If the digital economy is really the economy then it's high time we moved beyond hoping that we can simply train users to be safe online. Is the real economy only for heros who can protect themselves in the jungle, writing their own code. As if they're carrying their own guns? Or do we as a community build structures and standards and insist on technologies that work for all?
For most people, the World Wide Web experience still a lot like watching cartoons on TV. The human-machine interface is almost the same. The images and actions are just as synthetic; crucially, nothing on a web browser is real. Almost anything goes -- just as the Roadrunner defies gravity in besting Coyote, there are no laws of physics that temper the way one bit of multimedia leads to the next. Yes, there is a modicum of user feedback in the way we direct some of the action when browsing and e-shopping, but it's quite illusory; for the most part all we're really doing is flicking channels across a billion pages.
It's the suspension of disbelief when browsing that lies at the heart of many of the safety problems we're now seeing. Inevitably we lose our bearings in the totally synthetic World Wide Web. We don't even realise it, we're taken in by a virtual reality, and we become captive to social engineering.
But I don't think it's possible to tackle online safety by merely countering users' credulity. Education is not the silver bullet, because the Internet is really so technologically complex and abstract that it lies beyond the comprehension of most lay people.
Using the Internet 'safely' today requires deep technical skills, comparable to the level of expertise needed to operate an automobile circa 1900. Back then you needed to be able to do all your own mechanics [roughly akin to the mysteries of maintaining anti-virus software], look after the engine [i.e. configure the operating system and firewall], navigate the chaotic emerging road network [there's yet no trusted directory for the Internet, nor any road rules], and even figure out how to fuel the contraption [consumer IT supply chains is about as primitive as the gasoline industry was 100 years ago]. The analogy with the early car industry becomes especially sharp for me when I hear utopian open source proponents argue that writing ones own software is the best way to be safe online.
The Internet is so critical (I'd have thought this was needless to say) that we need ways of working online that don't require us to all be DIY experts.
I wrote a first draft of this blog six years ago, and at that time I called for patience in building digital literacy and sophistication. "It took decades for safe car and road technologies to evolve, and the Internet is still really in its infancy" I said in 2009. But I'm less relaxed about his now, on the brink of the Internet of Things. It's great that the policy makers like the US FTC are calling on connected device makers to build in security and privacy, but I suspect the Internet of Things will require the same degree of activist oversight and regulation as does the auto industry, for the sake of public order and the economy. Do we have the appetite to temper breakneck innovation with safety rules?
This is a watershed in Internet security and privacy - never before has authentication been a headline consumer issue.
Sure we've all talked about the password problem for ten years or more, but now FIDO Alliance members are doing something about it, with easy-to-use solutions designed specifically for mass adoption.
The FIDO Alliance is designing the authentication plumbing for everything online. They are creating new standards and technical protocols allowing secure personal devices (phones, personal smart keys, wearables, and soon a range of regular appliances) to securely transmit authentication data to cloud services and other devices, in some cases eliminating passwords altogether.
See also my ongoing FIDO Alliance research at Constellation.
In electronic business, Relying Parties (RPs) need to understand their risks of dealing with the wrong person (say a fraudulent customer or a disgruntled ex employee), determine what they really need to know about those people in order to help manage risk, and then in many cases, design a registration process for bringing those people into the business fold. With federated identity, the aim is to offload the registration and other overheads onto an Identity Provider (IdP). But evaluating IdPs and forging identity management arrangements has proven to be enormously complex, and the federated identity movement has been looking for ways to streamline and standardize the process.
One approach is to categorise different classes of IdP, matched to different transaction types. "Levels of Assurance" (LOAs) have been loosely standardised by many governments and in some federated identity frameworks, like the Kantara Initiative. The US Authentication Guideline NIST SP 800-63 is one of the preeminent de facto standards, adopted by the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). But over the years, adoption of SP 800-63 in business has been disappointing, and now NIST has announced a review.
One of my problem with LOAs is simply stated: I don't believe it's possible to pigeon-hole risk.
With risk management, the devil is in the detail. Risk Management standards like ISO 31000 require organisations to start by analysing the threats that are peculiar to their environment. It's folly to take short cuts here, and it's also well recognised that you cannot "outsource" liability.
To my mind, the LOA philosophy goes against risk management fundamental. To come up with an LOA rating is an intermediate step that takes an RP's risk analysis, squeezes it into a bin (losing lots of information as a result), which is then used to shortlist candidate IdPs, before going into detailed due diligence where all those risk details need to be put back on the table.
