Microsoft must “U-Prove” what its plans are

Kuppinger Cole‘s analyst Felix Gaehtgens calls on Microsoft to move more quickly in announcing how we are going to make Credentica's Minimal Disclosure technology available to others in the industry.  He says,

“On March 6th, almost a month ago, Microsoft announced its acquisition of Montreal based Credentica, a technology leader in the online digital privacy area. It’s been almost a month, but the dust won’t settle. Most analysts including KCP agree that Microsoft has managed a master coup in snapping up all patents and rights to this technology. But there are fears in the industry that Microsoft could effectively try to use this technology to enrich its own platform whilst impeding interoperability by making the technology unavailable. These fears are likely to turn out to be unfounded, but Microsoft isn’t helping to calm the rumour mill – no statements are being made for the time being to clarify its intentions.”

Wow.  Felix makes a month sound like such a long time.  I'm jealous.  To me it just flew by.  But I get his message and feel the tines of his pitchfork.

Calling U-Prove a “Hot Technology” and explaining why, Felix continues,

“…if Microsoft were to choose to leverage the technology only in its own ecosystem, effectively shutting out the rest of the Internet, then it would be very questionable whether the technology would be widely adopted. The same if Microsoft were to release the specifications, but introduce a “poison pill” by leveraging its patent. This would certainly be against Microsoft’s interest in the medium to long future.”

This is completely correct.  Microsoft would have to be completely luny to try to partition the internet across vendor lines.  So, basically, you can be sure we won't.

“There is a fair amount of mistrust in the industry, sometime even bordering on paranoia because of Microsoft’s past approach to privacy and interoperability. The current heated discussion about the OOXML is an example of this. Over the last years, Microsoft has taken great pains to alleviate those fears, and has shown an willingness to work towards interoperability. But many are not yet convinced of the picture that Kim is painting. It is very much in Microsoft’s interest to make an official statement regarding its broad intentions with U-Prove, and reassure the industry if and how Microsoft intends to follow the “fifth law of identity” with regards to this new technology.

We are working hard on this.  The problem is that Microsoft can't make an announcement until we have the legal documents in place to show what we're talking about.  So there is no consipiracy or poison pill.  Just a lot of details to nail down.

Ralf Bendrath on the Credentica acquisition

Privacy, security and Internet researcher and activist Ralf Bendrath is a person who thinks about privacy deeply. The industry has a lot to learn from him about modelling and countering privacy threats. Here is his view of the recent credentica acquisition:

Microsoft has acquired Montreal-based privacy technology company Credentica. While that probably means nothing to most of you out there, it is one of the most important and promising developments in the digital identity world.

My main criticism around user-centric identity management has been that the identity provider (the party that you and others rely on, like your credit card issuer or the agency that gave you your driver's license) knows a lot about the users. Microsoft's identity architect Kim Cameron explains it very well:

[W]ith managed cards carrying claims asserted by a third party authority, it has so far been impossible, even for CardSpace, to completely avoid artifacts that allow linkage. (…) Though relying parties are not able to collude with one another, if they collude with the identity provider, a set of claims can be linked to a given user even if they contain no obvious linking information.

This is related to the digital signatures involved in the claims flows. Kim goes on:

But there is good news. Minimal disclosure technology allows the identity provider to sign the token and proof key in such a way that the user can prove the claims come legitimately from the identity provider without revealing the signature applied by the identity provider.

Stefan Brands was among the first to invent technology for minimal disclosure or “zero knowledge” proofs in the early nineties, similar to what David Chaum did with his anonymous digital cash concept. His technology was bought by the privacy firm Zero-Knowledge until they ran out of funding and gave it back to Stefan. He has since then built his own company, Credentica, and, together with his colleagues Christian Paquin and Greg Thompson, developed it into a comprehensive middleware product called “U-Prove” that was released a bit more than a year ago. U-Prove works with SAML, Liberty ID-WSF, and Windows CardSpace.

The importance of the concept of “zero-knowledge proofs” for privacy is comparable to the impact public key infrastructures (PKIs) described by Witfield Diffie and Martin Hellmann had on internet security. The U-Prove technology based on these concepts has been compared to what Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman (RSA) did for security when they were the first to offer an algorithm and a product based on PKIs.

