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Debate at the intersection of business, technology and culture in the world of digital identity, both commercial and government, a blog born from the Digital Identity Forum in London and sponsored by Consult Hyperion



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6 posts from March 2010

Bank account antics

By Dave Birch posted Mar 24 2010 at 3:48 PM

[Dave Birch] The relationship between identity and money is so interesting, so fractal and so crucial to the evolution of society that I can't resist returning to it again, especially because it's in the news today. The government has just announced yet another initiative to make it easier for poor people to get bank accounts.

Banks will be legally obliged to provide a basic bank account to all UK citizens under plans to be announced in tomorrow's budget. Under the rules designed to reduce financial exclusion, banks would be forced to offer accounts to all applicants, and those who did have problems accessing an account could be offered the right to appeal.

[From 2010 budget: Banks 'to be forced' to provide accounts for all | Money | guardian.co.uk]

If legislation is introduced it could (but won't) benefit some of the 1.75 million adults who, according to the Treasury, have no access to a transactional bank account. Basic bank accounts have been around for years but I guess that banks are still allowed to say no to you if you want one but clearly have no money. A basic bank account is just a very expensive version of a prepaid account.

Basic bank account – for managing day-to-day money. It doesn't usually allow you to go overdrawn by more than £10, if at all. We outline the basics here but if you’d like more information see our Basic bank accounts printed guide. You can download it or order a free copy online – see Free printed guides.

[From What is a bank account : FSA Money made clear - products explained]

Robert Peston, the BBC business correspondent who is believed to be closely linked to the government, commented that

The chancellor, Alistair Darling, is convinced that gaining access to a bank account enhances an individual's ability to find permanent employment – although the connection is not straightforwardly obvious.

[From 2010 budget: Banks 'to be forced' to provide accounts for all | Money | guardian.co.uk]

Since the Treasury notes that four out of five of individuals without access to transactional bank accounts are either retired or too young to pay national insurance, Peston is surely correct in this general point although we'll come back to a specific case where the connection does matter below. But for the moment note that, as the government has identified, people who are forced to live in a cash economy are at significant disadvantage: irrespective of the impact on employment, we can improve the lot of the poor by bringing them in to the system. Peston said research for the government's Digital Inclusion taskforce suggested that poorer households could be missing out on savings of £560 a year available to those who are able to shop online.

Financial inclusion efforts need to be made to bring them into the system. I may disagree with the government about the solution -- because I favour basic payment accounts as the first rung on the ladder of financial inclusion, not expensive and heavily-regulated bank accounts -- but their point is valid. But what if you can't prove your citizenship (I couldn't figure out if this mean UK or EU citizenship but will try and find out) and provide a "provable residential address"? What if you don't have an identity that is deemed acceptable?

Continue reading "Bank account antics" »

Microplanning for ID

By Dave Birch posted Mar 19 2010 at 6:50 PM

[Dave Birch] I've mentioned (in a tedious, repetitive cycle) that there is a connection between national ID schemes, financial inclusion and payments. To put it crudely, if you "solve" the "ID problem" then the "payment problem" goes away. Let's set aside what any of those phrases in quotation marks actually mean for a moment. Let's also set aside the moral and social issues for a moment, and it is clear that:

If the payment system knows absolutely who you are (because of the ID card) then it becomes relatively easy to handle the funds transfer. The identification and authentication cost would, presumably, be shared between the payment application and lots of other applications.

[From [ Digital Identity Forum ]]

Now, I'm certainly not saying that that is the best possible use of technology, and have bored for Britain on the subject of pseudonymity and suchlike, but I am saying that in some circumstances this might be the best overall solution to the problem of extending financial inclusion.

Residents in Oman will soon be able to make payments electronically even if they do not possess a credit or debit card — and it’ll be thanks to the launch of ‘e-purse’ scheme here. All they require is their ID or residency card... The new facility allows people, both nationals and expatriates, to store/load money in their national ID and residency cards and use them to make payments electronically.

[From Khaleej Times Online - Electronic Payment Through ID Card in Oman Soon]

Since ID cards are mandatory in Oman, you can see the logic. What is point of giving people yet another card to carry around when they all have an ID card all the time? And given that getting the less well-off out of the cash economy is a relatively simple way to improve their lot in life, it's an obvious social inclusion strategy.

(Yes, yes, anonymity, I know. But let's set that aside for a moment as well.)

Continue reading "Microplanning for ID" »


By Dave Birch posted Mar 12 2010 at 7:48 PM
[Dave Birch] I have explained before why, of the many credentials that might be associated with a digital identity as part of a commercial, sustainable business model, the IS_A_PERSON credential might be the trigger for the evolution of a more comprehensive infrastructure. Once again, a news story comes along to back me up.

The defendants, however, worked with computer programmers in Bulgaria to develop a technology that allowed a network of computers to impersonate individual visitors to online ticket vendors. The ticket vendors did not immediately recognize the purchases as computer-generated, so these "CAPTCHA Bots" let Wiseguy Tickets to flood ticket vendors as soon as tickets went on sale and purchase tickets faster than any human.