I think we all know by now of cases where RPs have looked at candidate IdPs at a given LOA, been less than satisfied with the available offerings, and have felt the need for an intermediate level, something like "LOA two and a half" (this problem was mentioned at CIS 2014 more than once, and I have seen it first hand in the UK IDAP).
Clearly what's going on here is an RP's idea of "LOA 2" differs from a given IdP's idea of the same LOA 2. This is because everyone's risk appetite and threat profile is different. Moreover, the detailed prescription of "LOA 2" must differ from one identity provider to the next. When an RP thinks they need "LOA 2.5" what they're relly asking for is a customised identification. If an off-the-shelf "LOA 2" isn't what it seems, then there can't be any hope for an agreed intermediate LOA 2.5. Even if an IdP and an RP agree in one instance, soon enough we will get a fresh call for "LOA 2.75 please".
We cannot pigeonhole risk. Attaching chunky one dimensional Levels of Assurance is misleading. There is no getting away from the need to do detailed analysis of the threats and therefore the authentication needs required.
This is an updated version of arguments made in Lockstep's submission to the 2009 Cyber Crime Inquiry by the Australian federal government.
In stark contrast to other fields, cyber safety policy is almost exclusively preoccupied with user education. It's really an obsession. Governments and industry groups churn out volumes of well-meaning and technically reasonable security advice, but for the average user, this material is overwhelming. There is a subtle implication that security is for experts, and that the Internet isn't safe unless you go to extremes. Moreover, even if consumers do their very best online, their personal details can still be taken over in massive criminal raids on databases that hardly anyone even know exist.
Too much onus is put on regular users protecting themselves online, and this blinds us to potential answers to cybercrime. In other walks of life, we accept a balanced approach to safety, and governments are less reluctant to impose standards than they are on the Internet. Road safety for instance rests evenly on enforceable road rules, car technology innovation, certified automotive products, mandatory quality standards, traffic management systems, and driver training and licensing. Education alone would be nearly worthless.
Around cybercrime we have a bizarre allergy to technology. We often hear that 'Preventing data breaches not a technology issue' which may be politically correct but it's faintly ridiculous. Nobody would ever say that preventing car crashes is 'not a technology issue'.
Credit card fraud and ID theft in general are in dire need of concerted technological responses. Consider that our Card Not Present (CNP) payments processing arrangements were developed many years ago for mail orders and telephone orders. It was perfectly natural to co-opt the same processes when the Internet arose, since it seemed simply to be just another communications medium. But the Internet turned out to be more than an extra channel: it connects everyone to everything, around the clock.
The Internet has given criminals x-ray vision into peoples' banking details, and perfect digital disguises with which to defraud online merchants. There are opportunities for crime now that are both quantitatively and qualitatively radically different from what went before. In particular, because identity data is available by the terabyte and digital systems cannot tell copies from originals, identity takeover is child's play.
You don't even need to have ever shopped online to run foul of CNP fraud. Most stolen credit card numbers are obtained en masse by criminals breaking into obscure backend databases. These attacks go on behind the scenes, out of sight of even the most careful online customers.
So the standard cyber security advice misses the point. Consumers are told earnestly to look out for the "HTTPS" padlock that purportedly marks a site as secure, to have a firewall, to keep their PCs "patched" and their anti-virus up to date, to only shop online at reputable merchants, and to avoid suspicious looking sites (as if cyber criminals aren't sufficiently organised to replicate legitimate sites in their entirety). But none of this advice touches on the problem of coordinated massive heists of identity data.
Merchants are on the hook for unwieldy and increasingly futile security overheads. When a business wishes to accept credit card payments, it's straightforward in the real world to install a piece of bank-approved terminal equipment. But to process credit cards online, shopkeepers have to sign up to onerous PCI-DSS requirements that in effect require even small business owners to become IT security specialists. But to what end? No audit regime will ever stop organised crime. To stem identity theft, we need to make stolen IDs less valuable.
All this points to urgent public policy matters for governments and banks. It is not enough to put the onus on individuals to guard against ad hoc attacks on their credit cards. Systemic changes and technological innovation are needed to render stolen personal data useless to thieves. It's not that the whole payments processing system is broken; rather, it is vulnerable at just one point where stolen digital identities can be abused.
Digital identities are the keys to our personal kingdoms. As such they really need to be treated as seriously as car keys, which have become very high tech indeed. Modern car keys cannot be duplicated at a suburban locksmith. It's possible you've come across office and filing cabinet keys that carry government security certifications. And we never use the same keys for our homes and offices; we wouldn't even consider it (which points to the basic weirdness in Single Sign On and identity federation).