When I was at the CFP conference in Montreal last May, I was meeting Kim and Stefan, and a colleague pointed me to the fact that Kim was being very nice to Stefan. “He has some cool patents Microsoft really wants”, my colleague said. Bruce Schneier recently also praised U-Prove, but questioned the business model for companies like Credentica. He added, “I’d like to be proven wrong.”

Kim Cameron is now bragging about having proven Bruce wrong (which is hard to imagine, given the fact that “Bruce Schneier feeds Schrödinger's cat on his back porch. Without opening the box”), while admitting that he still has no business model:

Our goal is that Minimal Disclosure Tokens will become base features of identity platforms and products, leading to the safest possible intenet. I don’t think the point here is ultimately to make a dollar. It’s about building a system of identity that can withstand the ravages that the Internet will unleash. That will be worth billions.

Stefan Brands is also really happy:

For starters, the market needs in identity and access management have evolved to a point where technologies for multi-party security and privacy can address real pains. Secondly, there is no industry player around that I believe in as much as Microsoft with regard to its commitment to build security and privacy into IT systems and applications. Add to that Microsoft’s strong presence in many of the target markets for identity and access management, its brain trust, and the fact that Microsoft can influence both the client and server side of applications like no industry player can, and it is easy to see why this is a perfect match.

A good overview of other reactions is at Kim's latest blog post. The cruicial issue has, again, been pointed out by Ben Laurie, who quotes the Microsoft Privacy Team's blog:

When this technology is broadly available in Microsoft products (such as Windows Communication Foundation and Windows Cardspace), enterprises, governments, and consumers all stand to benefit from the enhanced security and privacy that it will enable.

Ben sarcastically reads it like “the Microsoft we all know and love”, implying market domination based on proprietary technology. But the Microsoft we all know in the identity field is not the one we used to know with Passport and other crazy proprietary surveillance stuff. They have released the standards underlying the CardSpace claims exchange under an open specification promise, and Kim assures us that they will have their lawyers sort out the legal issues so anybody can use the technology:

I can guarantee everyone that I have zero intention of hoarding Minimal Disclosure Tokens or turning U-Prove into a proprietary Microsoft technology silo. Like, it’s 2008, right? Give me a break, guys!

Well. Given the fact that U-Prove is not just about claims flows, but involves fancy advanced cryptography, they really should do everybody a favour and release the source code and some libraries that contain the algorithm under a free license, and donate the patent to the public domain.

First of all, because yes – it's 2008, and “free is the new paid”, as even the IHT has discovered in January 2007.

Second, because yes – it's 2008, and there has been an alternative product out there under a free license for more than a year. IBM Research Labs Zurich have finished their Idemix identity software that works with zero-knowledge proofs in January 2007. It is part of the Higgins identity suite and will be available under an open source license. (The Eclipse lawyers seem to have been looking into this for more than a year, though. Does anybody know about the current status?)

Third, because yes – it's 2008, it's not 1882 anymore, to quote Bruce Schneier again:

A basic rule of cryptography is to use published, public, algorithms and protocols. This principle was first stated in 1883 by Auguste Kerckhoffs.

While I don't follow Ralf into every nook and cranny of his argument, I think he has a pretty balanced view.

But Ralf, you should tell your friend I was being very nice to Stefan in Montreal because I find him very amusing, especially with a scotch in him.  I would have tried to get his technology into widescale use whether I liked him or not, and I would have liked him just as much if he didn't have any patents at all.

I don't want to get into a “free is the new paid” discussion.  As the article you cite states, “Mass media given away freely or at low cost is hardly new, of course. In many countries, over-the-air television and radio have long been financed primarily by advertisers, at no direct cost to consumers.”  So what is new here?  When I can apply this paradigm to my next dinner, tell me about it. 

This having been vented, I come to exactly the same general conclusions you do:  we want a safe, privacy-friendly identity infrastructure as the basis for a safe, privacy-friendly Internet, and we should do everything possible to make it easier for everyone to bring that about.  So your suggestions go in the right direction.  If we were ultimately to give the existing code to a foundation, I would like to know what foundation people in the privacy community would suggest.