[From Four Indicted in CAPTCHA Hacks of Ticket Sites - Reviews by PC Magazine]

I'm in favour of making ticket agencies illegal and forcing all events to sell all tickets by auction on eBay, the appropriate market-clearing mechanism, but that's a separate point. The problem that the services providers are wrestling with is that they don't know whether they are dealing with a person or a bot, and that's an important problem to solve in a wide range of applications. Commerce, games and even blogs have this problem.

If you have a blog where it is important that people, not bots, contribute then you might well demand to see a certificate with the IS_A_PERSON credential, even though you don't actually care which person it is.

[From Digital Identity: Talkin' bout my reputation]

An anonymous virtual identity with the credentials IS_A_PERSON and IS_OVER_18 would serve most people for most purposes most of the time, including buying tickets from Ticketmaster: Ticketmaster could cost-effectively and efficiently issue me with a Ticketmaster virtual identity with their own credentials once presented with my "real adult" identity and associated payment details.

Continue reading "IS_A_PERSON" »

Why virtual identities are real to some of us

By Dave Birch posted Mar 8 2010 at 8:23 AM
[Dave Birch] The real world is a horrible place, especially near where I live. No wonder that I prefer to sojourn in cyberspace. Is this because I am a geek, an outlier? No, it's because I'm normal.

There’s a fairly strong argument that internet is, in fact, much, much better than the entire “real world”. It’s just easier being a human being there — not surprisingly, given that human beings invented it for human beings to be in; unlike the world, which we did not and are, let’s face it, still busking our way through.

[From Goodbye cruel world, I’m moving to the internet | Caitlin Moran - Times Online]

A few years ago, I wrote a couple of pieces that touched on this theme, including an article on "Opening a Branch in Narnia" for Financial World magazine after Alex Krotoski, Richard Bartle and I ran a seminar on virtual worlds for the CSFI. In this I noted that

One could imagine a flight to virtual communities, where mathematics (in the form of cryptography) provides a defence against crime and disorder that the metal barriers of a gated community cannot. If the community decides on a new law—no swearing in public places, let’s say—then they can enforce it instantly and 100% effectively by downloading a software update. If there are members of the community who don’t like it, they can go to another community instead.

[From Opening a Branch in Narnia An edited version of this article appeared in Financial World magazine, July 2006.]

Building on the Lessig-amplified "code is law" meme, I pointed out that whatever (in that case) Tony Blair might want for the country, he couldn't just change a couple of parameters and reboot. The real world doesn't work like that.

But the virtual one does.

Continue reading "Why virtual identities are real to some of us" »

2 + 2 = X

By Dave Birch posted Mar 5 2010 at 1:57 PM

[Dave Birch] I went to an enjoyable dinner (under Chatham House Rule) organised by DEMOS (a think tank that published a paper on privacy called "Putting People First" a couple of years ago) to discuss some issues around identity and privacy, particularly in the context of social networking. A couple of people raised that point that more privacy is, by itself, not necessarily a social benefit or a individual benefit. The "Privacy Taliban" should recognise economic activity as a social good, essentially.

It’s a controversial topic, but important, since hasty legislation could have dire consequences for the survival of newspapers.

[From The Spectator]

Indeed, and I was keen to press the point about helping content industries to reshape rather than preserve their business models a point of which there seemed to be fairly wide agreement. One area where there wasn't, and where my opinions were regarded as odd, was choice. I said that it was obvious to me that giving people choices about how much information they disclosed online (and to whom) was a practical way forward.

It turns out that the people who most benefit from the ability to set their own software preferences are well educated I.T.-saavy professionals with money — the people who suffer are the poorer and less educated users. So making privacy an individual option basically takes privacy away from the poor.

[From multicast » Blog Archive » On Facebook, Only the Rich Have Privacy]

This is surely correct. Now, I accept that the coming generation see privacy in a different way, and may have different norms, but we don't let them have a choice about whether to wear seatbelts or build houses that aren't to code, even though we acknowledge their perspectives.

Digital immigrants tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others. Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information.

[From Is Online Privacy a Generational Issue? | GeekDad | Wired.com]

One topic that was raised was that the trawling of social networks by machines can take facts that are by themselves not particularly sensitive and match them together to obtain information that is sensitive. This is a topic discussed here before, and I don't want to rehash it, but it is interesting to delve into the commercial side of this. I think, because I'm optimistic about technology, that it ought to be possible for the "system" to mine data about me and offer me useful and relevant commercial relationships without knowing who I am. And I don't mean just knocking the name off.

