Minimal disclosure for browsers

Not five minutes after pressing enter on my previous post a friend wrote back and challenged me to compare IE&#39s behavior with that of Firefox.  I don&#39t like doing product comparisons but clearly this is a question others will ask so I&#39ll share the results with you:

Results:  behavior of the two browsers are essentially identical.  In both cases, my browser was uniquely identified.

Conclusion:  we need to work across the industry to align browsers with minimal disclosure principles.  How much information needs to be released to a site we don&#39t trust yet?  To what extent can the detailed information currently release be collapsed into non-identifying categories?  When there is some compelling reason to release detailed information, how do we inform the user that the site wants to obtain a fingerprint?

New EFF Research on Web Browser Tracking

Slashdot&#39s CmdrTaco points us to a research project announced by EFF‘s Peter Eckersley that I expect will provoke both discussion and action:

What fingerprints does your browser leave behind as you surf the web?

Traditionally, people assume they can prevent a website from identifying them by disabling cookies on their web browser. Unfortunately, this is not the whole story.

When you visit a website, you are allowing that site to access a lot of information about your computer&#39s configuration. Combined, this information can create a kind of fingerprint – a signature that could be used to identify you and your computer. But how effective would this kind of online tracking be?

EFF is running an experiment to find out. Our new website Panopticlick will anonymously log the configuration and version information from your operating system, your browser, and your plug-ins, and compare it to our database of five million other configurations. Then, it will give you a uniqueness score – letting you see how easily identifiable you might be as you surf the web.

Adding your information to our database will help EFF evaluate the capabilities of Internet tracking and advertising companies, who are already using techniques of this sort to record people&#39s online activities. They develop these methods in secret, and don&#39t always tell the world what they&#39ve found. But this experiment will give us more insight into the privacy risk posed by browser fingerprinting, and help web users to protect themselves.

To join the experiment:
http://panopticlick.eff.org/

To learn more about the theory behind it:
http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/01/primer-information-theory-and-priva…

Interesting that my own browser was especially recognizable:

 

I know my video configuration is pretty bizarre – but don&#39t understand why I should be broadcasting that when I casually surf the web.  I would also like to understand what is so special about my user agent info. 

Pixel resolution like 1435 x 810 x 32 seems unnecessarily specific.  Applying the concept of minimal disclosure, it would be better to reveal simply that my machine is in some useful “class” of resolution that would not overidentify me.

I would think the provisioning of highly identifying information should be limited to sites with which I have an identity relationship.  If we can agree on a shared mechanism for storing information about our trust for various sites (information cards offer this capability) our browsers could automatically adjust to the relationship they were in, releasing information as necessary.  This is a good example of how a better identity system is needed to protect privacy while providing increased functionality.

 

All the help we can get

Now that the world is so thoroughly post-modern, how often do you come across information that qualifies as unexpected?  Well, I have to say that the following story , appearing in the The Australian, left me wide-eyed:

Yesterday, in the church of the City of London Corporation, (Canon Parrot)  presented an updated version of Plow Monday, an observance that dates from medieval times. On this day, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, farm labourers would bring a plough to the door of the church to be blessed.

“When I arrived a few months ago I looked at this service and thought, ‘Why do we have a Plow Monday?’,” Canon Parrott said. Men and women coming to his church no longer used ploughs; their tools were their laptops, their iPhones and their BlackBerries.

So he wrote a blessing and strode out to deliver it before a congregation of 80, the white heat of technology shining from his every pronouncement. “I invite you to have your mobile phone out … though I would like you to put it on silent,” he said.

This was Church 2.0. Behind him, the altar resembled a counter at PC World. Upon it, laid out like holy relics, were four smart phones, one Apple laptop and one Dell.

Then, after another hymn, came the blessing of the smart phones. The Lord Mayor of London offered his BlackBerry to Canon Parrott, which was received with due reverence and placed upon the altar.

The congregation held their phones in the air, and Canon Parrott addressed the Almighty. “By Your blessing, may these phones and computers, symbols of all the technology and communication in our daily lives, be a reminder to us that You are a God who communicates with us and who speaks by Your Word. Amen.”

It makes me wonder what Innis said to McLuhan when he read abut this.

Le Figaro carried a report of an additional prayer, “”May our tongues be gentle, our e-mails be simple and our websites be accessible”. 

Perhaps it is asking too much, but I would have really liked Father Parrott to add, “websites be accessible and secure.”  After all – it can&#39t hurt.   Perhaps next time?

Federation with ADFS in Windows Server 2008

Steve Riley at Amazon takes a fascinating and non-ideological approach on his new blog.  The combination will keep me tuned in – I expect others will feel the same way.  He writes:

“As I&#39ve talked with customers who have deployed or plan to deploy Windows Server 2008 instances on Amazon EC2, one feature they commonly inquire about is Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS). There seems to be a lot of interest in ADFS v2 with its support for WS-Federation and Windows Identity Foundation. These capabilities are fully supported in our Windows Server 2008 AMIs and will work with applications developed for both the “public” side of AWS and those you might run on instances inside Amazon VPC.