As for the business model issue, I agree with you and Bruce – and Stefan – that there is no obvious business model for a small company.  But for companies like Microsoft, our long term success depends on the flourishing of the Internet and the digital economy.  The best and most trustworthy possible identity infrastructure is key to that.  So for the Microsofts, the IBMs, the Suns and others, this technology fits very squarely into our business models.

As for the Identity and Access group at Microsoft, our goal is to have the most secure, privacy-friendly, interoperable, complete, easy to use and manageable identity products available.  As the Internet's privacy and identity problems become clearer to people, this strategy will attract many new customers and keep the loyalty of existing ones.  So there you have it.  To us, U-Prove technology is foundational to building a very significant business.

Reactions to Credentica acquisition

Network World's John Fontana has done a great job of explaining what it means for Microsoft to integrate U-Prove into its offerings:

Microsoft plans to incorporate U-Prove into both Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) and CardSpace, the user-centric identity software in Vista and XP.

Microsoft said all its servers and partner products that incorporate the WCF framework would provide support for U-Prove.

“The main point is that this will just become part of the base identity infrastructure we offer. Good privacy practices will become one of the norms of e-commerce,” Cameron said.

“The U-Prove technology looks like a good candidate as an authentication mechanism for CardSpace-managed cards (i.e., those cards issued by an identity provider),” Mark Diodati, an analyst with the Burton Group, wrote on his blog

In general, the technology ensures that users always have say over what information they release and that the data can not be linked together by the recipients. That means that recipients along the chain of disclosure can not aggregate the data they collect and piece together the user’s personal information.

[More here…]

Eric Norlin has this piece in CSO, and Nancy Gohring's ComputerWorld article emphasizes that “U-Prove is the equivalent in the privacy world of RSA in the security space.”  Burton's Mark Diodati covers the acquisition here.

Gunnar Peterson from 1 Raindrop notes in That Was Fast

…the digital natives may be getting some better tooling faster than I thought. I am sure you already know there is a northern alliance and Redmond is U-Prove enabled. I fondly remember a lengthy conversation I had with Stefan Brands in Croatia several years ago, while he patiently explained to me how misguided the security-privacy collision course way of thinking is, and instead how real security is only achieved with privacy. If you have not already, I recommend you read Stefans’ primer on user identification.

Entrepreneur and angel investor Austin Hill gives us some background and links here:

In the year 2000, Zero-Knowledge acquired the rights to Dr. Stefan Brands work and hired Stefan to help us build privacy-enhanced identity & payments systems.  It turns out we were very early into the identity game, failed to commercialize the technology – and during the Dot.Com bust cycle we shut down the business unit and released the patents back to Stefan.  This was groundbreaking stuff that Stefan had invented, and we invested heavily in trying to make it real, but there weren’t enough bitters in the market at that time.  We referred to the technologies as the “RSA” algorithms of the identity & privacy industry.  Unfortunately the ‘privacy & identity’ industry didn’t exist.

Stefan went on to found Crendentica to continue the work of commercialization of his invention. Today he announced that Microsoft has acquired his company and he and his team are joining Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Identity Architect Guru Kim Cameron has more on the deal on his blog (he mentions the RSA for privacy concept as well).

Adam Shostack (former Zero Knowledge Evil Genius, who also created a startup & currently works at Microsoft) has this post up.   George Favvas, CEO of SmartHippo (also another Zero-Knowledge/Total.Net alumni – entrepreneur) also blogged about the deal as well.

Congratulations to Stefan and the team.  This is a great deal for Microsoft, the identity industry and his team. (I know we tried to get Microsoft to buy or adopt the technology back in 2001 :) 

(I didn't really know much about Zero-Knowledge back in 2000, but it's interesting to see how early they characterized of Stefan's technology as being the privacy equivalent of RSA.  It's wonderful to see people who are so forward-thinking.)

Analyst Neil Macehiter writes:

Credentica was founded by acknowledged security expert Stefan Brands, whose team has applied some very advanced cryptography techniques to allow users to authenticate to service providers directly without the involvement of identity providers. They also limit the disclosure of personally-identifiable information to prevent accounts being linked across service providers and provide resistance to phishing attacks. Credentica's own marketing literature highlights the synergies with CardSpace:

“`The SDK is ideally suited for creating the electronic equivalent of the cards in one's wallet and for protecting identity-related information in frameworks such as SAML, Liberty ID-WSF, and Windows CardSpace.”