Continue reading "2 + 2 = X" »

Travel advisory

By Dave Birch posted Mar 2 2010 at 8:27 PM

[Dave Birch] When we think about electronic identity, we tend to think in terms of the identity structures that we are familiar with from the physical world, so we talk about passports and borders. But the current system of passports, visas and border controls doesn't work terribly well -- see the discussions ad infinitum about the recent Dubai death squad's comedy disguises and simple faked passports -- so I'm not sure it's much of a basis for exploration. Why do I say this? Well, because I've been to a few presentations about the various systems involved recently and have been trying to understand some of the dynamics to help our customers develop some longer-term strategies around identity.

One of the problems is that there is so much going on. Start with moving on from SIS. The SIS2 (Schengen Information System 2) will store biometrics to prevent visa fraud. After a three year transitional period, SIS2 must check with the new Visa Information System (VIS). VIS will require fingerprints and these will be matched via AFIS (so that if, say, a Moroccan person applies for visas in both French and German consulates then this will be known). The fingerprints are currently kept for five years. The Central VIS will connect via a new secure network (S-TESTA) to the national VIS systems and these national systems are connected in turn to the national consulates overseas. Are you with me so far?

What's the point? Well, it's so that when a non-EU person applies for a visa in Schengen country, the details will be passed up to the central system and then they will be checked when the passport is presented at Schengen border control. The purpose of all this is to defeat a common immigration fraud, which is that a bona-fide Chinese businessman (say) gets a visa to come to a Schengen country, and gives it to someone else. That person enters Schengen and then sends the passport and visa back to China by DHL. The next Chinese person enters Schengen, and then posts it back again... Will SIS2 fix this? Surely the problem will shift to the feeder documents. It's impossible to imagine that an EU consulate somewhere can accurately verify and validate passports from 196 countries, but let's put that to one side for a moment. There are plenty of people who think that SIS will end up causing more problems than it is solving.

The number of computers with access to the Schengen Information System has doubled to 500,000 thanks to the extension of the EU.

[From Half a million PCs can access Schengen's 'secure' database • The Register]

Since half a million PCs around Europe can access the system, that means that to all intents and purposes everything on the system is public.

Statewatch, a group that monitors civil liberties in Europe, said it was aware of a case in Belgium where personal information extracted from the system by an official was sold to an organised criminal gang.

[From 500,000 EU computers can access private British data | Technology | The Observer]

There's another system coming online as well, the Euro Border Surveillance System, or Eurosur. This aims to reduce illegal migrants entering EU by sea, particularly aimed at Mediterranean). Good luck on that one. Spain has had some positive results from using satellite tracking (positive in the sense that the immigrants go to Italy instead) but I'm sure Eurosur will help further.

Then there's the new e-passport. As has been discussed many times before, the current e-passport is a complement to the physical passport: that's why it's a chip inside the passport, not a chip instead of a passport. Almost everywhere you go in the world, the chip is not used, but in the future it may be. There's security, naturally. The e-passports have Basic Access Control (BAC), which we've also discussed before. BAC locks the passport so that you have to physically read the passport MRZ in order to read the data from the chip (this is not strictly true, by the way, because the MRZ data isn't random, but that's a detail). Extended Access Control (EAC) is the next step: for one thing, it stops people from cloning the chips. But it adds additional functionality as well so, from 28th June 2009, member states have been required to issue EAC e-passports only.

Back to the difference between the chip and the book. If the e-passport is going to store data that isn't on the passport (eg, your fingerprints) then these must be encrypted so that they can only be read by authorised authorities. An EAC passport will therefore only give up data to readers that it can authorise through the use of asymmetric cryptography (the reader must present a certificate signed by a recognised authority) and the passport can then encrypt and sign its own data. There's something called Active Authentication as well, so the e-passport contains a key pair: the secret private key and the not secret public key (which appears in Data Group 14, DG14, in the data).

Unfortunately, shifting to EAC adds complexity because there are now two trust chains: the data trust chain (so that the readers can verify the passport data) and the terminal trust chain (so that the passport can verify the reader data). You can imagine that co-ordinating both of these chains across the globe has turned out to be something of a problem: every reader has to have every valid certificate from every country in it. The Brussels Interoperability Group (BIG) is responsible for harmonising the e-passport specification throughout the EU and has also been responsible for the certificate policies, protection profiles, conformance tests and interoperability tests. At ID World, Bob Carter from IPS said that the most difficult job was trying to work out how to exchange certificates between countries and he is, of course, right. One thing that is not yet in place is the protection profile from readers (a lesson from chip and PIN deployment in the UK: there's no point having secure chips and wholly insecure readers).

It would be nice to be able to set a date when we might move to a wholly e-passport world, but to get there we have to get rid of visa stickers. There's a name for this too: ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). If this could be achieved, then there is no need to have manned border control, since introducing people into the loop could not improve the system in any way. This is a very appealing prospect to governments, but I think there is a real concern here: if a criminal is able to get a legitimate visa certificates, smart card, e-stamp or whatever else and is never questioned by a human security official, then once they are inside the perimeter they can operate with impunity.

Continue reading "Travel advisory" »