An identity glut on the Internet of Things

The identerati sometimes refer to the challenge of “binding carbon to silicon”. That’s a poetic way of describing how the field of Identity and Access Management (IDAM) is concerned with associating carbon-based life forms (as geeks fondly refer to people) with computers (or silicon chips).

To securely bind users’ identities or attributes to their computerised activities is indeed a technical challenge. In most conventional IDAM systems, there is only circumstantial evidence of who did what and when, in the form of access logs and audit trails, most of which can be tampered with or counterfeited by a sufficiently determined fraudster. To create a lasting, tamper-resistant impression of what people do online requires some sophisticated technology (in particular, digital signatures created using hardware-based cryptography).

On the other hand, working out looser associations between people and computers is the stock-in-trade of social networking operators and Big Data analysts. So many signals are emitted as a side effect of routine information processing today that even the shyest of users may be uncovered by third parties with sufficient analytics know-how and access to data.

So privacy is in peril. For the past two years, big data breaches have only got bigger: witness the losses at Target (110 million), EBay (145 million), Home Depot (109 million records) and JPMorgan Chase (83 million) to name a few. Breaches have got deeper, too. Most notably, in June 2015 the U.S. federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) revealed it had been hacked, with the loss of detailed background profiles on 15 million past and present employees.

I see a terrible systemic weakness in the standard practice of information security. Look at the OPM breach: what was going on that led to application forms for employees dating back 15 years remaining in a database accessible from the Internet? What was the real need for this availability? Instead of relying on firewalls and access policies to protect valuable data from attack, enterprises need to review which data needs to be online at all.

We urgently need to reduce the exposed attack surface of our information assets. But in the information age, the default has become to make data as available as possible. This liberality is driven both by the convenience of having all possible data on hand, just in case in it might be handy one day, and by the plummeting cost of mass storage. But it’s also the result of a technocratic culture that knows “knowledge is power,” and gorges on data.

In communications theory, Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of devices that are connected. This is an objective mathematical reality, but technocrats have transformed it into a moral imperative. Many think it axiomatic that good things come automatically from inter-connection and information sharing; that is, the more connection the better. Openness is an unexamined rallying call for both technology and society. “Publicness” advocate Jeff Jarvis wrote (admittedly provocatively) that: “The more public society is, the safer it is”. And so a sort of forced promiscuity is shaping up as the norm on the Internet of Things. We can call it “superconnectivity”, with a nod to the special state of matter where electrical resistance drops to zero.

In thinking about privacy on the IoT, a key question is this: how much of the data emitted from Internet-enabled devices will actually be personal data? If great care is not taken in the design of these systems, the unfortunate answer will be most of it.

My latest investigation into IoT privacy uses the example of the Internet connected motor car. “Rationing Identity on the Internet of Things” will be released soon by Constellation Research.

And don’t forget Constellation’s annual innovation summit, Connected Enterprise at Half Moon Bay outside San Francisco, November 4th-6th. Early bird registration closes soon.