Personal information can be a toxic liability…

From Britain&#39s Guardian, another fantastic tale of information leakage:

The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, yesterday denounced the consultancy firm involved in the development of the ID cards scheme for “completely unacceptable” practice after losing a memory stick containing the personal details of all of the 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales.

The memory stick contained unencrypted information from the electronic system for monitoring offenders through the criminal justice system, including information about 10,000 of the most persistent offenders…

Smith said PA Consulting had broken the terms of its contract in downloading the highly sensitive data. She said: “It runs against the rules set down both for the holding of government data and set down by the external contractor and certainly set down in the contract that we had with the external contractor.

An illuminating twist is that the information was provided to the contractor encrypted.  The contractor, one of the “experts” designing the British national identity card, unencrypted it, put it on a USB stick and “lost it”.   With experts like this, who needs non-experts? 

When government identity system design and operations are flawed, the politicians responsible suffer  the repercussions.  It therefore always fills me with wonder – it is one of those inexplicable aspects of human nature – that politicians don&#39t protect themselves by demanding the safest possible systems, nixing any plan that isn&#39t based on at least a modicum of the requisite pessimism.  Why do they choose such rotten technical advisors?

Opposition parties urged the government to reconsider its plan for the introduction of an ID card database following the incident. Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, said: “The public will be alarmed that the government is happy to entrust their £20bn ID card project to the firm involved in this fiasco.

“This will destroy any confidence the public still have in this white elephant and reinforce why it could endanger – rather than strengthen – our security.”

The Liberal Democrats were also not prepared to absolve the home secretary of responsibility. Their leader, Nick Clegg, accused Smith of being worse than the Keystone Cops at keeping data safe.

Clegg said: “Frankly the Keystone Cops would do a better job running the Home Office and keeping our data safe than this government, and if this government cannot keep the data of thousands of guilty people safe, why on earth should we give them the data of millions of innocent people in an ID card database?”

David Smith, deputy commissioner for the information commissioner&#39s office, said: “The data loss by a Home Office contractor demonstrates that personal information can be a toxic liability if it is not handled properly , and reinforces the need for data protection to be taken seriously at all levels.”

Home Office resource accounts for last year show that in March of this year two CDs containing the personal information of seasonal agricultural workers went missing in transit to the UK Borders Agency. The names, dates of birth, and passport numbers of 3,000 individuals were lost.

If you are wondering why Britain seems to experience more “data loss” than anyone else, I suspect you are asking the wrong question.  If I were a betting man, I would wager that they just have better reporting – more people paying attention and blowing whistles.

But the big takeaway at the technical level is that sensitive information – and identity information in particular – needs to be protected throughout its lifetime.  If put on portable devices, the device should enforce rights management and only release specific information as needed – never allow wholesale copying.  Maybe we don&#39t have dongles that can do this yet, but we certainly have phone-sized computers (dare I say phones?) with all the necessary computational capabilities.

 

The Laws of Identity

Thanks to Eric Norman, Craig Burton and others for helping work towards a “short version” of the Laws of Identity. So here is a refinement:

People using computers should be in control of giving out information about themselves, just as they are in the physical world.

The minimum information needed for the purpose at hand should be released, and only to those who need it. Details should be retained no longer than necesary.

It should NOT be possible to automatically link up everything we do in all aspects of how we use the Internet. A single identifier that stitches everything up would have many unintended consequences.

We need choice in terms of who provides our identity information in different contexts.

The system must be built so we can understand how it works, make rational decisions and protect ourselves.

Devices through which we employ identity should offer people the same kinds of identity controls – just as car makers offer similar controls so we can all drive safely.

The Laws of Identity

I&#39ve been working on how to make the Laws of Identity accessible to busy people without a technical background.  If you have ideas about how this can be improved please let me know:

 

People using computers should be in control of giving out information about themselves, just as they are in the physical world.

 

Only information needed for the purpose at hand should be released, and only to those who need it, just as we don’t indiscriminately broadcast our private information in daily life.   

 

It should NOT be possible to automatically link up everything we do in all aspects of how we use the Internet.  A single identifier that stitches everything up would be a big mistake. 