This is a smart move by Microsoft. Not only does it bring some very innovative and well-respected technology (with endorsements from the likes of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada) which extends the capabilities of Microsoft's identity and security offerings; it also brings some heavyweight cryptography and privacy expertise and credibility from the Credentica team. The latter can, and undoubtedly will, be exploited by Microsoft in the short term: the former will take more time to realise with Microsoft stating that integrated offerings are at least 12–18 months away.

[More here…]

Besides the many positives, there were concerns expressed about whether Microsoft would make the technology available beyond Windows.  Ben Laurie wrote:

Kim and Stefan blog about Microsoft’s acquisition of Stefan’s selective disclosure patents and technologies, which I’ve blogged about many times before.

This is potentially great news, especially if one interprets Kim’s

Our goal is that Minimal Disclosure Tokens will become base features of identity platforms and products, leading to the safest possible intenet. I don’t think the point here is ultimately to make a dollar. It’s about building a system of identity that can withstand the ravages that the Internet will unleash.

in the most positive way. Unfortunately, comments such as this from Stefan

Microsoft plans to integrate the technology into Windows Communication Foundation and Windows Cardspace.

and this from Microsoft’s Privacy folk

When this technology is broadly available in Microsoft products (such as Windows Communication Foundation and Windows Cardspace), enterprises, governments, and consumers all stand to benefit from the enhanced security and privacy that it will enable.

sound more like the Microsoft we know and love.

I hope everyone who reads this blog knows that it is elementary, my dear Laurie, that identity technology must work across boundaries, platforms and vendors (Law 5 – not to mention, “Since the identity system has to work on all platforms, it must be safe on all platforms”). 

That doesn't mean it is trivial to figure out the best legal mecahnisms for making the intellectual property and even the code available to the ecosystem.  Lawyers are needed, and it takes a while.  But I can guarantee everyone that I have zero intention of hoarding Minimal Disclosure Tokens or turning U-Prove into a proprietary Microsoft technology silo. 

Like, it's 2008, right?  Give me a break, guys!

Microsoft to adopt Stefan Brands’ Technology

The Internet may sometimes randomly “forget”.  But in general it doesn't. 

Once digital information is released to a few parties, it really is “out there”.  Cory Doctorow wrote recently about what he called the half-life of personal information, pointing out that personal information doesn't just “dissipate” after use.  It hangs around like radioactive waste.  You can't just push a button and get rid of it.

I personally think we are just beginning to understand what it would mean if everything we do is both remembered and automatically related to everything else we do.  No evil “Dr. No” is necessary to bring this about, although evil actors might accelerate and take advantage of the outcome.  Linkage is just a natural tendency of digital reality, similar to entropy in the physical world.  When designing phsyical systems a big part of our job is countering entropy.  And in the digital sphere, our designs need to counter linkage. 

This has led me to the idea of the “Need-to-Know Internet”.

The Need-to-Know Internet

“Need to Know” thinking comes from the military.  The precept is that if people in dangerous situations don't know things they don't need to know, that information can't leak or be used in ways that increase danger.  Taken as a starting point, it leads to a safer environment.

As Craig Burton pointed out many years ago, one key defining aspect of the Internet is that everything is equidistant from everything else. 

That means we can get easily to the most obscure possible resources, which makes the Internet fantastic.  But it also means unknown “enemies” are as “close” to us as our “friends” – just a packet away.  If something is just a packet away, you can't see it coming, or prepare for it.  This aspect of digital “physics” is one of the main reasons the Internet can be a dangerous place.

That danger can be addressed by adopting a need-to-know approach to the Internet.  As little personal information as possible should be released, and to the smallest possible number of parties.  Architecturally, our infrastructure should lead naturally to this outcome. Continue reading Microsoft to adopt Stefan Brands’ Technology

From The Economist: the Identity Parade

It's great to see mainstream publications really taking the time to understand and convey the issues of digital identity and privacy.  A recent article in the Economist discussed the Laws of Identity at length.  Cambridge researcher Ross Anderson and others are quoted as well.  Here's an excerpt that gives you a sense for the full article