In stark contrast to car keys, almost no attention is paid to the pedigree of digital identities. Technology neutrality has bred a bewildering array of ad hoc authentication methods, including SMS messages, one time password generators, password calculators, grid cards and picture passwords; at the same time we've done nothing at all to inhibit the re-use of stolen IDs.
It's high time government and industry got working together on a uniform and universal set of smart identity tools to properly protect consumers online.
Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on identity safety, inspired by recent news that health identifiers may be back on the table in the gigantic U.S. e-health system. The security and privacy issues are large but the cyber safety technology is at hand!
Increasingly, commentators are calling into question the state of information security. It's about time. We infosec professionals need to take action before our customers force us to.
Standard security is just not intellectually secure. Information Security Management Systems and security audits are based on discredited quality management frameworks like ISO 9000 and waterfall methodologies. The derivative PCI-DSS regime mitigates accidental losses and amateur attacks but is farcically inadequate in the face of organised crime. The economics of perimeter security are simply daft: many databases are now worth billionsof dollars to identity thieves, but they're protected by meagre firewalls and administrators with superuser privileges on $40K salaries. Threat & Risk Assessments have their roots in Failure Modes & Criticality Analysis (FMECA) which is hopeless in the highly non-linear and unpredictable world of software, where a trivial mistake in one part of a program can have unlimited impact on the whole system; witness the #gotofail episode. Software is so easy to write and businesses are so obsessed with time to market that the world now rests on layer upon layer of bloated spaghetti code. The rapidity of software development has trumped quality and UI design. We have fragile home computers that are impossibly complex to operate safely, and increasingly, Internet-connected home appliances with the same characteristics.
We can't adequately protect credit card numbers, yet we're joy-riding like a 12-year old on a stolen motorcycle into an Internet of Things.
We're going to have to fix complexity and quality before security stands a chance.
Maybe the market will come to the rescue. Consumers seem to tolerate crappy computer quality to some degree, doubtless weighing up the benefits of being online versus the hassle of the occasional blue screen or hard drive crash. But when things like cars, thermostats and swimming pool filters, which don't need to be computers, become computers, consumers may make a harsher judgement of technology reliability.
Twenty years ago when I worked in medical device software -- pre-Internet, let alone the Internet of Things -- I recall an article about quality which predicted the public would paradoxically put up with more bugs in flight control software than they would in a light switch. In a way, that analysis predicted one of the driving forces for technology today: consumerization.
Posted in Security
The Constellation Research analyst team has assembled a "year end checklist", offering suggestions designed to enable you to take better control of your digital strategy in 2015. We offer these actions to help you dominate "digital disruption" in the new year.
1. Matrix Commerce: Scrub your data
When it comes to Matrix Commerce, companies need to focus on the basics first. What are the basics? Cleaning up and getting your data in order. Much is discussed about the evolution of supply chains and the surrounding technologies. However these solutions are only as useful as the data that feeds them. Many CxOs that we have spoken to have discussed the need to focus on cleaning up their data. First work on a data audit to identify the most important sources of data for your efforts in Matrix Commerce. Second, focus on the systems that can process and make sense of this data. Finally, determine the systems and business processes that will be optimized with these improvements. Matrix Commerce starts with the right data. The systems and business processes that layer on top of this data are only as useful as the data. CxOs must continue to organize and clean their data house.
2. Safety and Privacy - Create your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory
In 2015, get on top of your information assets. When information is the lifeblood of your business, make sure you understand what really makes it valuable. Create (or refresh) your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory, and then think beyond the standard security dimensions of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. What sets your information apart from your competitors? Is it more complete, more up-to-date, more original or harder to acquire? To maximise the value of information, innovative organisations are gauging it in terms of utility, currency, jurisdictional certainty, privacy compliance and whatever other facets matter the most in their business environment. These innovative organizations structure their information technology and security functions to not merely protect the enterprise against threats, but to deliver the right data when and where it's needed most. Shifting from defensive security to strategic informatics is the key to success in the digital economy. Learn more about creating an information asset inventory.
3. Data to Decisions - Create your Big Data Plan of Action
Big Data is arriving at the end of the hype cycle. In 2015, real-time decision support using ‘smart data’ extracted from Big Data will manifest as a requirement for competitiveness. Digital Business, or even just online sellers, are all reducing reaction and response times. Enterprises have huge business and technology investments in data that need to support their daily activities better, so its time to pivot from using Big Data for analysis and start examining how to deliver Smart Data to users and automated online systems. What is Smart Data? Well, let's say creating your organization's definition of Smart Data is priority number one in your Big Data strategy. Transformation in Digital markets requires a transformation in the competitive use of Big Data. Request a meeting with Constellation's CTO in residence, Andy Mulholland.
