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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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33 posts categorized "Personal Identity"

Ageing problem

By Dave Birch posted Jan 26 2011 at 10:16 PM

The simple and prosaic case of age verification has always been a litmus test for digital identity infrastructure and it's taken on new dimensions because of social networking. We need some clear thinking to see through fog of moral panic, made worse by the turbocharging impact of the mobile phone, because it is such an individual and personal device. The spectre of legions of perverts luring children via their mobile phones is, indeed, disturbing. If only there were some way to know whether your new social networking friend is actually a child of your age and not an adult masquerading as such.

A mobile phone application which claims to identify adults posing as children is to be released. The team behind Child Defence says the app can analyse language to generate an age profile, identifying potential paedophiles.

[From BBC News - Researchers launch mobile device 'to spot paedophiles']

Of course, it ought to work the other way round as well. One of my son's friends told me that members of his World of Warcraft Guild (all 13- and 14-year olds) enjoy pretending to be "grown ups" online (by pretending to have jobs and wives). But this seems an odd way to move forward, as well as something that will surely be gamed by determined perverts.

Why on Earth can't we just do this properly, at the infrastructural level. If we had a half-decent digital identity infrastructure, there would be no need for this sort of thing. Look, here's a simple of example of this, in Japan. If you want to use social networks via your mobile phone then it is the operator who verifies your age to the social network service (SNS) provider. Since the operator has the billing relationship, this makes sense.

KDDI announces age verification service for mobile SNS platforms; Gree, Mixi and MobaGa to start at the end of Jan

[From Mobile SNS Age Verification Service by Wireless Watch Japan]

Note that this has no implications for privacy. The operator could require you to come to one of their outlets and prove that you are, say, 18. Then they set a flag for service providers to tell them that you are over 18. It doesn't tell them your age, or your name or where you are. Just that you are over 18. Note that this system hasn't been invented for social networking: it is already used to prove age at vending machines (you can't buy cigarettes or sake or whatever unless your phone says that you are old enough). It ought to be simple enough to do the same thing but using proper technology. Suppose that your Facebook page came with a red border if you have not provided proof of age? Then you could provide that proof of age and have your border changed to blue for under 18 or green for over 18 - then make the rule that anyone with a red border is only allowed to connect to people with green borders.

You see what I mean. Have something that is understandable at the user level and implement it using certificates, digital signatures and keys in tamper-resistant storage (in, for example, mobile phones). There would be no need to try and explain to people how PKI actually works (which killed it in the mass consumer market last time), just show them how to log in to things using their phones. There's a waiting mass market for this sort of thing if you can be clear to consumers that it will protect their privacy and that market is adult services: porn and gambling, primarily, either of which should generate a decent income stream for the successful service provider. Simple. As a complete aside, there's another connection between the adult world and social networking.

The surprise relationship between social networking and adult-themed sites came last September, when total page visits for social networking sites for the first time eclipsed that of adult sites.

[From BBC NEWS | Technology | Porn putting on its Sunday best]

So the internet isn't all about porn after all!

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Real-time identity

By Dave Birch posted Jan 17 2011 at 4:37 PM

Naturally, given my obsessions, I was struck by a subset of the Real-Time Club discussions about identities on the web at their evening with Aleks Krotoski. In particular, I was struck by the discussion about multiple identities on the web, because it connects with some work we (Consult Hyperion) have been doing for the European Commission. One point that was common to a number of the discussions was the extent to which identity is needed for, or integral to, online transactions. Generally speaking, I think many people mistake the need for some knowledge about a counterparty with the need to know who they are, a misunderstanding that actually makes identity fraud worse because it leads to identities being shared more widely than they need be. There was a thread to the discussion about children using the web, as there always is in such discussions, and this led me to conclude that proving that you are over (or under) 18 online might well be the acid test of a useful identity infrastructure: if your kids can't easily figure out a way to get round it, then it will be good enough for e-government, e-business and the like.

I think the conversation might have explored more about privacy vs. anonymity, because many transactions require the former but not the latter. But then there should be privacy rather than anonymity for a lot of things, and there should be anonymity for some things (even if this means friction in a free society, as demonstrated by the Wikileaks storm). I can see that this debate is going to be difficult to organise in the public space, simply because people don't think about those topics in a rich enough way: they think common sense is a useful guide which, when it comes to online identity, it isn't.

