Digital identity allows us to manage risk – not prove negatives

Jon's piece channeled below,  Steven O'Grady‘s comments at RedMonk and  Tim O’Reilly’s Blogger's Code of Conduct  all say important things about the horrifying Kathy Sierra situation.   I agree with everyone that reputation is important, just as it is in the physical world.  But I have a fair bit of trouble with some of the technical thinking involved.

I agree we should be responsible for everything that appears on our sites over which we have control.    And I agree that we should take all reasonable steps to ensure we control our systems as effectively as we can.  But I think it is important for everyone to understand that our starting point must be that every system can be breached.  Without such a point of departure, we will see further proliferation of Pollyannish systems that, as likely as not, end in regret.

Once you understand the possibility of breach, you can calculate the associated risks, and build the technology that has the greatest chance of being safe.  You can't do this if you don't understand the risks.  In this sense, all you can do is manage your risk.

When I first set up my blog to accept Information Cards, it prompted a number of people to try their hand at breaking in.  They were unable to compromise the InfoCard system, but guess what?  There was a security flaw in WordPress 2.0.1 that was exploited to post something in my name

By what logic was I responsible for it?  Because I chose to use WordPress – along with the other 900,000 people who had downloaded it and were thus open to this vulnerability?

I guess, by this logic, I would also be responsible for any issues related to problems in the linux kernel operating underneath my blog; and for  potential bugs in MySQL and PHP.  Not to mention any improper behavior by those working at my hosting company or ISP. 

I'm feeling much better now.

So let's move on to the question of non-repudiation.  There is no such thing as a provably correct system of any significant size.  So there is no such thing as non-repudiation in an end-to-end sense.  The fact that this term emerged from the world of PKI is yet another example of its failure to grasp various aspects of reality.

There is no way to prove that a key has not been compromised – even if a fingerprint or other biometric is part of the equation.  The sensors can be compromised, and the biometrics are publicly available information, not secrets.

I'm mystified by people who think cryptography can work “in reverse”.  It can't.  You can prove that someone has a key.  You cannot prove that someone doesn't have a key.  People who don't accept this belong in the ranks of those who believe in perpetual motion machines.

To understand security, we have to leave the nice comfortable world of certainties and embrace uncertainty.  We have to think in terms of probability and risk.  We need structured ways to assess risk.  And we then have to ask ourselves how to reduce risk. 

Even though I can't prove noone has stolen my key, I can protect things a lot more effectively by using a key than by using no key! 

Then, I can use a key that is hard to steal, not easy to steal.  I can put the lock in the hands of trustworthy people.   I can choose NOT to store valuable things that I don't need. 

And so, degree by degree, I can reduce my risk, and that of people around me.

One very sad story

This article by ZDnet's Mitch Ratcliffe on Identity Rape and Mob Mentality sends shivers down the spine.  Partly because a bunch of our friends are involved.  Partly because the dynamics are just scarey.

Allen Herrell, one of the accused attackers in the Kathy Sierra controversy, has written a long email to Doc Searls explaining that his entire online identity has been compromised. If true, and I believe it, because I have known Allen for many years, it appears there have been many more victims here than Ms. Sierra.

I am writing this from a new computer, using an email address that will be deleted at the end of this.

I am no longer me. My main machine despite my best efforts has been hacked, my accounts compromised including my email. and has been disconnected from the internet.

How did this happen? When did this happen? shit doc, i don't have a fucking clue. I thought i was pretty sharp. I guess not.

just about every online account that i have has been compromised. Most importantly my digital identity and user/password for typepad and wordpress. I have been doing damage control, for my clients. How the fuck i got to be part of this mess is revolting.

The Kathy Sierra mess is horrific. I am not who ever used my identity and my picture!!

I am sick beyond words over this whole episode. Kathy Sierra may not be on my top 10 list , but nobody deserves this filthy character assaination (sic). 

A lynch mob mentality has come over the Blogosphere. Kathy Sierra has ever right to be angry about the messages directed at her, but her allegations appear to have been misdirected and misinformed, because they relied on simplistic analysis of the sites and assumed that appearance and reality were identical. And she's making it worse, writing today:

You're damn right I'm *linking* these folks to these posts. You're wrong about their involvement. The posts and comments were NOT made by–as you said–heinous trolls.

Whoever made the posts was a registered member, and they *know* who made the comments — he was one of their participants. I never said Jeaneane was the one creating the noose picture or comment. I said she was a participant in and “celebrated” and encouraged I believe that when prominent people encourage this kind of behavior, they don't get to wash their hands of it, ethically.