4. Next Gen CXP - Make Customer Experience Instinctual
Stop thinking of Customer Experience as a functional or departmental initiative and start thinking about experience from the customer’s point of view.
Customers don’t distinguish between departments when they require service from your organization. Customer Experience is a responsibility shared amongst all employees. However, the division of companies into functional departments with separate goals means that customer experience is often fractured. Rid your company of this ethos in 2015 by using design thinking to create a culture of cohesive customer experience.
Ensure all employees live your company mythology, employ the right customer and internal-facing technologies, collect the right data, and make changes to your strategy and products as soon as possible. Read "Five Approaches to Drive Customer Loyalty in a Digital World".
5. Future of Work - Take Advantage of Collaboration
Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement in the way people communicate and collaborate with their colleagues and customers, shifting from closed systems like email and chat, to more transparent tools like social networks and communities. That trend will continue in 2015 as people become more comfortable with sharing and as collaboration tools become more integrated with the business software they use to get their jobs done. Employees should familiarize themselves with the tools available to them, and learn how to pick the right tool for each of the various scenarios that make up their work day. Read "Enterprise Collaboration: From Simple Sharing to Getting Work Done".
6. Future of Work - Prepare for Demographic Shifts
In the next ten years 10% to 20% of the North American and European workforce will retire. Leaders need to understand and prepare for this tremendous shift so performance remains steady as many of the workforce's highly skilled workers retire.
To ensure smooth a smooth transition, ensure your HCM software systems can accommodate a massive number of retirements, successions and career path developments, and new hires from external recruiting.
Constellation fully expects employment to be a sellers market going forward. People leaders should ensure their HCM systems facilitate employee motivation, engagement and retention, lest they lose their best employees to competitors. Read "Globalization, HR, and Business Model Success". Additional cloud HR case studies here and here.
7. Digital Marketing Transformation - Brand Priorities Must Convey Authenticity
Brand authenticity must dominate digital and analog channels in 2015. Digital personas must not only reflect the brand, but also expand upon the analog experience. Customers love the analog experience, so deliver the same experience digitally. Brand conscious leaders must invest in the digital experience with an eye towards mass personalization at scale. While advertising plays a key role in distributing the brand message, investment in the design of digital experiences presents itself as a key area of investment for 2015. Download free executive brief: Can Brands Keep Their Promise?
8. Consumerization of IT: Use Mobile as the Gateway to Digital Transformation Projects
Constellation believes that mobile is more than just the device. While smartphones and other devices are key enablers of 'mobile', design in digital transformation should take into account how these technologies address the business value and business model transformation required to deliver on breakthrough innovation. If you have not yet started your digital transformation or are considering using mobile as an additional digital transformation point, Constellation recommends that clients assess how a new generation of enterprise mobile apps can change the business by identifying a cross-functional business problem that cannot be solved with linear thinking, articulating the business problem and benefit, showing how the solution orchestrates new experiences, identifying how analytics and insights can fuel the business model shift, exploiting full native device features, and seeking frictionless experiences. You'll be digital before you know it. Read "Why the Third Generation of Enterprise Mobile is Designed for Digital Transformation"
9. Technology Optimization & Innovation - Prepare Your Public Cloud Strategy
In 2015 technology leaders will need to create, adjust and implement their public cloud strategy. Considering estimates pegging Amazon AWS at 15-20% of virtualized servers worldwide, CIOs and CTOs need to actively plan and execute their enterprise’s strategy vis-a-vis the public cloud. Reducing technical debt and establishing next generation best practices to leverage the new ‘on demand’ IT paradigm should be a top priority for CIOs and CTOs seeking organizational competitiveness, greater job security and fewer budget restrictions.
In my last blog Improving the Position of the CISO, I introduced the new research I've done on extending the classic "Confidentiality-Integrity-Availability" (C-I-A) frame for security analysis, to cover all the other qualities of enterprise information assets. The idea is to build a comprehensive account of what it is that makes information valuable in the context of the business, leveraging the traditional tools and skills of the CISO. After all, security professionals are particularly good at looking at context. Instead of restricting themselves to defending information assets against harm, CISOs can be helping to enhance those assets by building up their other competitive attributes.
Let's look at some examples of how this would work, in some classic Big Data applications in retail and hospitality.