“I&#39d like to get a better sense of how you might use ADFS. When you state that you need “federation,” what are you wanting to do? I imagine most scenarios involve applications on Amazon EC2 instances obtaining tokens from an ADFS server located inside your corporate network. This makes sense when your users are in your own domains and the applications running on Amazon EC2 are yours.

“Another scenario involves a forest living entirely inside Amazon EC2. Imagine you&#39ve created the next killer SaaS app. As customers sign up, you&#39d like to let them use their own corpnet credentials rather than bother with creating dedicated logons (your customers will love you for this). You&#39d create an application domain in which you&#39d deploy your application, configured to trust tokens only from the application&#39s ADFS. Your customers would configure their ADFS servers to issue tokens not for your application but for your application domain ADFS, which in turn issues tokens to your application. Signing up new customers is now much easier.

“What else do you have in mind for federation? How will you use it? Feel free to join the discussion. I&#39ve started a thread on the forums, please add your thoughts there. I&#39m looking forward to some great ideas.”

I really look forward to this.  Let&#39s see where it goes…  

Given the mail I get from mutual customers, I know Steve will end up with some interesting insights.

Bizzare customer journey at myPay…

Internet security is a sitting duck that could easily succumb to a number of bleak possible futures.

One prediction we can make with certainty is that as the overall safety of the net continues to erode, individual web sites will flail around looking for ways to protect themselves. They will come across novel ideas that seem to make sense from the vantage point of a single web site. Yet if they implement these ideas, most of them will backfire. Internet users have to navigate many different sites on an irregular basis. For them, the experience of disparate mechanisms and paradigms on every different site will be even more confusing and troubling than the current degenerating landscape. The Seventh Law of Identity is animated by these very concerns.

I know from earlier exchanges that Michael Ramirez understands these issues – as well as their architectural implications. So I can just imagine how he felt when he first encountered a new system that seems to represent an unfortunately great example of this dynamic. His first post on the matter started this way:

“Logging into the DFAS myPay site is frustrating. This is the gateway where DoD employees can view and change their financial data and records.

“In an attempt secure the interface (namely to prevent key loggers), they have implemented a javascript-based keyboard where the user must enter their PIN using their mouse (or using the keyboard pressing tab LOTS of times).

“A randomization function is used to change the position of the buttons, presumably to prevent a simple click-tracking virus from simply replaying the click sequence. Numbers always appear on the upper row and the letters will appear in a random position on the same row where they exist on the keyboard (e.g. QWERTY letters will always appear on the top row, just in a random order).

“At first glance, I assumed that there would be some server-side state that identified the position of the buttons (as to not allow the user&#39s browser to arbitrarily choose the positions). Looking at how the button layout is generated, however, makes it clear that the position is indeed generated by the client-side alone. Javascript functions are called to randomize the locations, and the locations of these buttons are included as part of the POST parameters upon authentication.

“A visOrder variable is included with a simple substitution cipher to identify button locations: 0 is represented by position 0, 1 by position 1, etc. Thus:

VisOrder =3601827594
Substitution =0123456789
Example PIN =325476
Encoded =102867

“Thus any virus/program can easily mount an online guessing attack (since it defines the substitution pattern), and can quickly decipher the PIN if it has access to the POST parameters.

“The web site&#39s security implementation is painfully trivial, so we can conclude that the Javascript keyboard is only to prevent keyloggers. But it has a number of side effects, especially with respect to the security of the password. Given the tedious nature of PIN entry, users choose extremely simplistic passwords. MyPay actually encourages this as it does not enforce complexity requirements and limits the length of the password between 4 and 8 characters. There is no support for upper/lower case or special characters. 36 possible values over an 4-character search space is not terribly secure.”

A few days later, Michael was back with an even stranger report. In fact this particular “user journey” verges on the bizarre. Michael writes:

“MyPay recently overhauled their interface and made it more “secure.” I have my doubts, but they certainly have changed how they interact with the user.

“I was a bit speechless. Pleading with users is new, but maybe it&#39ll work for them. Apparently it&#39ll be the only thing working for them:

Although most users have established their new login credentials with no trouble, some users are calling the Central Customer Support Unit for assistance. As a result, customer support is experiencing high call volume, and many customers are waiting on hold longer than usual.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. We are doing everything possible to remedy this situation.

Michael concludes by making it clear he thinks “more than a few” users may have had trouble. He says, “Maybe, just maybe, it&#39s because of your continued use of the ridiculous virtual keyboard. Yes, you&#39ve increased the password complexity requirements (which actually increased security), but slaughtered what little usability you had. I promise you that getting rid of it will ‘remedy this situation.'”

One might just shrug one&#39s shoulders and wait for this to pass. But I can&#39t do that.  I feel compelled to redouble our efforts to produce and adopt a common standards-based approach to authentication that will work securely and in a consistent way across different web sites and environments.  In other words, reusable identities, the claims-based architecture, and truly usable and intuitive visual interfaces.