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On "Trust Frameworks"

The Australian government's new Digital Transformation Office (DTO) is a welcome initiative, and builds on a generally strong e-government program of many years standing.

But I'm a little anxious about one plank of the DTO mission: the development of a "Trusted Digital Identity Framework".

We've had several attempts at this sort of thing over many years, and we really need a fresh approach next time around.

I hope we don't re-hash the same old hopes for "trust" and "identity" as we have for over 15 years. The real issues can be expressed more precisely. How do we get reliable signals about the people and entities we're trying to deal with online? How do we equip individuals to be able to show relevant signals about themselves, sufficient to get something done online? What are the roles of governments and markets in all this?

Frankly, I loathe the term "Trust Framework"! Trust is hugely distracting if not irrelevant. And we already have frameworks in spades.

Posted in Internet, Language, Trust

Simply Secure is not simply private

Another week, another security collaboration launch!

"Simply Secure" calls itself “a small but growing organization [with] expertise in usability research, design, software development, and product management". Their mission has to do with improving the security functions that built-in so badly in most software today. Simply Secure is backed by Google and Dropbox, and supported by a diverse advisory board.

It's early days (actually early day, singular) so it might be churlish to point out that Simply Secure's strategic messaging is a little uneven ... except that the words being used to describe it shed light on the clarity of the thinking.

My first exposure to Simply Secure came last night, when I read an article in the Guardian by Cory Doctorow (who is one of their advisers). Doctorow places enormous emphasis on privacy; the word “privacy" outnumbers “security" 16 to three in the body of his column. Another admittedly shorter report about the launch by The Next Web doesn't mention privacy at all. And then there's the Simply Secure blog post, which cites privacy a great deal but every single time in conjunction with security, as in “security and privacy". That repeated phrasing conveys, to me at least, some discomfort. As I say, it's early days and the team is doubtless sorting out how to weigh and progress these closely related objectives.

But I hope they do it quickly. On the face of it, Simply Secure might only scratch the surface of privacy.

Doctorow's Guardian article is mostly concerned with encryption and the terrible implementations that have plagued us since the dawn of the Internet. It's definitely important that we improve here – and radically. If the Simply Secure initiative does nothing but make encryption easier to integrate into commodity software, that would be a great thing. I'm all for it. But it won't necessarily or even probably lead to better privacy, because privacy is about restraint not secrecy or anonymity.
As we go about our lives, we actually want to be known by others, but we want those who know us to be restrained in what they do with the knowledge they have about us. Privacy is the protection you need when your affairs are not secret.

I know Doctorow knows this – I've seen his terrific little speech on the steps on Comic-Con about PRISM. So I'm confused by his focus on cryptography.

How far does encryption get us? If we're using social networks, or if we're shopping and opting in to loyalty programs or selected targeted marketing, or if we're sharing our medical records with relatives, medicos, hospitals and researchers, then encryption becomes moot. We need mechanisms to restrain what the receivers of our personal information do with it. We all know the business model at work behind “free" online services; using encryption to protect privacy in social networking for instance would be like using an armoured van to deliver your valuables to Bernie Madoff.

Another limitation of user-centric or user-managed encryption has to do with Big Data. A great deal of personal information about us is created and collected unseen behind our backs, by sensors, and by analytics processes than manage to work out who we are by linking disparate data streams together. How could SS ameliorate those sorts of problems? If the SS vision includes encryption at rest as well as in transit, then how will the user control or even see all the secondary uses of their encrypted personal information?

There's a combativeness in Doctorow's explanation of Simply Secure and his tweets from yesterday on the topic. His aim is expressly to thwart the surveillance state, which in his view includes a symbiosis (if not conspiracy) between government and internet companies, where the former gets their dirty work done by the latter. I'm sure he and I both find that abhorrent in equal measure. But I argue the proper response to these egregious behaviours is political not technological (and political in the broad sense; I love that Snowden talks as much about accountability, legal processes, transparency and research as he does about encryption). If you think the government is exploiting the exploiters, then DIY encryption is a pretty narrow counter-measure. This is not the sort of society we want to live in, so let's work to change the establishment, rather than try to take it on in a crypto shoot-out.