Companies in these industries have long been amassing detailed customer databases under the auspices of loyalty programs. Supermarkets have logged our every purchase for many years, so they can for instance put together new deals on our favorite items, from our preferred brands, or from competitors trying to get us to switch brands. Likewise, hotels track when we stay and what we do, so they can personalise our experience, tailor new packages for us, and try to cross-sell services they predict we'll find attractive. Behind the scenes, the data is also used for operations to plan demand, fine tune their logistics and so on.
Big Data techniques amplify the value of information assets enormously, but they can take us into complicated territory. Consider for example the potential for loyalty information to be parlayed into insurance and other financial services products. Supermarkets find they now have access to a range of significant indicators of health & lifestyle risk factors which are hugely valuable in insurance calculations ... if only the data is permitted to be re-purposed like that.
The question is, what is it about the customer database of a given store or hotel that gives it an edge over its competitors? There many more attributes to think creatively about beyond C-I-A!
- It's important to rigorously check that the raw data, the metadata and any derived analytics can actually be put to different business purposes.
- Are data formats well-specified, and technically and semantically interoperable?
- What would it cost to improve interoperability as needed?
- Is the data physically available to your other business systems?
- Does the rest of the business know what's in the data sets?
- Do you know more about your customers than your competitors do?
- Do you supplement and enrich raw customer behaviours with questionaires, or linked data?
- How far back in time do the records go?
- Do you understand the reason any major gaps? Do the gaps themselves tell you anything?
- What sort of metadata do you have? For example, do you retain time & location, trend data, changes, origins and so on?
- Currency & Accuracy
- Is your data up to date? Remember that accuracy can diminish over time, so the sheer age of a long term database can have a downside.
- What mechanisms are there to keep data up to date?
- Permissions & Consent
- Have customers consented to secondary usage of data?
- Is the consent specific, blanket or bundled?
- Might customers be surprised and possibly put off to learn how their loyalty data is utilised?
- Do the terms & conditions of participation in a loyalty program cover what you wish to do with the data?
- Do the Ts&Cs (which might have been agreed to in the past) still align with the latest plans for data usage?
- Are there opportunities to refresh the Ts&Cs?
- Are there opportunities for customers to negotiate the value you can offer for re-purposing the data?
- When businesses derive new insights from data, it is possible that they are synthesising brand new Personal Information, and non-obvious privacy obligations can go along with that. The competitive advantage of Big Data can be squandered if regulations are overlooked, especially in international environments.
- So where is the data held, and where does it flow?
- Are applications for your data compliant with applicable regulations?
- Is health information or similar sensitive Personal Information extracted or synthesised, and do you have specific consent for that?
- Can you meet the Access & Correction obligations in many data protection regulations?
For more detail, my new report, "Strategic Opportunities for the CISO", is available now.
Exploring new strategic opportunities for CIOs and CISOs.
For as long as we've had a distinct information security profession, it has been said that security needs to be a "business enabler". But what exactly does that mean? How can security professionals advance from their inherently defensive postures, into more strategic positions, and contribute actively to the growth of the business? This is the focus of my latest work at Constellation Research. It turns out that security professionals have special tools and skills ideally suited to a broader strategic role in information management.
The role of Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is a tough one. Security is red hot. Not a week goes by without news of another security breach.
Information now is the lifeblood of most organisations; CISOs and their teams are obviously crucial in safeguarding that. But a purely defensive mission seldom allows for much creativity, or a positive reputation amongst one's peers. A predominantly reactive work mode -- as important as it is from day to day -- can sometimes seem precarious. The good news for CISOs' career security and job satisfaction is they happen to have special latent skills to innovate and build out those most important digital assets.
Information assets are almost endless: accounts, ledgers and other legal records, sales performance, stock lists, business plans, R&D plans, product designs, market analyses and forecasts, customer data, employee files, audit reports, patent specifications and trade secrets. But what is it about all this information that actually needs protecting? What exactly makes any data valuable? These questions take us into the mind of the CISO.
Security management is formally all about the right balance of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability in the context of the business. Different businesses have different needs in these three dimensions.
Think of the famous industrial secrets like the recipes for KFC or Coca Cola. These demand the utmost confidentiality and integrity but the availability of the information can be low (nay, must be low) because it is accessed as a whole so seldomly. Medical records too have traditionally needed confidentiality more than availability, but that's changing. Complex modern healthcare demands electronic records, and these do need high availability especially in emergency care settings.
In contrast, for public information like stock prices there is no value in confidentiality whatsoever, and instead, availability and integrity are paramount. On the other hand, market-sensitive information that listed companies periodically report to stock exchanges must have very strict confidentiality for a relatively brief period.
