivial that Watson struggles with puns and humour. Futurist Mark Pesce when discussing Watson remarked in passing that scientists don’t understand the "quirks of language and intelligence" that create humour. The question of what makes us laugh does in fact occupy some of the finest minds in cognitive and social science. So we are a long way from being able to mechanise humour. And this matters because for the foreseeable future, it puts a great deal of social intercourse beyond AI's reach.

In between the extremes of laugh-out-loud comedy and a doctor’s dry written notes lies a spectrum of expressive subtleties, like a blush, an uncomfortable laugh, shame, and the humiliation that goes with some patients’ lived experience of illness. Watson may understand the English language, but does it understand people?

Watson can answer questions, but good doctors ask a lot of questions too. When will this amazing computer be able to hold the sort of two-way conversation that we would call a decent "bedside manner"?

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Posted in Software engineering, Science, Language, e-health, Culture, Big Data

Metaphormosis

We can over-stretch our metaphors.

Is a passport an "identifier"?
Is a drivers licence an identifier?
Is a credit card an identifier?
Is a professional membership card an identifier?
Is an employee badge an identifier?
Is a building access card an identifier?
Is a house key an identifier?
Is a car key an identifier?

Or putting the questions another way ...

Is a car key a "key"?
Is a house key a key?
Is a building access card a key?
Is an employee badge a key?
Is a professional membership card a key [to access an association]?
Is a credit card a key [to a payments system]?
Is a drivers licence a key [to access the privileges of road usage]?
Is a passport a key [to enter another country]?

From When does a key become an identifier?, 28 April 2005.

Posted in Security, Language, Identity

An algebra of identity

In my recent post "Identity is in the eye of the beholder" I tried to unpack the language of "identity provision". I argued that IdPs do not and cannot "provide identity" because identification is carried out by Relying Parties.

It may seem like a sterile view in these days of user-centric 'self narrated' and 'bring-you-own identities' but I think the truth is that identity (for the purposes of approving transactions) is actually determined by Relying Parties. The state of being "identified" may be assisted (to a very great extent) by information provided by others including so-called "Identity" Providers but ultimately it is the RP that identifies me.

I note that the long standing dramaturgical analysis of social identity of Erving Goffman actually says the same thing, albeit in a softer way. That school of thought holds that identity is an emergent property, formed by the way we think others see us. In a social setting there are in effect many Relying Parties, all impressing upon us their sense of who we are. We reach an equilibrium over time, after negotiating all the different interrelating roles in the play of life. And the equilibrium can be starkly disrupted in what I've called the "High School Reunion Effect". So we do not actually curate our own identities with complete self-determination, but rather we allow our identities to be moulded dynamically to fit the expectations of those around us.

Now, in the digital realm, things are so much simpler, you might even say more elegant in an engineering fashion. I'd like to think that the dramaturgical frame sets a precedent for thinking in terms of having identities impressed upon us. We should not take umbrage at this, and we should temper what we mean by "user centric" identities: it need not mean freely expressing all of our identities for ourselves, but allowing for the fact that identity is shaped by what others need to know about us. In a great deal of business, identities are completely defined (imposed) by what the RP needs to know.

For more precision, maybe it would be useful to get into the habit of specifying the context whenever we talk of a Digital Identity. So here's a bit of mathematical nomenclature, but don't worry, it's not strenuous!

Let's designate the identification performed by a Relying Party RP on a Subject S as IRP-S.

If the RP has drawn on information provided by one "Identity Provider" (running with the dominant language for now), then we can write the identification as a function of the IdP:

Identification = IRP-S(IdP)

But it is still true that the end-point of identification is reached by the RP and not the IdP.

We can generalise from this to imagine Relying Parties drawing on more than one IdP in reaching the point where the subject is identified, to the satisfaction of the RP:

Identification = IRP-S(IdP1, IdP2)

And then we could take things one step further, to recognise that the distinction between "identity providers" and "attribute providers" is arbitrary. Fundamentally identities and attributes are just pieces of information that factor into an RP's decision to accept or reject a Subject. So the most general formulation would show identification being a function of a number of attributes verified by the RP either for itself or on its behalf by external attribute providers:

Identification = IRP-S(A1, A2,..., A2)

(where the source of the attribute information could be indicated in various ways).

The work we're trying to start in Australia on a Claims Verification ecosystem reflects this kind of thinking -- it may be more powerful and more practicable to have RPs assemble their knowledge of Subjects from a variety of sources.

