If you think the current problems of computer security appear daunting, what is going to happen as the internet grows beyond web browsing and e-mail to pervade every aspect of our daily lives? As the internet powers the monitoring of our health and the checking of our energy saving devices in our homes for example, will problems of cybercrime and threats to our identity, security and privacy grow at the same rate?
One of the most significant contributory causes of existing internet security problems is the lack of a trustworthy identity layer. I can’t prove it’s me when I’m online and I can’t prove to a reasonable level of satisfaction whether the person (or thing) I’m communicating or transacting with online is who or what they claim to be. If you’re a cybercrook, this is great news and highly lucrative since it makes online attacks such as phishing and spam e-mail possible. And cybercrooks are always among the smartest to exploit such flaws.
If we’re serious about realising technology’s potential, security and privacy issues need to be dealt with – certainly before we can seriously contemplate letting the internet move into far more important areas, such as assisting our healthcare at home. How are we to develop such services if none of the devices can be certain who or what they are communicating with?
In front of us lies an age in which everything and everyone is linked and joined through an all pervading system – a worldwide digital mesh of billions of devices and communications happening every second, a complex grid of systems communicating within and between each other in real time.
But how can it be built – and trusted – without the problem of identity being fixed?
So what is identity anyway? For our purposes, identity is about people – and ”things”: the physical fabric of the internet and everything in (or on) it. And ultimately it’s about safeguarding our security and privacy.
If we’re to avoid exponential growth of the security and privacy issues that plague the current relatively simple internet as we enter the pervasive, complex grid age, what principles do we adhere to? How can we have a secure, trusted, privacy-aware internet that will be able to fulfil its potential – and deserve our trust too?
The good news is that these problems are already being addressed. Technology now makes possible an identity infrastructure that simultaneously addresses the security and public service needs of government as well as those of private sector organisations and the privacy needs of individuals.
Privacy-enhancing security technologies now exist that enable the secure sharing of identity-related information in a way that ensures privacy for all parties involved in the data flow. This technology includes ”minimal disclosure tokens” which enable organisations securely to share identity-related information in digital form via the individuals to whom it pertains, thereby ensuring security and privacy for all parties involved in the data flow.
These minimal disclosure tokens also guard against the unauthorised manipulation of our personal identity information, not only by outsiders such as professional cybercrooks but also by the individuals themselves. The tokens enable us to see what personal information we are about to share, which ensures full transparency about what aspects of our personal information we divulge to people and things on the internet. This approach lets individuals selectively disclose only those aspects of their personal information relevant for them to gain access to a particular service.
Equally important, we can also choose to disclose such selective identity information without leaving behind data trails that enable third parties to link, trace and aggregate all of our actions. This prevents one of the current ways that third parties use to collate our personal information without our knowledge or consent. For example, a minimal disclosure token would allow a citizen to prove to a pub landlord they are over 18 but without revealing anything else, not even their date of birth or specific age.
These new technologies help to avoid the problem of centralised systems that can electronically monitor in real time all activities of an individual (and hence enable those central systems surreptitiously to access the accounts of any individual). Such models are bad practice in any case since such central parties themselves become attractive targets for security breaches and insider misuse. Centralised identity models have been shown to be a major source of identity fraud and theft, and to undermine the trust of those whose identity it is meant to safeguard.
It is of course important to achieve the right balance between the security needs of organisations, both in private and public sectors, and the public’s right to be left alone. Achieving such a balance will help restore citizens’ trust in the internet and broader identity initiatives, while also reducing the data losses and identity thefts that arise from current practices.
Now that the technology industry is currently implementing all of the components necessary to establish such secure, privacy-aware infrastructures, all it takes is the will to embrace and adopt them. Only by doing so will we all be able to enjoy the true potential of the digital age – in a secure and privacy-aware fashion.