On a different subject, a key element of the evening's discussion was whether the use of social media, and the directions of social media technology, lead to more or less serendipity. (Incidentally, did you know that the word "serendipity" was invented by Horace Walpole in 1754?) Any discussion about social media naturally revolves around Facebook.

Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today’s lack of identity-forging social experience.

[From Facebook: the heart in a heartless world | spiked]

I don't agree, but I can see the perspective. But I don't see my kids fleeing into Facebook, I see them using Facebook to multiply and enrich their interpersonal interactions. Do they meet new people on Facebook? Yes, they do. Is that true for all kids, of all educational abilities, of all socio-economic classes, I don't know (and I didn't find out during the evening, because everyone who was discussing the issue seemed to have children at expensive private schools, so they didn't seem like a statistically-representative cross-section of the nation).

Personally, I would come down on the side of serendipity. Because of social media I know more people than I did before, but I've also physically met more people than I knew before: social media means that I am connected with people who a geographically and socially more dispersed. I suppose you might argue that its left me less connected with the people who live across the street from me, but then I don't have very much in common with them.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Internet driver's license?

By Dave Birch posted Jan 10 2011 at 6:08 PM

Last year I said that I thought that the US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) was heading in the right direction. I'm very much in favour of the private sector providing multiple identities into a framework that it used by the public sector and vice versa. I'm in favour of choice: if I choose to use my Barclays identity to access the DVLA or my DWP identity to access O2 it shouldn't matter to the effective and efficient use of online transactions. There was one area where I felt it could have presented a slightly different vision, and that's in the use of pseudonyms, which I think should be the norm rather than the exception.

People should consider it normal to get a virtual identity from their bank or their mobile phone operator in a pseudonymous name so that they can browse, transact and comment without revealing anything about themselves other than the facts relevant to a transaction.

[From Digital Identity: USTIC]

James Van Dyke, when discussing NSTIC (which seems have become known unofficially as "Obama's Internet Identity System") warned about

Apocalyptic fear-mongers. Yes I’m ending with the crazies here, but hear me out. The extreme cable networks and televangelists will surely jump on this as the digital incarnation of the Mark of either the Beast or “(gasp!) Obama liberals. Historians will recall that social security numbers were supposed to be an apocalyptic conspiracy.

[From Obama’s Internet Identity System: Could This Change Everything? - Javelin Strategy & Research Blog]

I don't think the danger is the crazies -- although I feel a little sheepish writing this a couple of days after a crazy did, in fact, murder several people and seriously injure a congresswoman -- but the journalists, politicians, commentators and observers who don't really understand the rather complex topic of digital identity. Or, as "Identity Woman" Kailya Hamlin (who some of you may remember from the first European Internet Identity Workshop that Consult Hyperion sponsored with our friends from Innopay and Mydex back in October) said about NSTIC:

I am optimistic about their efforts and frustrated by the lack of depth and insight displayed in the news cycle with headlines that focus on a few choice phrases to raise hackles about this initiative

[From National! Identity! Cyberspace!: Why we shouldn't freak out about NSTIC. | Fast Company]

She's bang on with this. Here's a couple of typical examples from the blogosphere:

CNET reported on January 7, 2011 that Obama has signed authority over to U.S. Commerce Department to create new privacy laws that require American citizens to hold an Internet ID card.

[From Internet Anonymity: Obama Pushes for an American Internet ID]


President Obama has signaled that he will give the United States Commerce Department the authority over a proposed national cybersecurity measure that would involve giving each American a unique online identity

[From Obama administration moves forward with unique internet ID for all Americans, Commerce Department to head system up -- Engadget]

As far as I can see, NSTIC being managed by the Commerce Department has nothing to do with "privacy laws" and the idea that it will require Americans to have an "Internet ID" is a journalistic invention. The actual situation is that NSTIC is to go from being an idea to an actual system:

The Obama administration plans to announce today plans for an Internet identity system that will limit fraud and streamline online transactions, leading to a surge in Web commerce, officials said. While the White House has spearheaded development of the framework for secure online identities, the system led by the U.S. Commerce Department will be voluntary and maintained by private companies,

[From Internet Identity System Said Readied by Obama Administration - BusinessWeek]

What this means is not that Americans will get an "Internet Driver's License" but that they will be able to log in to their bank, the Veteran's Administration, the DMV and their favourite blogs using a variety of IDs provided by their bank, their mobile phone operators and others.