Posted in Language, Identity, Federated Identity

Identity is in the eye of the beholder

That is to say, identity is in the eye of the Relying Party.

The word "identity" seems increasingly problematic to me. It's full of contradictions. On the one hand, it's a popular view that online identity should be "user centric"; many commentators call for users to be given greater determination in how they are identified. People like the idea of "narrating" their own identities, and "bringing their own identity" to work. Yet it's not obvious how governments, banks, healthcare providers or employers for instance can grant people much meaningful say in how they are identified, for it is the Relying Party that bears most risk in the event identification goes wrong. These sorts of organisations impress their particular forms of identity upon us in order to formalise the relationship they have with us and manage our access to services.

The language of orthodox Federated Identity institutionalises the idea that identity is a good that is "provided" to us through a supply formal chain elaborated in architectures like the Open Identity Exchange (OIX). It might make sense in some low risk settings for individuals to exercise a choice of IdPs, for example choosing between Facebook or Twitter to log on to a social website, but users still don't have much influence on how the IdPs operate, nor on the decision made by Relying Parties about which IdPs they elect to recognise. Think about the choice we have of credit cards: you might for instance prefer to use Diners Club over MasterCard, but if you're shopping at a place that doesn't accept Diners, your "choice" is constrained. You cannot negotiate in real time to have the store accept your chosen instrument (instead your choice is to get yourself a MasterCard, or go to a different store).

I think the concept of "identity" is so fluid that we should probably stop using it. Or at least use it with much more precision.

I'd like you to consider that "Identity Providers" do not in fact provide identity. They really can't provide identity at all, but only attributes that are put together by Relying Parties in order to decide if a user or customer is legitimate. The act of identification is a core part of risk management. Identification means getting to know a Subject so as to make certain risks more manageable. And it's always done by a Relying Party.

An issued Digital Identity is the outcome of an identification process in which claims about a Subject are verified, to the satisfaction of the Relying Party. An "identity" is basically a handle by which the Subject is known. Recall that the Laws of Identity usefully defined a Digital Identity as a set of claims about the Digital Subject. And we all know that identity is highly context dependent; on its own, an identity like "Acct No. 12345678" means little or nothing without knowing the context as well.

This line of reasoning reminds me once again of the technology neutral, functional definition of "authentication" used by the APEC eSecurity Task Group over a decade ago: the means by which a receiver of an electronic transaction or message makes a decision to accept or reject that transaction or message. Wouldn't life be so much simpler if we stopped overloading some bits of authentication knowledge with the label "identity" and going to such lengths to differentiate other bits of knowledge as "attributes"? What we need online is better means for reliably conveying precise pieces of information about each other, relevant to the transaction at hand. That's all.

Carefully unpacking the language of identity management, we see that no Identity Provider ever actually "identifies" people. In realty, identification is always done by Relying Parties by pulling together what they need to know about a Subject for their own purposes. One IdP might say "This is Steve Wilson", another "This is Stephen Kevin Wilson", another "This is @Steve_Lockstep", another "This is Stephen Wilson, CEO of Lockstep" and yet another "This is Stephen Wilson at 100 Park Ave Jonestown Visa 4000 1234 5678 9012". My "identity" is different at every RP, each to their need.

See also An Algebra of Identity.

Remember the practical experience of IdPs. Despite a decade of hard work, there are still no Relying Parties accepting general purpose identities at LOA 3 or LOA 4. For high risk transactions, RPs like banks and government agencies still prefer to issue their own identities. Seamless operation of IdPs -- where an RP can accept an identity from an external IdP without checking any other authentication signals -- only works at LOA 0, where Identity Providers like Twitter and Facebook don't know who you really are, and the Relying Party doesn't care who you are. And at intermediate levels of risk, we sometimes see the crazy situation where RPs seek to negotiate LOA "one and a half" because they're not satisfied by the assurances provided by IdPs at vanilla LOA 1 and LOA 2. Customising identities makes a mockery of federation and creates new contractual silos.

So much of this complexity would melt away if we dropped down a level, federated concrete attributes instead of abstract "identities", re-cast IdPs as Attribute Providers, stopped trying to pigeonhole risk and identity, and left all RPs free to identify their users in their own unique contexts.