Yes security technology is important but it's not nearly as important for privacy as the Rule of Law. Data privacy regimes instil restraint. The majority of businesses come to know that they are not at liberty to over-collect personal information, nor to re-use personal information unexpectedly and without consent. A minority of organisations flout data privacy principles, for example by slyly refining raw data into valuable personal knowledge, exploiting the trust citizens and users put in them. Some of these outfits flourish in the United States – the Canary Islands of privacy. Worldwide, the policing of privacy is patchy indeed, yet there have been spectacular legal victories in Europe and elsewhere against the excessive practices of really big companies like Facebook with their biometric data mining of photo albums, and Google's drift net-like harvesting of traffic from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.

Pragmatically, I'm afraid encryption is such a fragile privacy measure. Once secrecy is penetrated, we need regulations to stem exploitation of our personal information.

By all means, let's improve cryptographic engineering and I wish the Simply Secure initiative all the best. So long as they don't call security privacy.

Posted in Security, Privacy, Language, Big Data

Postcard from Monterey 3 #CISmcc

Days 3 and 4 at CIS Monterey.

Andre Durand's Keynote

The main sessions at the Cloud Identity Summit (namely days three and four overall) kicked off with keynotes from Ping Identity chief Andre Durand, New Zealand technology commentator Ben Kepes, and Ping Technical Director Mark Diodati. I'd like to concentrate on Andre's speech for it was truly fresh.

Andre has an infectious enthusiasm for identity, and is a magnificent host to boot. As I recall, his CIS keynote last year in Napa was pretty simply a dedication to the industry he loves. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But this year he went a whole lot further, with a rich deep dive into some things we take for granted: identity tokens and the multitude of security domains that bound our daily lives.

It's famously been said that "identity is the new perimeter" and Andre says that view informs all they do at Ping. It's easy I think to read that slogan to mean security priorities (and careers) are moving from firewalls to IDAM, but the meaning runs deeper. Identity is meaningless without context, and each context has an edge that defines it. Identity is largely about boundaries, and closure.

  • MyPOV and as an aside: The move to "open" identities which has powered IDAM for a over a decade is subject to natural limits that arise precisely because identities are perimeters. All identities are closed in some way. My identity as an employee means nothing beyond the business activities of my employer; my identity as an American Express Cardholder has no currency at stores that don't accept Amex; my identity as a Qantas OneWorld frequent flyer gets me nowhere at United Airlines (nor very far at American, much to my surprise). We discovered years ago that PKI works well in closed communities like government, pharmaceutical supply chains and the GSM network, but that general purpose identity certificates are hopeless. So we would do well to appreciate that "open" cross-domain identity management is actually a special case and that closed IDAM systems are the general case.

Andre reviewed the amazing zoo of hardware tokens we use from day to day. He gave scores of examples, including driver licenses of course but license plates too; house key, car key, garage opener, office key; the insignias of soldiers and law enforcement officers; airline tickets, luggage tags and boarding passes; the stamps on the arms of nightclub patrons and the increasingly sophisticated bracelets of theme park customers; and tattoos. Especially vivid was Andre's account of how his little girl on arriving at CIS during the set-up was not much concerned with all the potential playthings but was utterly rapt to get her ID badge, for it made her "official".

IMG 5493 Ping Durand CISmcc Tokens make us official

Tokens indeed have always had talismanic powers.

Then we were given a fly-on-the-wall slide show of how Andre typically starts his day. By 7:30am he has accessed half a dozen token-controlled physical security zones, from his home and garage, through the road system, the car park, the office building, the elevator, the company offices and his own corner office. And he hasn't even logged into cyberspace yet! He left unsaid whether or not all these domains might be "federated".

  • MyPOV: Isn't it curious that we never seem to beg for 'Single Sign On' of our physical keys and spaces? I suspect we know instinctively that one-key-fits-all would be ridiculously expensive to retrofit and would require fantastical cooperation between physical property controllers. We only try to federate virtual domains because the most common "keys" - passwords - suck, and because we tend to underestimate the the cost of cooperation amongst digital RPs.
IMG 5493 Ping Durand CISmcc Tokens properties

Tokens are, as Andre reminded us, on hand when you need them, easy to use, easy to revoke, and hard to steal (at least without being noticed). And they're non-promiscuous in respect of the personal information they disclose about their bearers. It's a wondrous set of properties, which we should perhaps be more conscious of in our work. And tokens can be used off-line.