Security professionals routinely compile Information Asset Inventories and plan for appropriate C-I-A for each type of data held. From there, a Threat & Risk Assessment (TRA) is generally undertaken, to examine the adverse events that might compromise the Confidentiality, Integrity and/or Availability. The likelihood and the impact of each adverse event are estimated and multiplied together to gauge the practical risk posed by each known threat. By prioritising counter-measures for the identified threats, in line with the organisation's risk appetite, the TRA helps guide a rational program of investment in security.
Now their practical experience can put CISOs in a special position to enhance their organisation's information assets rather than restrict themselves to hardening information against just the negative impacts.
Here's where the CISO's mindset comes into play in a new way. The real value of information lies not so much in the data itself as in its qualities. Remember the cynical old saw "It's not what you know, it's who you know". There's a serious side to the saying, which highlights that really useful information has pedigree.
So the real action is in the metadata; that is, data about data. It may have got a bad rap recently thanks to surveillance scandals, but various thinkers have long promoted the importance of metadata. For example, back in the 1980s, Citibank CEO Walter Wriston famously said "information about money will become almost as important as money itself". What a visionary endorsement of metadata!
The important latent skills I want to draw out for CISOs is their practiced ability to deal with the qualities of data. To bring greater value to the business, CISOs can start thinking about the broader pedigree of data and not merely its security qualities. They should spread their wings beyond C-I-A, to evaluate all sorts of extra dimensions, like completeness, reliability, originality, currency, privacy and regulatory compliance.
The core strategic questions for the modern CISO are these: What is it about your corporate information that gives you competitive advantage? What exactly makes information valuable?
The CISO has the mindset and the analytical tools to surface these questions and positively engage their executive peers in finding the answers.
My new Constellation Research report will be published soon.
Few technologies are so fundamental and yet so derided at the same time as public key infrastructure. PKI is widely thought of as obsolete or generically intrusive yet it is ubiquitous in SIM cards, SSL, chip and PIN cards, and cable TV. Technically, public key infrastructure Is a generic term for a management system for keys and certificates; there have always been endless ways to build PKIs (note the plural) for different communities, technologies, industries and outcomes. And yet “PKI” has all too often come to mean just one way of doing identity management. In fact, PKI doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with identity at all.
This blog is an edited version of a feature I once wrote for SC Magazine. It is timely in the present day to re-visit the principles that make for good PKI implementations and contextualise them in one of the most contemporary instances of PKI: the FIDO Alliance protocols for secure attribute management. In my view, FIDO realises PKI ‘as nature intended’.
In their earliest conceptions in the early-to-mid 1990s, digital certificates were proposed to authenticate nondescript transactions between parties who had never met. Certificates were construed as the sole means for people to authenticate one another. Most traditional PKI was formulated with no other context; the digital certificate was envisaged to be your all-purpose digital identity.
Orthodox PKI has come in for spirited criticism. From the early noughties, many commentators pointed to a stark paradox: online transaction volumes and values were increasing rapidly, in almost all cases without the help of overt PKI. Once thought to be essential, with its promise of "non repdudiation", PKI seemed anything but, even for significant financial transactions.
There were many practical problems in “big” centralised PKI models. The traditional proof of identity for general purpose certificates was intrusive; the legal agreements were complex and novel; and private key management was difficult for lay people. So the one-size-fits-all electronic passport failed to take off. But PKI's critics sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the absence of any specific context for its application, “big” PKI emphasized proof of personal identity. Early certificate registration schemes co-opted identification benchmarks like that of the passport. Yet hardly any regular business transactions require parties to personally identify one another to passport standards.
”Electronic business cards”
Instead in business we deal with others routinely on the basis of their affiliations, agency relationships, professional credentials and so on. The requirement for orthodox PKI users to submit to strenuous personal identity checks over and above their established business credentials was a major obstacle in the adoption of digital certificates.
It turns out that the 'killer applications' for PKI overwhelmingly involve transactions with narrow contexts, predicated on specific credentials. The parties might not know each other personally, but invariably they recognize and anticipate each other's qualifications, as befitting their business relationship.
Successful PKI came to be characterized by closed communities of interest, prior out-of-band registration of members, and in many cases, special-purpose application software featuring additional layers of context, security and access controls.
So digital certificates are much more useful when implemented as application-specific 'electronic business cards,' than as one-size-fits-all electronic passports. And, by taking account of the special conditions that apply to different e-business processes, we have the opportunity to greatly simplify the registration processes, user experience and liability arrangements that go with PKI.
The real benefits of digital signatures
There is a range of potential advantages in using PKI, including its cryptographic strength and resistance to identity theft (when implemented with private keys in hardware). Many of its benefits are shared with other technologies, but at least two are unique to PKI.