Posted in Language, Identity, Federated Identity

Speaking plainly about Identity

I was recently editing my long "ecological identity" paper from last year and I was reminded how we tend to complicate identity when we speak about it. Here's a passage from that paper, which argues that the language we use is important. I contend we don't need to introduce new technical definitions around identity. Furthermore, I think if we returned to plain language, we might actually see federated identity differently.

Why for instance do orthodox identity engineers insist that authentication and authorization are fundamentally different things? The idea that roles are secondary to identity dates back to 1960's era Logical Access Control. It's an arbitrary distinction not usually seen in the the real world. Authorization is what really matters in most business, not identity. For instance, no pharmacist identifies a doctor before relying on a prescription; the prescription itself, written on an official watermarked form confers the necessary authority. Context is vital; in fact it's often the case that "the medium is the authentication" (with apologies to Marshall McLuhan).

What follows is extracted from Identities Evolve: Why federated identity is easier said than done, AusCERT Security Conference, 2011.

The word "identity" means different things to different people. I believe it is futile quoting dictionary definitions in an attempt to disambiguate something like identity (in fact, when a perfectly ordinary word attracts technical definition, it's a sure sign that misunderstanding is around the corner). Instead of forcing precision on the term, we should actually respect its ambiguity! Consider that in life we are completely at ease with the complexity and nuance of identity. We understand the different flavours of personal identity, national identity and corporate identity. We talk intuitively about identifying with friends, family, communities, companies, sports teams, suburbs, cities, countries, flags, causes, fashions and styles. In multiculturalism, whether or not we agree on the politics of this challenging topic, we understand what is meant by the mingling or the co-existence or the adoption of cultural identities. The idea of "multiple personality syndrome" makes perfect sense to lay people (regardless of its clinical controversies). Identity is not absolute, but instead dilates in time and space. Most of us know how it feels at a high school re-union to no longer identify with the young person we once were, and to have to edit ourselves in real time to better fit how we and others remember us. And it seems clear that we switch identities unconsciously, when for example we change from work garb to casual clothes, or when we wear our team's colours to a football match.

Yet when it comes to digital identity -- that is, knowing and showing who we are online -- we have made an embarrassing mess of it. Information technologists have taken it upon themselves to redefine the meaning of the word, while philosophically they don't even agree if we should possess one identity or more.

We don't need to make identity any more complicated than this: Identity is how someone is known. In life, people move in different circles and they often adopt different guises or identities in each of them. We have circles of colleagues, customers, fellow users, members, professionals, friends and so on -- and we often have distinct identities in each of them. The old saw "don't mix business and pleasure" plainly shows we instinctively keep some of our circles apart. The more formal circles -- which happen to be the ones of greatest interest in e-business -- have procedures that govern how people join them. To be known in a circle of a bank's customers or a company's employees or a profession means that you've met some prescribed criteria, thus establishing a relationship with the circle.

[To build on my idea of impressed vs expressed identities, let's acknowledge that the way you know yourself one thing, but the way others know you is something quite different.]

Kim Cameron's seminal Laws of Identity define a Digital Identity as "a set of claims made by one digital subject about itself or another digital subject". This is a relativistic definition; it stresses that context helps to grant meaning to any given identity. Cameron also recognised that this angle "does not jive with some widely held beliefs", especially the common presumption that all identities must be unique in any one setting. He stressed instead that uniqueness in a context might have featured in many early systems but it was not necessarily so in all contexts.

So a Digital Identity is essentially a proxy for how one is known in a given circle; it represents someone in that context. Digital Identity is a powerful abstraction that hides a host of formalities, like the identification protocol, and the terms & conditions for operating in a particular circle, fine-tuned to the business environment. All modern identity thinking stresses that identity is context dependent; what this means in practical terms is that an identifier is usually meaningless outside its circle. For example, if we know that someone's "account number" is 56236741, it's probably meaningless without giving the bank/branch number as well (and that's assuming the number is a bank account and not something from a different context altogether).

I contend that plain everyday language illuminates some of the problems that have hampered progress in federated identity. One of these is "interoperability", a term that has self-evidently good connotations but which passes without a lot of examination. What can it mean for identities to "interoperate" across contexts? People obviously belong to many circles at once, but the simple fact of membership of any one circle (say the set of chartered accountants in Australia) doesn't necessarily say anything about membership of another. That is to say, relationships don't "interoperate", and neither in general do identities.

Posted in Language, Identity, Federated Identity

For all the talk of ecosystems ...