[White House Cybersecurity Coordinator] Howard Schmidt stressed today that anonymity and pseudonymity will remain possible on the Internet. "I don't have to get a credential, if I don't want to," he said.

[From Obama to hand Commerce Dept. authority over cybersecurity ID | Privacy Inc. - CNET News]

As long as it's a matter of choice, I really don't see a problem with this. The idea of NSTIC is that it is the infrastructure that is standardised, and this is good. We need standards for credentials and such like so that I can use my Woking Council ID to log in central government services and my Barclays Bank ID so that I can log in to do my taxes online: but I might pay Barclays for an additional ID that has some key credentials (IS_A_PERSON, IS_OVER_18, IS_NOT_BANKRUPT, that sort of thing) but does not reveal my identity. This sort of Joe Bloggs (or, for our cousins over the water, John Doe) identity would be more than adequate for the vast majority of web browsing and if other people want to wander the highways and byways of the interweb with a Manchester United, Prince or BBC ID, then it's up to them. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as they say (well, as Chairman Mao said).

If the crazies want to be concerned about a single ID mark of the e-beast infocalypse, they're perfectly entitled to, but I don't understand why they are convinced it will come from the government in general or Obama in particular - there are half-a-billion people out there (including me) who have already handed over their personal information to a single unaccountable entity.

Facebook Login lets any website on the planet use its identity infrastructure—and underlying security safeguards. It's easy to implement Facebook Login, simply by adding few lines of code to a web server. Once that change is made, the site's users will see a "Connect with Facebook" button. If they're already logged into Facebook (having recently visited the site), they can just click on it and they're in. If they haven't logged in recently, they are prompted for their Facebook user name and password.

[From Facebook Wants to Supply Your Internet Driver's License - Technology Review]

Now, at the moment Facebook Connect just uses a password, so it's no more secure than banks or government agencies, but it could move to a 2FA implementation implementation in the future. Widespread 2FA access to online services really should have become a business for banks or mobile operators already (think how long Identrus has been around) but it just hasn't happened: I can't use my Barclays PINSentry to log on to Barclaycard, let alone the government or an insurance company. But suppose my Facebook login required access to my mobile phone so it was much more secure: you know the sort of thing, enter e-mail address, wait for code to arrive on mobile phone, enter code (a proper UICC-based digital signature solution would be much better, but that's another topic). Then I could use Facebook Connect for serious business. This would have an interesting side-effect: Facebook would know where I go on the web, which seems to me to be much more like the mark of the e-beast.

An interesting side benefit for website operators is that Facebook Login provides the site with users' real names (in most cases) and optionally a variety of other information, such as the users' "friends" and "likes."

[From Facebook Wants to Supply Your Internet Driver's License - Technology Review]

Which is, of course, why I don't use it. On the other hand, if Facebook decided to use cryptography to secure and protect this sort of information, they could at a stroke create a desirable internet passport: by "blinding" the passport to prevent service providers from tracking the identity across web sites Facebook could significantly improve both convenience and privacy for the average users.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Put your game face on

By Dave Birch posted Dec 6 2010 at 6:34 PM

[Dave Birch] Who are you? That's an easy question to answer in cyberspace, because no-one knows you're a dog, so you can be anyone you want to be. This means that you can do bad things, doesn't it? Surely it would be better to make people disclose their "real" identities online.

