Protecting the Internet through minimal disclosure

Here's an email I received from John through my I-name account:

I would have left a comment on the appropriate entry in your blog, but you've locked it down and so I can't :(

I have a quick question about InfoCards that I've been unable to find a clear answer to (no doubt due to my own lack of comprehension of the mountains of talk on this topic — although I'm not ignorant, I've been a software engineer for 25+ years, with a heavy focus on networking and cryptography), which is all the more pertinent with EquiFax's recent announcement of their own “card”.

The problem is one of trust. None of the corporations in the ICF are ones that I consider trustworthy — and EquiFax perhaps least of all. So my question is — in a world where it's not possible to trust identity providers, how does the InfoCard scheme mitigate my risk in dealing with them? Specifically, the risk that my data will be misused by the providers?

This is the single, biggest issue I have when it comes to the entire field of identity management, and my fear is that if these technologies actually do become implemented in a widespread way, they will become mandatory — much like they are to be able to comment on your blog — and people like me will end up being excluded from participating in the social cyberspace. I am already excluded from shopping at stores such as Safeway because I do not trust them enough to get an affinity card and am unwill to pay the outrageous markup they require if you don't.

So, you can see how InfoCard (and similar schemes) terrify me. Even more than phishers. Please explain why I should not fear!

Thank you for your time.

There's a lot compressed into this note, and I'm not sure I can respond to all of it in one go.  Before getting to the substantive points, I want to make it clear that the only reason requires people who leave a comment to use an Information Card is to give them a feeling for one of the technologies I'm writing about.  To quote Don Quixote: “The proof of the pudding is the eating.”  But now on to the main attraction. 

It is obvious, and your reference to the members of the ICF illustrates this, that every individual and organization ultimately decides who or what to trust for any given reason.  Wanting to change this would be a non-starter.

It is also obvious that in our society, if someone offers a service, it is their right to establish the terms under which they do so (even requiring identification of various sorts).

Yet to achieve balance with the rights of others, the legal systems of most countries also recognize the need to limit this right.  One example would be in making it illegal to violate basic human rights (for example, offering a service in a way that is discriminatory with respect to gender, race, etc). 

Information Cards don't change anything in this equation.  They replicate what happens today in the physical world.  The identity selector is no different than a wallet.  The Information Cards are the same as the cards you carry in your wallet.  The act of presenting them is no different than the act of presenting a credit card or photo id.  The decision of a merchant to require some form of identification is unchanged in the proposed model.

But is it necessary to convey identity in the digital world?

Increasing population and density in the digital world has led to the embodiment of greater material value there – a tendency that will only become stronger.  This has attracted more criminal activity and if cyberspace is denied any protective structure, this activity will become disproportionately more pronounced as time goes on.  If everything remains as it is, I don't find it very hard to foresee an Internet vulnerable enough to become almost useless.

Many people have come or are coming to the conclusion that these dynamics make it necessary to be able to determine who we are dealing with in the digital realm.  I'm one of them.

However, many also jump to the conclusion that if reliable identification is necessary for protection in some contexts, it is necessary in all contexts.  I do not follow that reasoning. 

Some != All

If the “some == all” thinking predominates, one is left with a future where people need to identify themselves to log onto the Internet, and their identity is automatically made available everywhere they go:  ubiquitous identity in all contexts.

I think the threats to the Internet and to society are sufficiently strong that in the absence of an alternate vision and understanding of the relevant pitfalls, this notion of a singular “tracking key” is likely to be widely mandated.

This is as dangerous to the fabric and traditions of our society as the threats it attempts to counter.  It is a complete departure from the way things work in the physical world.

For example, we don't need to present identification to walk down the street in the physical world.  We don't walk around with our names or religions stenciled on our backs.  We show ID when we go to a bank or government office and want to get into our resources.  We don't show it when we buy a book.  We show a credit card when we make a purchase.  My goal is to get to the same point in the digital world.

Information Cards were intended to deliver an alternate vision from that of a singular, ubiquitous identity.

New vision

This new vision is of identity scoped to context, in which there is minimal disclosure of specific attributes necessary to a transaction.  I've discussed all of this here

In this vision, many contexts require ZERO disclosure.  That means NO release of identity.  In other words, what is released needs to be “proportionate” to specific requirements (I quote the Europeans).  It is worth noting that in many countries these requirements are embodied in law and enforced.


So I encourage my reader to see Information Cards in the context of the possible alternate futures of identity on the Internet.  I urge him to take seriously the probability that deteriorating conditions on the internet will lead to draconian identity schemes counter to western democratic traditions.

Contrast this dystopia to what is achievable through Information Cards, and the very power of the idea that identity is contextual.  This itself can be the basis of many legal and social protections not otherwise possible. 