 

 

We need choice in terms of who provides our identity information in different contexts.

 

The system must be built so that as users, we can understand how it works, make rational decisions and protect ourselves. 

 

And finally, for all these reasons, we need a single, consistent, comprehensible user experience even though behind the scenes, different technologies, identifiers and identity providers are being used.

 

[UPDATE:  important comments integrated and new version here.]

Clarification

In response to my post earlier today on some OpenID providers who did not follow proper procedures to recover from a bug in Debian Linux, a reader wrote:

 

“You state that users who authenticated to the OpenID provider using an Information Card would not have their credentials stolen.   I assume that cracking the provider cert would allow the bad guys to tease a password out of a user, and that InformationCards require a more secure handshake than just establishing a secure channel with a cert. But it still seems that if the bad guys went to the effort of implementing the handshake, they could fool CardSpace as well. Why does that not expose the users credentials?

 

I&#39ll try to be be more precise.  I should have stayed away from the word “credential”.  It confused the issue.

 

Why?  There are two different things involved here that people call “credentials”.  One is the “credential” used when a user authenticates to an OpenID provider.  To avoid the “credential” word, I&#39ll call this a “primordial” claim: a password or a key that isn&#39t based on anything else, the “first mover” in the authentication chain.

 

The other thing some call a “credential” is the payload produced by the OpenID provider and sent to the relying party.  At the minimum this payload asserts that a user has a given OpenID URL.  Using various extensions, it might say more – passing along the user&#39s email address for instance.  So I&#39ll call these “substantive” claims – claims that are issued by an identity provider and have content.  This differentiates them from primordial ones.

 

With this vocabulary I can express my thoughts more clearly.  By using a self-issued Information card like I employ with my OpenID provider –  which is based on strong public key cryptography – we make it impossible to steal the primordial claim using the attack described.  That is because the secret is never released, even to the legitimate provider.  A proof is calculated and sent – nothing more.

 

But let&#39s be clear:  protecting the primordial claim this way doesn&#39t prevent a rogue identity provider who has guessed the key of a legitimate provider – and poisoned DNS  – from tricking a relying party that depends on its substantitve claim.   Once it has the legitimate provider&#39s key, it can “be” the legitimate provider.  The Debian Linux bug made it really easy to guess the legitimate provider&#39s key.

 

Such a “lucky” rogue provider has “obtained” the legitimate provider&#39s keys.  It can then “manufacture” substantive claims that the legitimate provider would normally only issue for the appropriate individual.  It&#39s like the difference between stealing someone&#39s credit card, and stealing a machine that can manufacture a duplicate of their credit card – and many others as well. 

 

So my point is that using Information Cards would have protected the primordial claim from the vulnerability described.  It would have prevented the user&#39s keys from being stolen and reused.  But It would not have prevented the attack on the substantive claim even in the case of PKI, SAML or WS-Federation.  A weak key is a weak key.

 

The recently publicised wide-scale DNS-poisoning exploits do underline the fact that OpenID isn&#39t currently appropriate for high value resources.  As I explained in more detail here back in February:

 

My view is simple.  OpenID is not a panacea.  Its unique power stems from the way it leverages DNS – but this same framework sets limits on its potential uses.  Above all, it is an important addition to the spectrum of technologies we call the Identity Metasystem, since it facilitates integration of the “long tail” of web sites into an emerging identity framework. 

 

Crypto flaw + bad practices = need for governance

Speaking of issues of governance, the Register just brought us this report on a recent “archeological investigation” by Ben Laurie and Richard Clayton that revealed how a Linux security flaw left a number of OpenID sites vulnerable to attack:

“Slipshod cryptographic housekeeping left some OpenID services far less secure than they ought to be.

“OpenID is a shared identity service that enables users to eliminate the need for punters to create separate IDs and logins for websites that support the service. A growing number of around 9,000 websites support the decentralised service, which offers a a URL-based system for single sign-on.