I should be more clear, though, that while *someone* broke the law with the noose photo/comment, I'm definitely NOT suggesting that anyone else did anything legally wrong.

But I think Hugh put it better than I can:

–You might not be the guy raping the cheerleader, but if you're the one standing by saying, “go go go!” you share some responsibility.–

Not legal, but ethical. I don't believe any of these folks should be able to create these forums, *celebrate* them, send people there, and actively participate… and then claim complete innocence. If you hand someone a loaded gun. and encourage them to shoot…

The rape metaphor applies to everyone involved who had words and images they find deplorable attributed to them. But it is far more important to understand that the rape claimed attributed to them probably didn't happen wasn't their doing in the first place. The gun shoved in Chris Locke, Jeneane Sessums, Frank Paynter and Allen Herrell's hands is as likely to be illusory as not. We need proof, not accusations, just like in the physical world.

Trolls created the impression of a crime and sat back to watch human nature show its worst side. They are still enjoying it.

As Chris Locke explained in his email to me yesterday, he took the offensive postings down “shortly after it appeared.” Nevertheless, Bert Bates, Kathy Sierra's Head First Java co-author has commented on this blog, saying “By definition, these ‘posts’ were made by the author(s) of the site – it IS a small circle of candidates.” When you factor in the possibility that accounts were co-opted, according to this definition, anyone who has ever had their email address spoofed is responsible for the content of the messages sent under their name.  (Post continues here…)

There are so many things to be learned from this story that it boggles my mind. 

It brings back a conversation I had with Allen (The Head Lemur) at Ester Dyson's Release 1.0 conference, years ago, where we first talked about identity.  He was skeptical (as is his wont) but I had good fun talking to him.  And there is no doubt in my mind that we should, as our civilization has learned to do, consider Allan innocent until proven guilty – and there doesn't seem to be any sign of that. 

The worst is that I hear stories like this all the time.  Not just in my work, but from my family. 

My daughter tells of a lady friend who's gmail account was broken into – resulting in pandemonium that – if it weren't so unbearable – would be the stuff french farces are made of. 

My son's instant messaging account was hacked by the ex of a ladyfriend he wasn't even dating.  Again, he was dragged through weeks of confusion and reconnection. 

So one of the things that separates this story from all the others happening all over cyberspace is just that we know the people involved.  The broad strokes are common today given the randomness of web security and identity.

To make matters worse, imagine technical people saying, in a world of passwords and keystroke loggers, “these ‘posts’ were made by the author(s) of the site – it IS a small circle of candidates…”  Help me.

It's a great proof point that even though blogs don't involve high finance, they still need high quality security.  The loss of privacy and loss of dignity we have witnessed here can't really be undone, even if one day they can be forgotten.  Protecting identity and protecting access is not a joke.

Some days, when I'm really tired, I look at the vast job ahead of us in fixing the internet's identity infrastructure, and wonder if I shouldn't just go and do something easy – like levitation.  But a story like this drives home the fact that we have to succeed. 

Maybe next time Allan and colleagues will be using Information Cards, not passwords, not shared secrets.  This won't extinguish either flaming or trolling, but it can sure make breaking in to someone's site unbelievably harder – assuming we get to the point where our blogging software is safe too.

My first i-names spam

 I've been using an I-name (it is here) for a couple of years now and have never received anything I considered spam.  It's been a great way for me to get feedback and input (even if I haven't always been able to respond in a very timely fashion due to the demands of my “day job”). 

But today, that period of initial innocence came to an end.  It seems that Mr. Gerg, below, has built a little contraption that makes it past 2idi's email verification process.  I'd say my friends Fen and Victor, who created the Eden in which I've been living, need now to add a Turing test to their system.

Meanwhile, the proposal made by Mr. Gerg is “too muchie”. 

If the search engines are smart enough to figure out this kind of goofie manipulation, why go to all this trouble? Just because you can?

As shown at right, Dane Carson's memey little Technorati applet calculates the value of Mr. Gerg's property as being zero, compared to the bizarre value it places on mine (if anyone wants to buy, please send check).  When I look into Google's page rank, Mr. Gerg's property is just a “5”, even though it has about 4700 links, so Google has figured out the links are to things of very low value.  Seems like we might be getting somewhere with reputation.

So you would wonder why he would he spend his time building an engine that sends me i-name spam to do something that doesn't seem to be working in the first place. Anyway, if anyone wants to look at the pages he is referring to, you'll have to add the “p” to shopping that I removed from the URLs below – so as not to contribute any further links to his site or person.  I've also purposely misspelled his name.