Yet another breathless report crossed my desk via Twitter this morning where the rise of mobile payments is predicted to lead to cards and cash "disappearing", in this case by 2020. Notably, this hyperventilation comes not from a tech vendor but instead from a "research" company.

So I started to wonder why the success of mobile payments (or any other disruptive technology) is so often framed in terms of winner-take-all. Surely we can imagine new payments modalities being super successful without having to see plastic cards and cash disappear? It might just be that press releases and Twitter tend towards polar language. More likely, and not unrelatedly, it's because a lot of people really think this way.

It's especially ironic given how the term "ecosystem" tops most Buzzword Bingo cards these days. If commentators were to actually think ecologically for a minute they'd realise that the extinction of a Family or Order at the hands of another is very rare indeed.

Posted in Payments, Language, Culture

Ski runs and LOAs

In Identity Management, Levels of Assurance are an attempt to standardise the riskiness of online transactions and the commensurate authentication strength needed to secure them. Quaternary LOAs (levels 1/2/3/4) have been instituted by governments in the USA, Australia and elsewhere, and they're a cornerstone of federated identity programs like NSTIC.

All LOA formulations are based on risk management methodologies like the international standard ISO 31000. The common approach is for organisations to assess both the impact and expected likelihood of all important adverse events (threats) using metrics customised to the local business conditions and objectives. The severity of security threats can be calculated in all sorts of ways. Some organisations can put a dollar price on the impact of a threat; others look at qualititative or political effects. And the capacity to cover the downside means that the same sort of incident might be thought "minor" at a big pharmaceutical company but "catastrophic" at a small Clinical Research Organisation.

I've blogged before that one problem with LOAs is that risk ratings aren't transferrable. Risk management standards like ISO 31000 are forumulated for internal customised use, so their results are not inherently meaningful between organisations.

Just look at another type of risk rating: the colours of ski runs.

All ski resorts around the world badge the degree of difficulty of their runs the same way: Green, Blue, Black and sometimes Double Black. But do these labels mean anything between resorts? Is a Blue run at Aspen the same as a Blue at Thredbo? No. These colours are not like currency, so skiers are free to boast "that Black isn't nearly as tough as the Black I did last week".

LOAs are just like this. They're local. They're based on risk metrics (and risk appetites) that are not uniform across organisations. They cannot interoperate.

As far as I am aware, there are as yet no examples of LOA 3 or 4 credentials issued by one IdP being relied on by external Service Providers. When there's a lot at stake, organisations prefer to use their own identities and risk management processes. And it's the same with skiing. A risk averse skier at the top of a Black run needs more than the pat assurance of others; they will make up their own mind about the risk of going down the hill.

Posted in Language, Federated Identity

A penny for your marketable thoughts?

Most people think that Apple's Siri is the coolest thing they've ever seen on a smart phone. It certainly is a milestone in practical human-machine interfaces, and will be widely copied. The combination of deep search plus natural language processing (NLP) plus voice recognition is dynamite.

If you haven't had the pleasure ... Siri is a wondrous function built into the Apple iPhone. It’s the state-of-the-art in Artificial Intelligence and NLP. You speak directly to Siri, ask her questions (yes, she's female) and tell her what to do with many of your other apps. Siri integrates with mail, text messaging, maps, search, weather, calendar and so on. Ask her "Will I need an umbrella in the morning?" and she'll look up the weather for you – after checking your calendar to see what city you’ll be in tomorrow. It's amazing.

Natural Language Processing is a fabulous idea of course. It radically improves the usability of smart phones, and even their safety with much improved hands-free operation.

An important technical detail is that NLP is very demanding on computing power. In fact it's beyond the capability of today's smart phones, even if each of them alone is more powerful than all of NASA's computers in 1969!. So all Siri's hard work is actually done on Apple's mainframe computers scattered around the planet. That is, all your interactions with Siri are sent into the cloud.

Imagine Siri was a human personal assistant. Imagine she's looking after your diary, placing calls for you, booking meetings, planning your travel, taking dictation, sending emails and text messages for you, reminding you of your appointments, even your significant other’s birthday. She's getting to know you all the while, learning your habits, your preferences, your personal and work-a-day networks.

And she's free!

Now, wouldn't the offer of a free human PA strike you as too good to be true?