“Security researchers discovered the websites run by three OpenID providers – including Sun Microsystems – used SSL certificates with weak crypto keys. Instead of being generated from billions of possibilities, the keys came from a a set of just 32,768 options, due to a flaw in the random number generation routines used by Debian. The bug, which has been dormant on systems for 18 months, was discovered and corrected back in May.

“Keys generated by cryptographically flawed systems still needed to be replaced even after the software was upgraded. But recent research by Ben Laurie of Google reveals that 1.5 per cent of certificates he looked at contained weak keys. Three OpenID providers (openid.sun.com, xopenid.net and openid.net.nz) were among the guilty parties.

“To exploit the vulnerability, malicious hackers would need to trick surfers into visiting a site impersonating a pukka OpenID provider. But faking digital certificate alone wouldn&#39t do the trick without first misdirecting surfers to these bogus sites. Dan Kaminsky&#39s recent discovery of a DNS cache poisoning flaw made it far more plausible to construct an attack that sent surfers the wrong away around the net&#39s address lookup system, potentially to a bogus Open site posing as the real deal.

“The security flaw meant that even cautious users who check SSL certificates were at risk of handing over their OpenID credentials as part of a phishing attack. Such an attack would take a lot of effort to pull off and would only yield OpenID login credentials, which aren&#39t especially useful for hackers and are difficult to monetise.

“Going after online banking credentials via a site that makes no attempt to offer up fake SSL certificates is a far more reliable moneyspinner, a factor that leads noted security researcher Richard Clayton to describe the attack as the “modern equivalent of a small earthquake in Chile”.

“Sun has responded to the issue by generating a new secure key, which reduces the scope for mischief but still leaves potential problems from the old key.

“More thoughts on the cryptographically interesting – though not especially life-threatening – flaw can be found in Clayton&#39s posting on Cambridge University&#39s Light the Blue Touchpaper blog here. A security advisory by Laurie and Clayton explaining the issue in greater depth can be found here.”

I tip my hat to Ben and Richard for doing what I think of as “system archeology” – looking into the systems people actually leave behind them, as opposed to the ones they think they have built.  We need a lot more of this.  In fact, we need to have full time archeologists rigorously exploring what is being deployed.

This said, I have to question the surprisingly opportunistic title of Richard&#39s piece:  An insecurity in OpenID, not many dead.

Let&#39s get real.  None of what went wrong here was in any way specific to OpenID.  The weakness would have struck any application that relied on crypto and was built on Debian Linux and operated in the same way.  This includes SSL, which for some reason doesn&#39t get singled out.  And it applies to SAML, WS-Trust and PKI  (e.g. any of the security-based identity protocols).  Is OpenID a convenient straw man? 

In fact there were really two culprits.  First, the crypto flaw itself, a problem in Linux.  Second, the fact that although the flaw had been fixed, new keys and certificates had not been obtained by a number of the operators. 

So we are brought right back to the issue of governance, and in all fairness, Richard makes that point too.  Given the improper operating practices, and the fact that OpenID imples no contractual agreement, how would anyone have been able to sort out liability if the flaw had resulted in a serious breach?

Clearly, timely patching of one&#39s operating system needs to be one of the host of requirements placed on any identity provider.  A system of governance would make this explicit, and provide a framework for assigning liability should the requirement not be met.  I really think we need to move forward on a broadly inclusive governance conversation.

And finally, just so no one thinks I have gone out of character, let&#39s all note that any user who employed an Information Card to authenticate to the OpenID provider would NOT have had her credentials stolen, in spite of the vulnerability Ben and Richard have documented.   

 

New York Times on OpenID and Information Cards

Randall Stross has a piece in the NYT that hits the jackpot in explaining to non-technical readers what&#39s wrong with passwords and how Information Cards help:    

“I once felt ashamed about failing to follow best practices for password selection — but no more. Computer security experts say that choosing hard-to-guess passwords ultimately brings little security protection. Passwords won’t keep us safe from identity theft, no matter how clever we are in choosing them.

“That would be the case even if we had done a better job of listening to instructions. Surveys show that we’ve remained stubbornly fond of perennial favorites like “password,” “123456” and “LetMeIn.” The underlying problem, however, isn’t their simplicity. It’s the log-on procedure itself, in which we land on a Web page, which may or may not be what it says it is, and type in a string of characters to authenticate our identity (or have our password manager insert the expected string on our behalf).