Internet users have become used to providing personal information to any convincing-looking box that appears on a screen. They have little idea of either the technology that helps to provide electronic security in practice or the theoretical principles that determine whether it will work. According to Mr Cameron, “there is no consistent and comprehensible framework allowing them to evaluate the authenticity of the sites they visit, and they don't have a reliable way of knowing when they are disclosing private information to illegitimate parties. At the same time they lack a framework for controlling or even remembering the many different aspects of their digital existence”…

Cybercrime discredits the use of the internet not only by business but by government too. Mr Cameron suggests rethinking the whole issue, starting from the principle that users may be identified only with their explicit consent. That sounds commonsensical, but many big government databases do things differently. Britain's planned central records for the NHS, for example, will assume consent as it combines all the medical records held in local practice databases.

The second principle, says Mr Cameron, should be to keep down the risk of a breach by using as little information as possible to achieve the task in hand. This approach, which he calls “information minimalism”, rules out keeping information “just in case”. For example, if a government agency needs to check if someone falls into a certain age group, it is far better to acquire and store this information temporarily as a “yes” or “no” than to record the actual date of birth permanently, which would be much more personal and therefore more damaging if leaked.

Third, identity systems must be able to check who is asking for the information, not just hand it over. How easy it is for the outside world to access such information should depend on whose identity it is. Public bodies, Mr Cameron suggests, should make themselves accessible to all comers. Private individuals, by contrast, should be protected so that they have to identify themselves only temporarily and by choice…

[More here…]

New plans for German identity card

IdealGovernment's William Heath describes a planned identification card for German citizens that incorporates a pseudonym capability for electronic commerce: 

The German Home Office has confirmed that a new electronic identity card for German citizens will incorporate the use of pseudonyms for secure web access.

According to the plans of the German Home Office, a credit card sized electronic identity card will be introduced in 2009. It will replace the larger, non-electronic identity cards currently in use. “Apart from the usual personal information, the electronic identity card will contain biometric information, in particular digital fingerprints of both index fingers, and additional information for facial recognition”, says secretary of state August Hanning.

Hanning confirmed that the new identity card will contain a pseudonym function. In a leaked letter to Gisela Piltz, a Member of German Parliament for the Liberal Democrats (FDP), Hanning stated that the card could be used as a “passport for the internet” in the future. “The new identity card offers the possibility of an electronic identity proof for E-Government- and E-Business-applications”, writes Hanning.

The central idea is that the individual card number is used to generate a pseudonym that cannot be reconverted mathematically into the original card number. This pseudonym could then be used to register at, for example, eBay, or any other web service that requires personal identification.

I don't yet know the details of how this works.  I would be concerned if the card generates a single pseudonym that remains constant everywhere it is used.   This would still be an “identifier beacon” that could be used to link all your digital activities into a super-profile. Such a profile would be as irresistable to marketers as it would be to organized crime, so we can be pretty sure it would emerge .  If any aspect of this profile is linked to a molecular identity, all of it is.

In a sense, using a pseudonym that ends up creating a super-dossier would be worse than just using an official government identity, since it would create false expectations in the user, breaking the First Law of identity that ensures the transparency of the identity system so the user can control it.

Regardless of the details of the proposal, it is great to see the German government thinking about these issues.  Once you start to look at them, they lead to the requirement to also support “directed identities”.  There are leading academics and policy makers in Germany who are capable of guiding this proposal to safety.  The key here is to take advantage of the new generation of intelligent smart cards, identity selectors and web service protocols.

[Read more on the  e-health Europe site.]

Booze and Identity

Let's turn to New Zealand's Identity and Privacy Blog for the latest in… news about Canada:  

It’s interesting to see how booze seems to bring up great questions of identity and privacy. Or maybe it’s just the Canadians?

Canadian Dick Hardt uses buying booze as an example in his famous Identity 2.0 presentation and makes very interesting points about using ID, such as a drivers licence, to buy booze.

Now comes another angle from Canada involving booze: if your ID is scanned when entering a bar, would that make you behave? That was one of the issues at the heart of a case decided by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.

The Tantra Nightclub in Calgary had a practice of scanning driver licences before allowing people in. Clearly it is collecting and storing personal information as it includes an individual’s photograph, license number, birth date, address, and bar codes with embedded information unique to the individual driver’s license.