Indeed it would. So understand this about Siri: she's continuously reporting back to base. If Apple were a secretarial placement agency, what they get in return for the free services is a transcript of what you've said, the people you've been in touch with, where you've been, and what you plan to do. Apple won't say what they plan to do with all this data, how long they'll keep it, nor who they'll share it with. Apple's Privacy Policy (dated October 2011, accessed 12 March 2012) doesn't even mention Siri nor the collection of the voice-to-text data.

When you dictate your mails and text messages to Siri, you’re providing Apple with content that's usually off limits to carriers, phone companies and ISPs. Siri is an end run around telecommunicationss intercept laws.

Of course there are many, many examples of where free social media apps mask a commercial bargain. Face recognition is the classic case. It was first made available on photo sharing sites as a neat way to organise one’s albums, but then Facebook went further by inviting photo tags from users and then automatically identifying people in other photos on others' pages. What's happening behind the scenes is that Facebook is running its face recognition templates over the billions of photos in their databases (which were originally uploaded for personal use long before face recognition was deployed). Given their business model and their track record, we can be certain that Facebook is using face recognition to identify everyone they possibly can, and thence work out fresh associations between countless people and situations accidentally caught on camera. Combine this with image processing and visual search technology (like Google "Goggles") and the big social media companies have an incredible new eye in the sky. They can work out what we're doing, when, where and with whom. Nobody will need to like expressly "like" anything anymore when OSNs can literally see what cars we're driving, what brands we're wearing, where we spend our vacations, what we're eating, what makes us laugh, who makes us laugh. Apple, Facebook and others have understandably invested hundreds of millions of dollars in image recognition start-ups and intellectual property; with these tools they convert the hitherto anonymous images into content-addressable PII gold mines. It's the next frontier of Big Data.

Now, there wouldn't be much wrong with these sorts of arrangements if the social media corporations were up-front about them, and exercised some restraint. In their Privacy Policies they should detail what Personal Information they are extracting and collecting from all the voice and image data; they should explain why they collect this information, what they plan to do with it, how long they will retain it, and how they promise to limit secondary usage. They should explain that biometrics technology allows them to generate brand new PII out of members' snapshots and utterances. And they should acknowledge that by rendering data identifiable, they become accountable in many places under privacy and data protection laws for its safekeeping as PII. It's just not good enough to vaguely reserve their rights to "use personal information to help us develop, deliver, and improve our products, services, content, and advertising". They should treat their customers -- and all those innocents about whom they collect PII indirectly -- with proper respect, and stop blandly pretending that 'service improvement' is what they're up to.

Siri along with face recognition herald a radical new type of privatised surveillance, and on a breathtaking scale. While Facebook stealthily "x-ray" photo albums without consent, Apple now has even more intimate access to our daily routines and personal habits. And they don’t even pay as much as a penny for our thoughts.

As cool as Siri may be, I myself will decline to use any natural language processing while the software runs in the cloud, and while the service providers refuse to restrain their use of my voice data. I'll wait for NLP to be done on my device with my data kept private.

And I'd happily pay cold hard cash for that kind of app, instead of having an infomopoly embed itself in my personal affairs.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Language, Biometrics, Big Data

Farmers know about silos

Imagine this. Two grain growers are neighbours. One farms wheat and the other corn. Both have invested a lot of money in their silos and grain handling equipment, all of which continues to be a significant cost in their operations. The corn farmer is an innovator and comes up with a bright idea. She approaches her neighbour and gives him the following proposition: since their infrastructure is such an overhead, why not, in the name of efficiency, join up and share their silos?

What farmer wouldn't reject this idea out of hand? If a grain grower needs more capacity, in theory they could re-engineer the entire storage and handling system to use someone else's silo, strike up new support arrangements with their equipment providers, and seek insurance to cover new risks of mixing up their grains. But it would be simpler, cheaper and quicker to just build themselves another silo!

"Break down the silos" is one of the catch cries of modern management practice, and it's a special rallying call in the Federated Identity movement. Nobody denies that myriad passwords and security devices have become a huge headache, but attempts to solve what is really a technology and human factors challenge, by sharing identities and identity provisioning all too often come unstuck.

It's not for nothing that we call identity domains "silos". Grain silos are architecturally elegant, strong and safe; they are critical infrastructure for farmers.

Of all the metaphors in identity management, "silo" is actually one of the good ones. And you have to wonder when and why it became a dirty word in our industry. Identity silos are actually carefully constructed risk management arrangements and in IDAM, risk is the name of the game. As such, silos are not to be trifled with!

Posted in Security, Language, Federated Identity