First, digital signatures provide robust evidence of the origin and integrity of electronic transactions, persistent over time and over 'distance’ (that is, the separation of sender and receiver). This greatly simplifies audit logging, evidence collection and dispute resolution, and cuts the future cost of investigation and fraud. If a digitally signed document is archived and checked at a later date, the quality of the signature remains undiminished over many years, even if the public key certificate has long since expired. And if a digitally signed message is passed from one relying party to another and on to many more, passing through all manner of intermediate systems, everyone still receives an identical, verifiable signature code authenticating the original message.
Electronic evidence of the origin and integrity of a message can, of course, be provided by means other than a digital signature. For example, the authenticity of typical e-business transactions can usually be demonstrated after the fact via audit logs, which indicate how a given message was created and how it moved from one machine to another. However, the quality of audit logs is highly variable and it is costly to produce legally robust evidence from them. Audit logs are not always properly archived from every machine, they do not always directly evince data integrity, and they are not always readily available months or years after the event. They are rarely secure in themselves, and they usually need specialists to interpret and verify them. Digital signatures on the other hand make it vastly simpler to rewind transactions when required.
Secondly, digital signatures and certificates are machine readable, allowing the credentials or affiliations of the sender to be bound to the message and verified automatically on receipt, enabling totally paperless transacting. This is an important but often overlooked benefit of digital signatures. When processing a digital certificate chain, relying party software can automatically tell that:
- the message has not been altered since it was originally created
- the sender was authorized to launch the transaction, by virtue of credentials or other properties endorsed by a recognized Certificate Authority
- the sender's credentials were valid at the time they sent the message; and
- the authority which signed the certificate was fit to do so.
One reason we can forget about the importance of machine readability is that we have probably come to expect person-to-person email to be the archetypal PKI application, thanks to email being the classic example to illustrate PKI in action. There is an implicit suggestion in most PKI marketing and training that, in regular use, we should manually click on a digital signature icon, examine the certificate, check which CA issued it, read the policy qualifier, and so on. Yet the overwhelming experience of PKI in practice is that it suits special purpose and highly automated applications, where the usual receiver of signed transactions is in fact a computer.
Characterising good applications
Reviewing the basic benefits of digital signatures allows us to characterize the types of e-business applications that merit investment in PKI.
Applications for which digital signatures are a good fit tend to have reasonably high transaction volumes, fully automatic or straight-through processing, and multiple recipients or multiple intermediaries between sender and receiver. In addition, there may be significant risk of dispute or legal ramifications, necessitating high quality evidence to be retained over long periods of time. These include:
- Tax returns
- Customs reporting
- E-health care
- Financial trading
- Electronic conveyancing
- Superannuation administration
- Patent applications.
This view of the technology helps to explain why many first-generation applications of PKI were problematic. Retail internet banking is a well-known example of e-business which flourished without the need for digital certificates. A few banks did try to implement certificates, but generally found them difficult to use. Most later reverted to more conventional access control and backend security mechanisms.Yet with hindsight, retail funds transfer transactions did not have an urgent need for PKI, since they could make use of existing backend payment systems. Funds transfer is characterized by tightly closed arrangements, a single relying party, built-in limits on the size of each transaction, and near real-time settlement. A threat and risk assessment would show that access to internet banking can rest on simple password authentication, in exactly the same way as antecedent phone banking schemes.
Trading complexity for specificity
As discussed, orthodox PKI was formulated with the tacit assumption that there is no specific context for the transaction, so the digital certificate is the sole means for authenticating the sender. Consequently, the traditional schemes emphasized high standards of personal identity, exhaustive contracts and unusual legal devices like Relying Party Agreements. They also often resorted to arbitrary 'reliance limits,' which have little meaning for most of the applications listed on the previous page. Notoriously, traditional PKI requires users to read and understand certification practice statements (CPS).
All that overhead stemmed from not knowing what the general-purpose digital certificate was going to be used for. On the other hand, if particular digital certificates are constrained to defined applications, then the complexity surrounding their specific usage can be radically reduced.
The role of PKI in all contemporary 'killer applications' is fundamentally to help automate the online processing of electronic transactions between parties with well-defined credentials. This is in stark contrast to the way PKI has historically been portrayed, where strangers Alice and Bob use their digital certificates to authenticate context-free general messages, often presumed to be sent by email. In reality, serious business messages are never sent stranger-to-stranger with no context or cues as to the parties' legitimacy.