It may very well be that legislation will be required to ensure identity providers treat our information with sufficient care, providing individuals with adequate control and respecting the requirements of minimal disclosure.  I hope our blogosphere discussion can advance to the point where we talk more concretely about the kind of policy framework required to accompany the technology we are building. 

But the very basis of all these protections, and of the very possibility of providing protections in the first place, depends on gaining commitment to minimal disclosure and contextual identity as a fundamental alternative to far more nefarious alternatives – be they pirate-dominated chaos or draconian over-identification.  I hope we'll reach a point where no one thinks about these matters absent the specter of such alternatives.

Finally, in terms of the technology itself, we need to move towards the cryptographic systems developed by David Chaum, Stefan Brands and Jan Camenisch (zero knowledge proofs).    Information Cards are an indispensible component required to make this possible.  I'll also be discussing progress in this area more as we go forward.


Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

3 thoughts on “Protecting the Internet through minimal disclosure”

  1. If the �some == all� thinking predominates, one is left with a future where people need to identify themselves to log onto the Internet, and their identity is automatically made available everywhere they go: ubiquitous identity in all contexts.

    Kim, have you considered the possibility that technology such as information cards may make supplying identity information (in the “all” sense above) so easy that all relying parties will require it?

    It will be justified by the nebulous “for security reasons” or the infamous “what do you have to hide”?

    I know that's not what you, I, and many others want for the future. But if information card technology becomes as easy to do as just clicking on something, what incentives will relying parties have to do otherwise?

    I'm not making any predictions here; this is just food for thought.

  2. Yes, I've been concerned about that since day one.

    Of course, WITHOUT Information Cards a web of over-identification and hidden links is being forged that would blow the mind of anyone who hasn't looked in detail at how Internet advertising and data sharing works. Basically, people have no idea how far things have ALREADY gone.

    Information Cards can, amongst other things, substitute in a privacy-friendly way for cookies.

    In fact, one can then imagine advertising paradigms (privacy friendly versions of the ideas Doc Searls has proposed) that would have none of the problems of cookies or “homing pixels” – that in fact would allow people to turn them off in favor of a better relationship between advertisers and web users – or not.

    I think the current “road to Hell” is a superhighway; Information Cards provide the basis for bringing a lot of unsettling forces under control.

    I say, “the basis”. There is no silver bullet and no one can afford to become complacent. Minimal disclosure technologies do provide a technology framwork on which legal and policy initiaties can be taken and advocates can effectively operate.

    As long as the Identity Selectors (e.g. CardSpace) make it clear what is being released and require user consent, and as long as spiders can crawl the object tags in web pages indicating WHAT is being asked for, watchdogs and policy-enforcers have the tools to push towards minimal disclusore.

  3. Regarding the possibility that Information Cards will make supplying identity information so easy that all (or most) relying parties will require it��

    It�s useful to remember that there are two kinds of Information Cards: self-issued cards, and managed cards. I�m posting this reply with a self-issued card in which I�ve asserted my identity as Simple Simon. That�s not my real name, but since this is a self-issued card, I can call myself whatever I want. If relying parties start demanding that people sign-on using self-issued cards that provide certain identity information, it�s likely that people who value their anonymity will use made-up identities.

    Then there are managed cards, which are issued by identity providers. These identity providers could (I presume) provide �low assurance� identity services, like OpenID. One reason they are �low assurance� is because the identity provider does not verify any identity information. Since the identity provider doesn�t do any identity verification, or provide any kind of assurance or guarantees about the �identity� it is asserting, low assurance cards (like OpenID) could be provided for free. A relying party that accepts low assurance managed Information Cards will probably not be gaining any identity information of value, at least not from users who provide fictitious information to hide their true identities.

    But �high assurance� managed Information Cards could also be issued by identity providers who do verify identity information. For instance, to get a new Equifax �Over 18 I-Card�, you have to prove that you�re over 18. Right now Equifax is making these available for free, but that�s only because it�s a proof-of-concept prototype and they�re testing the waters. If it turns out that lots of relying parties are going to demand that users prove their age, you can bet that Equifax will start to charge for such cards.

    Any identity provider that issues high assurance Information Cards is going to want to be paid for their trouble because, first of all, they will need to verify claims of identity made by people who want these Information Cards. Secondly, identity providers may also choose to provide some kind of indemnity or guarantees to relying parties. So I think the protection against all relying parties demanding such cards is that it will be too expensive for them to do so. They will most likely have to pay the identity provider for accepting the card.

    Of course, it could go the other way, where the user who is issued the card will have to pay for using the card to assert their identity (or age). That may make sense when the user wants something of value (such as liquor) from an online merchant, and is willing to pay a bit extra to prove their age to get it. But I don�t think that large-scale demands by most relying parties for high assurance managed Information Cards will happen unless these relying parties are willing to pay for it. And it seems unlikely that will happen, since age/identity information really isn�t necessary in most cases, and demanding high assurance managed Information Cards would seem to be an unnecessary cost to these relying parties.

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