Hello Kim Cameron,

My name is Alex Gerg and I am the manager of the project for

I have a proposal I would like to make. I have looked at your BLOG and think we can benefit from a partnership. Our site has more then 10,000,000 pages. Google, Yahoo and MSN each has already indexed over 300,000 pages with projected 2,000,000 pages in the next 2-3 month.
Google cached pages:

I would put your site’s text link to my site Your link will be placed in our Partners  section at the bottom of our site on every single page, over 10,000,000 pages.

In exchange we would like to ask you to put a text link in the footer or in other section on your web site.

I am open to any other suggestions you might have for partnership. Please fell free to ask any questions or offer other forms of partnership. I would appreciate your reply.

Alex Gerg

Ths message was sent via your 2idi I-Name Contact Service.
Sender Information:

Real Name: Alex Gerg

Doing my research on how many links he has on different systems, I noticed that he's also spammed the list at the debian project.  I'll bet he's really going to pick up a whole lot of support there too…

Of course, maybe this is just a digital centrifuge intended to separate out the real suckers that he can then go after in some other way.

GoDaddy’s bad buffness day

More on buffness from Jon Udell:

Last week Kim Cameron wrote about a problem at Flickr that resulted in wrong photos being displayed. Flickr’s acknowledgement and explanation of the problem earned this commendation from Axel Eble, which Kim cited:

Folks, this is one of the best pieces of crisis management I have ever seen! It states the problem; it states the solution; it takes the blame where necessary and it gives a promise to the future. Now, if we could set this as mandatory teaching for all companies worldwide I would feel so much better. [The Quiet Earth]

Kim went on to note that while this new transparency is a great thing, it’s not enough to be transparent, you must also be competent. And he borrowed this wonderful phrase from Don Tapscott: “If you are going to be naked, you had better be buff.”

Yesterday my DNS provider, GoDaddy, had a bad buffness day. My site was offline for hours, during which time the blogosphere speculated wildly about problems related to Daylight Saving Time. GoDaddy had nothing to say about it when I checked yesterday, and has nothing now, though it seems that at some point a note about technical difficulties was posted.

Scanning the commentary on various sites yesterday yielded no conclusion. The outage either was, or wasn’t, a denial of service attack unrelated to DST. I never knew which, yesterday, and I still don’t today.

The corollary to “If you are going to be naked, you had better be buff” is clearly not “On a bad buffness day, cover up.”

Flickr hiccup and transparency

Via Perilocity from The Quiet Earth:

So flickr had a hiccup yesterday. Well, truth be told, it was a major problem on their side: the image caches ran amok and delivered the wrong pics – not a few of them a bit on the more adult oriented side (as a sidenote, this proves what we all knew anyway: The Internet Is All About Porn). To the emotional outcry from lotsa lotsa users came the fact that the problem was not resolved by restarting the flaky cache server(s) but instead resurfaced once again. So finally, after quite a few hours of downtime (and I bet beet red engineers working overtime to find the bug and fix it) the system is back up.

So that's the exposition, which just about gives you an idea of the dimension of this thingy. It didn't? Well, then let me summarize: It Was BIG. However, flickr not only took down their site but pointed to their blog – in which Eric Costello did keep the users informed (if only tersely, but this is better than just a few lame marketing lines stating that all is beautiful and the system is just being enhanced yaddayaddayadda). When it was apparent that flickr would solve the problem he sat down and wrote a decent explanation of the problem – in a way to satisfy both non-technical users and the somewhat tech-savvy ones. He explains the issue without emotional overtures nor does he play it down:

To be clear, we regard this as a serious problem, but it is something that goes away as soon as we restart the malfunctioning servers (tonight we found that the servers were going insane again shortly after restarting, but we have isolated the problem and believe we have a permanent fix).

And finally, he concludes with:

We shamefacedly apologize for the inconvenience and the scare. We understand that it probably seems very, very strange and we know that many people got the impression that their photos were lost forever. But they should all be back now, safe and sound. And everyone who works on Flickr's engineering and technical operations teams are working double time to ensure that it never happens again. Thanks for your understanding and patience!

Folks, this is one of the best pieces of crisis management I have ever seen! It states the problem; it states the solution; it takes the blame where necessary and it gives a promise to the future. Now, if we could set this as mandatory teaching for all companies worldwide I would feel so much better.