  • MyPOV: The point about tokens working offline is paramount. It's a largely forgotten value. Andre's compelling take on tokens makes for a welcome contrast to the rarely questioned predominance of the cloud. Managing and resolving identity in the cloud complicates architectures, concentrates more of our personal data, and puts privacy at risk (for it's harder to unweave all the traditionally independent tracks of our lives).

In closing, Andre asked a rhetorical question which was probably forming in most attendees' minds: What is the ultimate token? His answer had a nice twist. I thought he'd say it's the mobile device. With so much value now remote, multi-factor cloud access control is crucial; the smart phone is the cloud control du jour and could easily become the paragon of tokens. But no, Andre considers that a group of IDAM standards could be the future "universal token" insofar as they beget interoperability and portability.

He said of the whole IDAM industry "together we are networking identity". That's a lovely sentiment and I would never wish to spoil Andre Durand's distinctive inclusion, but on that point technically he's wrong, for really we are networking attributes! More on that below and in my previous #CISmcc diary notes.

The identity family tree

My own CISmcc talk came at the end of Day 4. I think it was well received; the tweet stream was certainly keen and picked up the points I most wanted to make. Attendance was great, for which I should probably thank Andre Durand, because he staged the Closing Beach Party straight afterwards.

I'll post an annotated copy of my slides shortly. In brief I presented my research on the evolution of digital identity. There are plenty of examples of how identity technologies and identification processes have improved over time, with steadily stronger processes, regulations and authenticators. It's fascinating too how industries adopt authentication features from one another. Internet banking for example took the one-time password fob from late 90's technology companies, and the Australian PKI de facto proof-of-identity rules were inspired by the standard "100 point check" mandated for account origination.

Steve Wilson CIS2014 Authentication Family Tree  Bank identity evolves blog CISmcc

Clearly identity techniques shift continuously. What I want to do is systematise these shifts under a single unifying "phylogeny"; that is, a rigorously worked-out family tree. I once used the metaphor of a family tree in a training course to help people organise their thinking about authentication, but the inter-relationships between techniques was guesswork on my part. Now I'm curious if there is a real family tree that can explain the profusion of identities we have been working so long on simplifying, often to little avail.

Steve Wilson CIS2014 Authentication Family Tree (1 0) CISmcc CIS Cloud Identity

True Darwinian evolution requires there to be replicators that correspond to the heritable traits. Evolution results when the proportions of those replicators in the "gene pool" drift over generations as survival pressures in the environment filter beneficial traits. The definition of Digital Identity as a set of claims or attributes provides a starting point for a Darwinian treatment. I observe that identity attributes are like "Memes" - the inherited units of culture first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins. In my research I am trying to define sets of available "characters" corresponding to technological, business and regulatory features of our diverse identities, and I'm experimenting with phylogenetic modelling programs to see what patterns emerge in sets of character traits shared by those identities.

Steve Wilson CIS2014 Authentication Family Tree  Memome Characters blog CISmcc

So what? A rigorous scientific model for identity evolution would have many benefits. First and foremost it would have explanatory power. I do not believe that as an industry we have a satisfactory explanation for the failure of such apparently good ideas as Information Cards. Nor for promising federation projects like the Australian banking sector's "Trust Centre" and "MAMBO" lifetime portable account number. I reckon we have been "over federating" identity; my hunch is that identities have evolved to fit particular niches in the business ecosystem to such an extent that taking a student ID for instance and using it to log on to a bank is like dropping a saltwater fish into a freshwater tank. A stronger understanding of how attributes are organically interrelated would help us better plan federated identity, and to even do "memetic engineering" of the attributes we really want to re-use between applications and contexts.

If a phylogenetic tree can be revealed, it would confirm the 'secret lives' of attributes and thereby lend more legitimacy to the Attributes Push (which coincidentally some of us first spotted at a previous CIS, in 2013). It would also provide evidence that identification risks in local environments are why identities have come to be the way they are. In turn, we could pay more respect to authentication's idiosyncrasies, instead of trying to pigeonhole them into four rigid Levels of Assurance. At Sunday's NSTIC session, CTO Paul Grassi floated the idea of getting rid of LOAs. That would be a bold move of course; it could be helped along by a new fresh focus to attributes. And of course we kept hearing throughout CIS Monterey about the FIDO Alliance with its devotion to authentication through verified device attributes, and its strategy to stay away from the abstract business of identities.

