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!