Using generic email is like sending a fax on plain paper. Instead, business messaging is usually highly structured. Parties have an expectation that only certain types of transactions are going to occur between them and they equip themselves accordingly (for instance, a health insurance office is not set up to handle tax returns). The sender is authorized to act in defined types of transactions by virtue of professional credentials, a relevant license, an affiliation with some authority, endorsement by their employer, and so on. And the receiver recognizes the source of those credentials. The sender and receiver typically use prescribed forms and/or special purpose application software with associated user agreements and license conditions, adding context and additional layers of security around the transaction.
PKI got smart
When PKI is used to help automate the online processing of transactions between parties in the context of an existing business relationship, we should expect the legal arrangements between the parties to still apply. For business applications where digital certificates are used to identify users in specific contexts, the question of legal liability should be vastly simpler than it is in the general purpose PKI scenario where the issuer does not know what the certificates might be used for.
The new vision for PKI means the technology and processes should be no more of a burden on the user than a bank card. Rather than imagine that all public key certificates are like general purpose electronic passports, we can deploy multiple, special purpose certificates, and treat them more like electronic business cards. A public key certificate issued on behalf of a community of business users and constrained to that community can thereby stand for any type of professional credential or affiliation.
We can now automate and embed the complex cryptography deeply into smart devices -- smartcards, smart phones, USB keys and so on -- so that all terms and conditions for use are application focused. As far as users are concerned, a smartcard can be deployed in exactly the same way as any magnetic stripe card, without any need to refer to - or be limited by - the complex technology contained within (see also Simpler PKI is on the cards). Any application-specific smartcard can be issued under rules and controls that are fit for their purpose, as determined by the community of users or an appropriate recognized authority. There is no need for any user to read a CPS. Communities can determine their own evidence-of-identity requirements for issuing cards, instead of externally imposed personal identity checks. Deregulating membership rules dramatically cuts the overheads traditionally associated with certificate registration.
Finally, if we constrain the use of certificates to particular applications then we can factor the intended usage into PKI accreditation processes. Accreditation could then allow for particular PKI scheme rules to govern liability. By 'black-boxing' each community's rules and arrangements, and empowering the community to implement processes that are fit for its purpose, the legal aspects of accreditation can be simplified, reducing one of the more significant cost components of the whole PKI exercise (having said that, it never ceases to amaze how many contemporary healthcare PKIs still cling onto face-to-face passport grade ID proofing as if that's the only way to do digital certificates).
The preceding piece is a lightly edited version of the article ”Rethinking PKI” that first appeared in Secure Computing Magazine in 2003. Now, over a decade later, we’re seeing the same principles realised by the FIDO Alliance.
The FIDO protocols U2F and UAF enable specific attributes of a user and their smart devices to be transmitted to a server. Inherent to the FIDO methods are digital certificates that confer attributes and not identity, relatively large numbers of private keys stored locally in the users’ devices (and without the users needing to be aware of them as such) and digital signatures automatically applied to protocol messages to bind the relevant attributes to the authentication exchanges.
Surely, this is how PKI should have been deployed all along.
Ed Snowden was interviewed today as part of the New Yorker festival. This TechCruch report says Snowden "was asked a couple of variants on the question of what we can do to protect our privacy. His first answer called for a reform of government policies." He went on to add some remarks about Google, Facebook and encryption and that's what the report chose to focus on. The TechCrunch headline: "Snowden's Privacy Tips".
Mainstream and even technology media reportage does Snowden a terrible disservice and takes the pressure off from government policy.
I've listened to the New Yorker online interview. After being asked by a listener what they should do about privacy, Snowden gave a careful, nuanced, and comprehensive answer over five minutes. His very first line was this is an incredibly complex topic and he did well to stick to plain language throughout. He canvassed a great many issues including: the need for policy reform, the 'Nothing to Hide' argument, the inversion of civil rights when governments ask us to justify the right to be left alone, the collusion of companies and governments, the poor state of product security and usability, the chilling effect on industry of government intervention in security, metadata, and the radicalisation of computer scientists today being comparable with physicists in the Cold War.
Only after all that, and a follow up question about 'ordinary people', did Snowden say 'don't use Dropbox'.
Consistently, when Snowden is asked what to do about privacy, his answers are primarily about politics not technology. When pressed, he dispenses the odd advice about using Tor and disk encryption, but Snowden's chief concerns (as I have discussed in depth previously) are around accountability, government transparency, better cryptology research, better security product quality, and so on. He is no hacker.
I am simply dismayed how Snowden's sophisticated analyses are dumbed down to security tips. He has never been a "cyber Agony Aunt". The proper response to NSA overreach has to be agitation for regime change, not do-it-yourself cryptography. That is Snowden's message.