Now I feel better about my glitches upgrading to WordPress 2.0.2. Just kidding. I think this is a great story.

I'll just assert one caveat, though, directed not so much to the Flickr incident as to the notion that good communication can fix everything. 

Transparency and visibility are not the whole story, as important as they may be.   

I recently fell back into Don Tapscott's super book from way back in 2003, The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency will Revolutionize Business.  (By the way, it's rated 5 stars by its Amazon peer reviewers.  Don is – rightly – a cyber guru to many Fortune 500 businesses.)  In it he says:

“From the marketing perspective, the message is clear. If you are going to be naked, you had better be buff.”

I love this.  And as Don shows through examples, “Opening the kimono, especially when you're not superbly buff, presents risks…” 

It's a great metaphor:  transparency is bringing about a whole new way of doing business, in which businesses will want – and be required – to “get in shape”.   So under the change in communications is a much bigger change.

Comment problem seems due to Firefox bug

As Pamela explains, it was neither the upgrade to WordPress 2.0.2 (made necessary by a security vulnerability discovered in WordPress 2.0.1), nor the nifty Pamela Project code, that has been causing problems when using non-Windows Card Selectors with Firefox on my blog.  Instead, it is the latest rev of Firefox itself (bugs are being filed).

For anyone who is using the “xmldap Identity Selector” Firefox plugin on the Mac and has suddenly found that they are unable to log into the PamelaWare Test Blog or Product Blog or Pat’s or Kim’s blogs, the problem is not with the blogs themselves. The problem appears to be buggy nastiness in the Mac version of Firefox, which wreaks havoc with Chuck’s plugin (xmldap Identity Selector v0.8.6) . If you uninstall Firefox and then install Firefox from (get release here), you will again be able to authenticate to everyone’s blogs once again. The Safari plugin works as well, so if you want to remain on Firefox, you could satisfy your Information Card needs by using that plugin on your Mac instead.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog commenting :)

A number of people also discovered a less severe problem where comments ended up in a manual approval queue rather than being automatically posted even after InfoCard login.  If you have logged in with an InfoCard you should be getting automated instant access.  As far as I can tell, this now works properly.

Please keep me posted about any other issues.  This will help everyone using WordPress with the Pamela Project plugin.

Final note:  automated trackbacks will also be slowed down for a while I strengthen the trackback spam filter (gee – too bad there is no delegated authentication yet…)  If you want me to see a posting quickly please drop an i-names email.

Temporary problems logging in?

A number of people have had problems logging in to my blog from non-CardSpace identity selectors.  Eric Norman writes:

As of the upgrade today, I can't get to Kim's blog any more. The same thing happens with either Firefox or Safari.

When I click on the link to log in with an InfoCard, I get redirected to an error page that says I submitted an invalid one (see attachment).

I suspect that the problem is in on the WordPress side since it happens with two separate browsers, but I suppose it's possible that they both share some bad code.

In any case, I would be glad to help diagnose the problem…

I do come from an academic environment and we here do care a lot about interoperability across platforms. While I understand that all this code is still very experimental, I am faced with the problem that it worked yesterday and doesn't work today.

As long as I'm trying to help debug, I'll mention one other thing.

I don't know if this is still a problem since I can't get far enough any more. Neither of the above identity selectors have the ability to export and import cards, so I just had to install a new card on each. Whenever I would switch browsers, I would have to go through  the email verification bit again. This could get rather noisome.

It appears that the server side just remembers the last card that contains an email address instead of all of them.

So first, let me say I threw my blog into Pamela mode as part of the Pamela beta – hoping people who come here would be willing to put up with any inconvenience.  Maybe I should have asked first!  And I probably should have asked for Project Pamela's permission as well.  What can I say?  I'm an architect and I get excited about things.  I've really wanted to get on to production code. 

Make a note not to hire me as your operations manager…

We'll get it sorted out ASAP.  I'll post when we get things fixed.  In the meantime, if you use the Safari or Firefox Java identity selectors please use my i-name (or my email) to send your comments and I'll post them.

In terms of Eric's comment that it should be possible to register several cards at once, I know Pamela Project wants to work on that.

Finally, we need a cross-vendor automated test suite that includes tokens produced by everyone's implementations.  All of us will want to test with such a resource.

The umpire delegates back

Pete Rowley of RedHat has to win the Witty Title Award for “The umpire delegates back“:  

Recently Kim Cameron has been defending CardSpace against various assertions that it won’t work offline. As I pointed out some while back, that is pure nonesense. I’ll let you read Kims blog for the details of how such a system might work with CardSpace, but I’ll just say it has to do with delegation. And that’s just a big word for access control, in this case user centric decentralized access control.