“This procedure — which now seems perfectly natural because we’ve been trained to repeat it so much — is a bad idea, one that no security expert whom I reached would defend.”

“The solution urged by the experts is to abandon passwords — and to move to a fundamentally different model, one in which humans play little or no part in logging on. Instead, machines have a cryptographically encoded conversation to establish both parties’ authenticity, using digital keys that we, as users, have no need to see.

“In short, we need a log-on system that relies on cryptography, not mnemonics.

“As users, we would replace passwords with so-called information cards, icons on our screen that we select with a click to log on to a Web site. The click starts a handshake between machines that relies on hard-to-crack cryptographic code…”

Randall&#39s piece also drills into OpenID.  Summarizing, he sees it as a password-based system, and therefore a diversion from what&#39s really important:

“OpenID offers, at best, a little convenience, and ignores the security vulnerability inherent in the process of typing a password into someone else’s Web site. Nevertheless, every few months another brand-name company announces that it has become the newest OpenID signatory. Representatives of Google, I.B.M., Microsoft and Yahoo are on OpenID’s guiding board of corporations. Last month, when MySpace announced that it would support the standard, the nonprofit foundation OpenID.net boasted that the number of “OpenID enabled users” had passed 500 million and that “it’s clear the momentum is only just starting to pick up.”

“Support for OpenID is conspicuously limited, however. Each of the big powers supposedly backing OpenID is glad to create an OpenID identity for visitors, which can be used at its site, but it isn’t willing to rely upon the OpenID credentials issued by others. You can’t use Microsoft-issued OpenID at Yahoo, nor Yahoo’s at Microsoft.

“Why not? Because the companies see the many ways that the password-based log-on process, handled elsewhere, could be compromised. They do not want to take on the liability for mischief originating at someone else’s site.

Randall is right that when people use passwords to authenticate to their OpenID provider, the system is vulnerable to many phishing attacks.  But there&#39s an important point to be made:  these problems are caused by their use of passwords, not by their use of OpenID. 

When people authenticate to OpenID in a reliable way – for example, by using Information Cards –  the phishing attacks are no longer possible, as I explain in this video.  At that point, it becomes a safe and convenient way to use a public personna.

The question of whether and when large sites will accept the OpenIDs issued by other large sites is a more complicated one.  I discussed a number of the issues here.   The problem is that for many applications, there needs to be a layer of governance on top of the identity basic technology.  What happens when something goes wrong?  Are there reliability and quality of service guarantees?  If informaiton is leaked, who is responsible?  How is fiscal liability established?  And by the way, we need to figure this out in order to use any federation technology, whether OpenID, SAML or WS-Trust.

So far, these questions are being answered on an ad hoc basis, since there are no established frameworks.  I think you can divide what&#39s happening into two approaches, both of which make a lot of sense: 

First, there are relying parties that limit the use of OpenID to low-value resources.  A great example is the French telecom company Orange.  It will accept ID&#39s from any OpenID provider – but just for free services.  The approach is simply to limit use of the credentials to so-called low-value resources.  Blogger and others use this approach as well.

Second, the is the tack of using the protocol for higher-value purposes, but limiting the providers accepted to those with whom a governance agreement can be put in place.  Microsoft&#39s Health Vault, for example, currently accepts OpenIDs from two providers, and plans to extend this as it understands the governance issues better.  I look at it as a very early example of a governance-oriented approach.

I strongly believe OpenID moves identity forward.  The issues of password attacks don&#39t go away – in fact the vulnerabilites are potentially worse to the extent that a single password becomes the gate to more resources.  But technologies like Information Cards will solve these problems.  There is a tremendous synergy here, and that is the heart of the matter.  Randall writes:

“We won’t make much progress on information cards in the near future, however, because of wasted energy and attention devoted to a large distraction, the OpenID initiative. “

But I think this energy and attention will take us in the right direction as it shines the spotlight on the benefits and issues of identity, wagging identity&#39s “long tail”.