Evolving technology for better privacy

Let's continue to explore linking, and of how it relates to CardSpace, identity protocols, token formats and cryptography.

I've summarized a number of thoughts in the following diagram, which contrasts the linking threats posed by a number of technology combinations. The diagram presents these technologies on an ordinal scale ranging from the most dangerous to the least – along the axis of linkage prevention.

X.509 with OCSP

Let's begin with Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology employed with X.509 user certificates.

Here the user has a key only she can “exercise”, and some Certificate Authority (CA) mints a long-lived certificate binding her key to her name, organization, country and the like. When the user visits a relying party who trusts the CA, she presents the certificate and exercises the key – typically by using it to sign a challenge created by the relying party.

In many cases, in addition to binding the key to attributes,  the CA exists with the explicit mission of linking it to a “natural person” (in the sense of an identifiable person in the physical world).  However, for now we'll leave the meaning of assertions aside and look only at how the technology itself impacts privacy.

Since the user presents the same long-lived certificate to every relying party who trusts the CA, the certificate and the information in it link the user accross sessions on one web site, and between one web site and another. Any two web sites obtaining this kind of certificate can compare notes and determine that the same user has visited each of them. This allows linkage of their profiles into a super-dossier (possibly including a super-dossier of a natural person).

What is good about X.509 is that if a relying party does not collude, the CA has no visibility onto the fact that a given user has visited it (we will see that in some other systems such visibility is unavoidable). But a relying party could at any point decide to collude with the CA (assuming the CA actually accepts such information, which may be a breach of policy).  This might result in the transfer of information in either direction beyond that contained in the certificate itself.

So in the diagram, I express this through two risks of collusion. The first is between any two relying parties who receive the same certificate. The second is between any relying party and the certificate authority. In esssence, then, all participating parties can collude with any other party, so this represents one of the worst possible technology alternatives if privacy is your goal.

In light of this it makes sense that X.509 has been successful as a technology for public entities like corporate web sites, where correlation is actually a good thing, but not for individual identification where privacy is part of the equation.

(Continues tomorrow…).

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

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