The club says that “We’ve got hard data that it works, we that says crime and violence is down in our venues by over 77%.” On the other hand, the Information and Privacy Commissioner described ID scanning as a deterrent to violent behaviour “conjecture” not backed up by hard data and ordered the club to stop the practice.

In terms of consent, the only thing that the complainant agreed to was the club confirming his date of birth off the licence.

This is precisely the kind of situation that the Laws of Identity frowns upon in digital identity systems, in particular User Control and Consent; Minimal Disclosure for a Constrained Use; and Directed Identity. And another example of unjustified expectations from ID cards that knowing a person’s identity somehow magically solves most societal problems.

Wow.  You have to love this nightclub chain.

The owner is apparently bitter.  But he could get around these problems if he would just change the club's name to something more fitting.  How about the Mein Kampf Eagle Lounge?  Then having a functionary scanning “your papers” would just be part of the show – justifiable by any measure.

The whole report is worth a read, but this argument by Tantra management really stands out:

“The SC System [SecureClub ID System – Kim], as part of the overall comprehensive security system, is intended to act as a deterrent to potential wrongdoers in that all patrons know that their identification is scanned and that therefore they could easily be identified if they were involved in any violent or illegal activity. It is submitted that potential wrongdoers would be less likely to engage in violent or other illegal behaviour if their ability to remain anonymous was removed. It is further submitted that the SC system removes the anonymity of potential wrongdoers, and is therefore one effective component of an effective overall comprehensive security system.”

Hey, come to think of it, we should all have our papers scanned wherever we go, day and night!

Gee, maybe it's that Canadian thing, but it all makes me want to go for a beer.

Scotland's eCare wins award

Scotland's eCare has been recognised at an international awards ceremony on good practice in data protection.  On Tuesday, 11 December, the Data Protection Agency of the Region of Madrid awarded the eCare framework one of two “special mention” awards.  The aim of the annual prize is to expand the awareness of best practices in data protection by government bodies across Europe.

I'm really pleased to see the authors of eCare recognized. They have created a system for sharing health information that concretely embodies the kind of thinking set out in the Laws of Identity.

A Scottish Executive publication describes eCare this way:

The system is designed with a central multi-agency eCare store in a ‘demilitarised’ zone (hanging off NHS net), which links to the multiple back office legacy systems operating locally in the partner agencies. This means that each locality will have its own locally defined and unique approach.

All data shared is subject to consent by the client. The system users are authenticated through their local systems, and are only entitled to view the data of their clients. Clients can change their consent status, and as soon as this is logged on the local system the records cannot be viewed by the partner practitioners.

Benefits that the programme will deliver

The direct benefit to the citizen will be through improved experience of care. Single Shared Assessment, through electronic information sharing, will reduce the volume of questions repeatedly asked by professionals, as data will only have to be collected from the client once, then shared through the technology.

The Children's Services stream will focus on the delivery of an electronic Personal Care Record, an Integrated Children’s Services Record, and a Single Assessment Framework for sharing, to benefit both Scotland’s children, and care practitioners. Across the streams’ care groups, practitioners will save time, because core data will be shared, rather than gathered by multiple agencies. This will reduce the possibility of duplicated or inappropriate care. A more holistic picture of the client will be created, which will help to ensure services that more accurately meet peoples needs.

The principal deliverables of the Learning Disability stream are the development of integrated local service records, which will help planning across a range of services, and the piloting of a national anonymised database, which will enable the Scottish Executive to monitor implementation of ‘The same as you?’ initiative.

Ken Macdonald, Assistant Commissioner (Information Commissioner’s Office, which provided a note of support for the eCare application) has commented:

It is wonderful to see UK expertise in data protection being officially recognised in Europe for the second year running.  Recent events have highlighted the need to comply with the principles of the Data Protection Act and I am delighted to see the eCare Framework and the Scottish Government setting such a fine example to others not just in the UK but throughout Europe.

I hope the work is published more broadly.  From seeing presentations on the system, it partitions information for safety.  It employs encrypted data, not simply network encryption.  It favors local administration, and leaves information control close to those responsible for it.  It puts information sharing under the control of the data subjects.  It consistently enforces “need to know” as well as user consent prior to information release.  In fact it strikes me as being everything you would expect from a system built after wide consultation with citizens and thought leaders – as happened in this case.  And not surprisingly with such a quality project, it uses innovative new technologies and approaches to achieve its goals.