There really is no big secret to how this stuff is possible – at some point in time an offline user will be online, and during that time instead of ceding their credentials to the service in the sky (or worse, it happens without choice), they spend the time granting access specific to the service that needs access. That’ll be a statement along the lines of “Pete’s blog is allowed to view this flickr photoset.”, not “here’s my password dude, do as you will”, or indeed “hey, IdP, see that service? That’s me that is.” I have to agree with Kim on the notion of impersonation – at no time should anybody give the required access level for impersonation of themselves, on or offline.

There be dragons.

Pete has a fascinating blog and it's really worth following his People In The Policy series.  This is good stuff.

Services should use their own credentials, not mine

Dave Kearns, who is usually not without wisdom, takes on my “bold and forceful” assertion: 

Aided by Jim Kobielus, Kim Cameron and Eve Maler are having a snit. Well, Eve's taking potshots at CardSpace and Kim's defending his baby….

As part of the exchange, Cameron states categorically: “No one and no service should ever act in a peron’s [sic] identity or employ their credentials when they’re not present. Ever.” Bold and forceful, certainly. But also as wrong as wrong can be.

We all (even Kim) often ask services to do things on our behalf – and don't sit around watching to be sure they do it! The most obvious example is my email inbox – it patiently logs in (as me) to multiple servers periodically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. From time to time I visit the inbox to see what's there, but no way can I be said to be “present” at all times it's acting for me.

Dave is missing the point – maybe I wasn't clear enough. 

I'm not saying you have to “stand around and watch” while your mail client picks up your mail.  I'm saying your mail client should identify itself as a particular instance of a mail client, and present an authorization from you allowing it to pick up your mail. 

They're all ME 

If you share identity (even, in some cases, secrets and credentials) the way Dave is proposing,  we don't know what process is accessing what resource because all the the services I run are ME. 

That's really the computing model we have had until now.  Where has it led?  Well, for example, my email client is ME, and a trojan on my desktop is ME,  and the resources they access can't tell the difference, because they're all ME.

So any trojan that gets into my environment can get my email addresses and send worms to my friends, or pick up my mail and feed it to spam machines.  My mail server and other resources don't know the diffference.

Things don't have to be this way

We can instead build systems where my mail client will identify itself as my email client (e.g. be iteself), and present an authorization token from me saying it can pick up my mail.  

On such a system, my trojan will have to identify itself as “trojan”, and will thus have no authorization coupon to present at all!  It is harder to build systems that behave this way, but given what we now understand, it is doable.  Wouldn't we want actual auditability and proper factoring?

That's why I say:

No one and no service should ever act in a peron’s identity or employ their credentials when they’re not present. Ever.”

The approach Dave describes was fine when we all lived in the Garden of Eden.  But we've been sent out of it into the grown-up world of virtual reality, where there are evil processes as well as good ones, and we need to be able to distinguish one from the other.  This metaphor – and the whole discussion – doesn't come from a “snit with Eve”…  It results from the vulnerabilities of the current generation of software and distributed architecture – regardless of platform – and a desire to make sure we don't repeat the same mistakes going forward.  

Blog posting delegation and third-party auth

LesOrchard at 0xDECAFBAD (…t’s all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee) expands on the idea of how delegation can be used to improve our blogging experience:

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to post about, brought back to mind from Kim Cameron’s post on “Wrong-headed impersonation”:

I wish that blog posting interfaces (ie. MetaWeblog API and Atom Publishing Protocol) offered a way to delegate blog posting to a 3rd party app (desktop or web) in such a way as to avoid providing one’s login details (i.e. user name and password). For instance, consider both Flickr’s and Upcoming’s 3rd party token-based authentication / authorization schemes.In particular, I’m looking at things like’ own Daily Blog Post and others. These can be used to auto-post content to one’s blog generated elsewhere – but at the price of sharing login details. Granted, you can mostly trust these 3rd parties not to do anything nasty with your credentials, but it would be nice not to have to.

I figure that something RESTful like extending HTTP authentication (ala Atom Authentication) with a token scheme could be interesting, and possibly fit nicely into APP itself. It could probably be retrofit into the MetaWeblog API by specifying a per-app user name and password. I can imagine a WordPress admin plugin that issues approved authentication tokens to restrict the categories and other activities allowed by 3rd party apps.

Just something I’m thinking about, as more services may or may not grow into delegated blog posting.