Continue reading "Put your game face on" »

Recognising the problem

By Dave Birch posted Nov 1 2010 at 11:15 PM
[Dave Birch] An interesting series of talks at Biometrics 2010 reminded me how quickly face recognition software is improving. The current state of the art can be illustrated with some of the examples given by NIST in their presentation on testing.
  • A 1:1.6m search on 16-core 192Gb blade (about $40k machine) takes less than one second, and the speed of search continues to improve. So if you have a database of a million people, and you're checking a picture against that database, you can do it in less than second.
  • The false non-match rate (in other words, what proportion of searches return the wrong picture) best performance is accelerating: in 2002 it was 20%, by 2006 it was 3% and by 2010 it had fallen to 0.3%. This is an order of magnitude fall every four years and there's no reason to suspect that it will not continue.
  • The results seem to degrade by the log of population size (so that a 10 times bigger database delivers only twice the miss rate). Rather fascinatingly, no-one seems to know why, but I suppose it must be some inherent property of the algorithms used.

We're still some way from Hollywood-style biometrics where the FBI security camera can spot the assassin in the Superbowl crowd.

What is often overlooked is that biometric systems used to regulate access of one form or another do not provide binary yes/no answers like conventional data systems. Instead, by their very nature, they generate results that are “probabilistic”. That is what makes them inherently fallible. The chance of producing an error can be made small but never eliminated. Therefore, confidence in the results has to be tempered by a proper appreciation of the uncertainties in the system.

[From Biometrics: The Difference Engine: Dubious security | The Economist]

So when you put all of this together, you can see that we are heading into some new territory. Even consumer software such as iPhoto has this stuff built in to it.


It's not perfect, but it's pretty good. Consumers (and suppliers) do, though, have an unrealistic idea about what biometrics can do as components of a bigger system.

But Microsoft's new gaming weapon uses "facial and biometric recognition" that creates a 3D model of a player. "It recognises a 3D model that has walked into the room and automatically logs that player in," Mr Hinton said... "It knows when they are sneakily trying to log into their older brother's account and trying to cheat the system... You can't do it. Your face is the ultimate detection for the device."

[From Game console 'rejects' under-age players | Herald Sun]

This sounds sort of fun. Why doesn't my bank build this into its branches so that when I walk in?

Continue reading "Recognising the problem" »


By Dave Birch posted Aug 31 2010 at 5:00 PM

[Dave Birch] I'm happy when my teenage son is on Facebook talking to all of his friends from the warmth and comfort of his bedroom rather than hanging out with them in a freezing and desolate town centre where he might get stabbed (I'm probably worrying too much, since only a couple of dozen teenagers have been murdered in London so far this year). A crucial difference between online communities and "real" communities is, frankly, safety and security. You can choose which online communities that you belong to an you exclude, block or unfriend people you don't like. In comparison, the real world (for many people ) is simply awful: there's nothing you can do about the neighbours who play loud music all night, the teenagers who smash up the bus shelter every week and the drunken yobs fighting in the city centre on Friday night (I'm using specifically English examples here of course). As I said before

he 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.

[From Digital Identity: Why virtual identities are real to some of us]

But the ability to build virtual walled communities that have digital gates that are far more effective than the ones on physical walled communities isn't the whole story. There's something else going on. The interaction between virtual identities is for some people better than the interaction between physical identities.

Participants in 3D virtual worlds are more satisfied with the romantic relationships they form online than with their real-life relationships, and their levels of sexual satisfaction are similar across both worlds, according to two studies conducted by researchers at Loyola Marymount University.

[From The business of virtual sex – Hypergrid Business]

This is, on the one hand, another argument for security and for using cryptography to construct and manage virtual identities (something I am wholly in favour of) but also, on the other hand, another recognition of the reality of virtual reality.

In order to become more attractive to business and educators, virtual worlds need to incorporate more gaming elements, not fewer, into their platforms — those elements, like achievement systems and ratings, that make the platforms more engaging and immersive.

[From Why virtual worlds suck for business — and some solutions – Hypergrid Business]

This is about forming a reputation-based economy from the bottom up, where peoples' sense of their own personal identity is formed online and not assigned or inherited offline.

Continue reading "Gates" »

Head in the clouds

By Dave Birch posted Jun 21 2010 at 12:17 PM

[Dave Birch] At the recent European e-Identity Management Conference, Kim Cameron from Microsoft pointed out a few privacy and security concerns that relate to the cloud. This is important stuff, obviously. For one thing, the cloud is the new black. Remember this from a year ago?

All government departments are to be encouraged to procure new IT services based on a cloud computing model.