NAO's “redaction” adds fuel to the flames

Google's Ben Laurie has a revealing link to correspondence published by the National Auditing Office relating to HMRC's recent identity disaster. 

He also explains that the practice of publishing “redacted texts” is itself outmoded in light of the kinds of statistical attacks that can now be mounted.  He concludes that, “those who are entrusted with our data have absolutely no idea of the threats it faces, nor the countermeasures one should take to avoid those threats.”

In the wake of the HMRC disaster (nicely summarised by Kim Cameron), the National Audit Office has published scans of correspondence relating to the lost data.

First of all, it's notable that everyone concerned seems to be far more concerned about cost than about privacy. But an interesting question arises in relation to the redactions made to protect the “innocent”. Once more, NAO and HMRC have shown their lack of competence in these matters…

A few years ago it was a popular pastime to recover redacted data from such documents, using a variety of techniques, from the hilarious cut'n'paste attacks (where the redacted data had not been removed, merely covered over with black graphics) to the much more interesting typography related attacks. The way these work is by working backwards from the way that computers typeset. For each font, there are lookup tables that show exactly how wide each character is, and also modifications for particular pairs of characters (for example, “fe” often has less of a gap between the characters than would be indicated by the widths of the two letters alone). This means that if you can accurately measure the width of some text it is possible to deduce which characters must have made up the text (and often what order those characters must appear in). Obviously this isn't guaranteed to give a single result, but often gives a very small number of possibilities, which can then be further reduced by other evidence (such as grammar or spelling).

It seems HMRC and NAO are entirely ignorant of these attacks, since they have left themselves wide open to them. For example, on page 5 of the PDF, take the first line “From: redacted (Benefits and Credits)”. We can easily measure the gap between “:” and “(“, which must span a space, one or more words (presumably names) and another space. From this measurement we can probably make a good shortlist of possible names.

Even more promising is line 3, “cc: redacted@…”. In this case the space between the : and the @ must be filled by characters that make a legal email address and contain no spaces. Another target is the second line of the letter itself “redacted has passed this over to me for my views”. Here we can measure the gap between the left hand margin and the first character of “has” – and fit into that space a capital letter and some other letters, no spaces. Should be pretty easy to recover that name.

And so on.

This clearly demonstrates that those who are entrusted with our data have absolutely no idea of the threats it faces, nor the countermeasures one should take to avoid those threats.

Childrens’ birthdates, addresses and names revealed

Here is more context on the HMRC identity catastrophe.    

According to Terri Dowty, Director of Action on Rights for Children (ARCH):

“This appalling security lapse has placed children in the UK in immediate danger especially those who are already vulnerable. Child Benefit records contain every child’s address and date of birth [italics mine – Kim]. We are not surprised that the Chair of HMRC’s Board has resigned immediately.”

Last year Terri Dowty co-authored a report for the British Information Commissioner which highlighted the risks to children’s safety of the government’s policy of creating large, centralised databases containing sensitive information about children. But he says the government chose to dismiss the concerns of the report's authors. 

Dowty's experience is a clear instance of my thesis that reduction of identity leakage is still not considered to be a “must-have” rather than a “nice-to-have”.

“The government has recently passed regulations allowing them to build databases containing details of every child in England. They have also announced an intention to create a second national database containing the in-depth personal profiles of children using services. They have batted all constructive criticism away, and repeatedly stressed that children’s data is safe in their hands.

“The events of today demonstrate that this is simply not the case, and all of our concerns for children’s safety are fully justified.”

The report ‘Children’s Databases: Safety and Privacy’ can be downloaded here.

Today the “inconvenient” input of people like Terry Dowty is often dismissed – much the way other security concerns used to be – until computer systems began to fall under the weight of internet and insider attacks…

I urge fellow architects, IT leaders, policy thinkers and technologically aware politicians to consider very seriously the advice of advocates like Terry Dowty.  We can deeply benefit from building safe and privacy-enhancing systems that are secure enough to withstand attack and procedural error.  Let's work together to translate this thinking to those who are less technical.  We need to explain that all the functionality required for government and business can be provided in ways that enhance privacy, rather than diminish it or set society up for failure.