Steve Wilson CIS2014 Authentication Family Tree  FIDO blog CISmcc

Reflections on CIS 2014

I spoke with many people at CIS about what makes this event so different. There's the wonderful family program of course, and the atmosphere that creates. And there's the paradoxical collegiality. Ping has always done a marvelous job of collaborating in various standards groups, and likewise with its conference, Ping's people work hard to create a professional, non-competitive environment. There are a few notable absentees of course but all the exhibitors and speakers I spoke to - including Ping's direct competitors - endorsed CIS as a safe and important place to participate in the identity community, and to do business.

But as a researcher and analyst, the Cloud Identity Summit is where I think you can see the future. People report hearing about things for the first time at a CIS, only to find those things coming true a year or two later. It's because there are so many influencers here.

Last year one example was the Attributes Push. This year, the onus on Attributes has become entirely mainstream. For example, the NSTIC pilot partner ID.me (a start-up business focused on improving veterans' access to online discounts through improved verification of entitlements) talks proudly of their ability to convey attributes and reduce the exposure of identity. And Paul Grassi proposes much more focus on Attributes from 2015.

Another example is the "Authorization Agent" (AZA) proposed for SSO in mobile platforms, which was brand new when Paul Madsen presented it at CIS Napa in 2013. Twelve months on, AZA has broadened into the Native Apps (NAPPS) OpenID Working Group.

Then there are the things that are nearly completely normalised. Take mobile devices. They figured in just about every CISmcc presentation, but were rarely called out. Mobile is simply the way things are now.

Hardware stores

The mobile form factor is now taken for granted. And now the cryptographic capabilities now standard in most handsets (and increasingly embedded in smart things and wearables), are getting a whole lot of express attention. Hardware crypto was a major theme at CIS. I've already made much of Andre Durand's keynote on tokens, but it was the same throughout the event.

    • There was a session on hybrid Physical and Logical Access Control Systems (PACS-LACS) featuring the US Government's PIV-I smartcard standard and the major ongoing R&D on that platform sponsored by DHS.
    • Companies like SecureKey are devoted to hardware-based keys, increasingly embedded in "street IDs" like driver licenses, and are working with numerous players deep in the SIM and smartcard supply chains.
    • The FIDO Alliance is fundamentally about hardware based identity security measures, leveraging embedded key pairs to attest to the pedigree of authenticator models and the attributes that they transmit on behalf of their verified users. FIDO promises to open up the latent authentication power of many 100s of millions of devices already featuring Secure Elements of one kind or another. FIDO realises PKI the way nature intended all along.
    • The good old concept of "What You See Is What You Sign" (WYSIWYS) is making a comeback, with mobile platform players appreciating that users of smartphones need reliable cues in the UX as to the integrity of transaction data served up in their rich operating systems. Clearly some exciting R&D lies ahead.
    • In a world of formal standards, we should also acknowledge the informal standards around us - the benchmarks and conventions that represent the 'real way' to do things. Hardware based security is taken increasingly for granted. The FIDO protocols are based on key pairs that people just seem to assume (correctly) will be generated in the compliant devices during registration. And Apple with its iTouch has helped to 'train' end users that biometrics templates must never leave the safety of a controlled hardware end point. FIDO of course makes that a hard standard.

What's next?

In my view, the Cloud Identity Summit is the only not-to-be missed event on the IDAM calendar. So long may it continue. And if CIS is where you go to see the future, what's next?

    • Judging by CISmcc, I reckon we're going to see entire sessions next year devoted to Continuous Authentication, in which signals are collected from wearables and the Internet of Things at large, to gain insights into the state of the user at every important juncture.
    • With the disciplined separation of abstract identities from concrete attributes, we're going to need an Digital Identity Stack for reference. FIDO's pyramid is on the right track, but it needs some work. I'm not sure the pyramid is the right visualisation; for one thing it evokes Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in which the pinnacle corresponds to luxuries not essentials!
    • Momentum will grow around Relationships. Kantara's new Identity Relationship Management (IRM) WG was talked about in the CISmcc corridors. I am not sure we're all using the word in the same way, but it's a great trend, for Digital Identity is only really a means to an end, and it's the relationships they support that make identities important.

So there's much to look forward to!

See you again next year (I hope) in Monterey!

Posted in Smartcards, PKI, Language, Identity, Federated Identity, Cloud

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 announced 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 Altering

Yesterday I said in my #CISmcc diary that I hoped to change my mind about something here, 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 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) 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


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