[From UK government CIO wants to build a "government app store" - 19 Jun 2009 - Computing]

This never meant that they actually would, or indeed, should have used the cloud for anything. I'm not sure if I'd want my medical records on Google Docs, one phished password away from universal access. Indeed, the idea of a special cloud for e-government wasn't far behind:

Establishing a Government Cloud or 'G-Cloud'. The government cloud infrastructure will enable public sector bodies to select and host ICT services from one secure shared network. Multiple services will be available from multiple suppliers on the network making it quicker and cheaper to switch suppliers and ensure systems are best suited to need.

[From News : NDS ]

Hold on. Suppose the cloud goes wrong, as one might imagine that a government IT cloud would have a propensity to do, what then?

In our opinion cloud computing, as currently described, is not that far off from the sort of thinking that drove the economic downturn. In effect both situations sound the same… we allowed radical experiments to be performed by gigantic, non-redundant entities.

[From MAYA Design: The Wrong Cloud?]

Hhhmmm. So this means that if the government cloud goes down, or more likely that the gateway goes down, then there are no government services. Surely the solution is to have lots of clouds, not one, so that citizens can use any of the clouds to connect to any of the services: it shouldn't matter whether citizens want to sign on in person, at a kiosk, using the phone, through the set-top box or on a PC. All of these channels should federate their identity through to the government for access.

Continue reading "Head in the clouds" »

Dying for mail

By Dave Birch posted Apr 9 2010 at 10:42 AM
[Dave Birch] I found the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) interactive sessions that I went to, without exception, first class. It may be because of the spectrum of people that they attract, or it may just be something in the Austin air, but I got caught up in a number of exceptionally stimulating discussions, all of which gave me new things to think about. Here's an example: I signed up for a session on Digital Wills run by Corvida Raven from she-geeks. She ran an outstanding session, and I can't resist blogging around it despite the morbid tone of some of the discussions that resulted from it! First of all, let me say that this is an aspect of the online world that I have been interested in for some time. I wrote a piece about it for The Guardian way back in 2004, reflecting on the fact that I had been making a will and had gone and got a booklet about it (I think from the bank, but I can't remember) and I was remarking that it didn't seem to cover my data.

It wasn't mentioned in the booklet of sample will elements I was using. That covered topics such as houses and kids, but it should have had additional specimen clauses along these lines: "I leave the 100GB external Firewire drive containing all of my emails and the back-ups of all of my personal documents, my iPhoto library and my iTunes to my wife. This volume was encrypted by Mac OS X using AES-128 and the password is the name of the band we saw together on our first date followed by the age of our first female cat when she died."

This may seem silly, but could become a serious problem in the future. My wife will need my username and password for Barclays, BT, British Airways and our family blog - and there was nothing about that in the booklet, either.

[From Second sight, Dave Birch | Technology | The Guardian]

This isn't a sophisticated enough solution, of course. What we really need, as a society, is proper security and privacy technology and we are an awfully long way from seeing this introduced at all, let alone introduced into probate law or custom and practice. Nothing much has changed since my article, as Cory Doctorow reinforced last year.

What I found surprising all through this process was the lack of any kind of standard process for managing key escrow as part of estate planning.

[From Tales from the encrypt: the secrets of data protection | Technology | guardian.co.uk]

There are clearly some business opportunities here, and not only for lawyers! Some organisations have already decided to take the digital afterlife seriously.

Facebook may not have been the first to create a specialized policy for deceased users, but it was one of the highest profile because of the way it handled the issue. Instead of merely agreeing to let a family member take control of the account, the company instead decided to take things a step further and let people turn someone's account into a memorial.

[From Death and social media: what happens to your life online?]

This is nice, but it seems to be still fairly rare. Take e-mail as a fairly standard requirement. If you die, Yahoo will delete your e-mail. But I may not want my e-mail to be deleted. Can I ask Yahoo not to delete my e-mail? No. But hold on, how do they know I am dead? If I just give my Yahoo password to my wife, then presumably she can carry on using it or archive the messages or even delete them. But what I if leave her the password and tell her not to delete them but just to save them for posterity and not read them? This is all getting a bit complicated.

Continue reading "Dying for mail" »


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" »