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My identity, my self

Last week, the media were full of the story that the UK government was going to start accepting Facebook logons for authentication. This week, in several presentations at the RSA Conference, representatives of the Government Digital Service begged to differ: the list of companies that have applied to become identity providers (IDPs) will be published at the end of this month and until then they are not confirming the presence or absence of any particular company. According to several of the spokesfolks manning the stall and giving presentations, the press just assumed that when they saw social media companies among the categories of organization that might potentially want to offer identity authentication, that meant Facebook. We won't actually know for another few weeks who has actually applied.

So I can mercifully skip the rant that hooking a Facebook account to the authentication system you use for government services is a horrible idea in both directions. What they're actually saying is, what if you could choose among identification services offered by the Post Office, your bank, your mobile network operator (especially for the younger generation), your ISP, and personal data store services like Mydex or small, local businesses whose owners are known to you personally? All of these sounded possible based on this week's presentations.

The key, of course, is what standards the government chooses to create for IDPs and which organizations decide they can meet those criteria and offer a service. Those are the details the devil is in: during the 1990s battles about deploying strong cryptography, the government's wanted copies of everyone's cryptography keys to be held in escrow by a Trusted Third Party. At the time, the frontrunners were banks: the government certainly trusted those, and imagined that we did, too. The strength of the disquiet over that proposal took them by surprise. Then came 2008. Those discussions are still relevant, however; someone with a long memory raised the specter of Part I of the Electronic Communications Act 2000, modified in 2005, as relevant here.

It was this historical memory that made some of us so dubious in 2010, when the US came out with proposals rather similar to the UK's present ones, the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). Ross Anderson saw it as a sort of horror-movie sequel. On Wednesday, however, Jeremy Grant, the senior executive advisor for identity management at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the agency charged with overseeing the development of NSTIC, sounded a lot more reassuring.

Between then and now came both US and UK attempts to establish some form of national ID card. In the US, "Real ID", focused on the state authorities that issue driver's licenses. In the UK, it was the national ID card and accompanying database. In both countries the proposals got howled down. In the UK especially, the combination of an escalating budget, a poor record with large government IT projects, a change of government, and a desperate need to save money killed it in 2006.

Hence the new approach in both countries. From what the GDS representatives - David Rennie (head of proposition at the Cabinet Office), Steven Dunn (lead architect of the Identity Assurance Programme; Twitter: @cuica), Mike Pegman (security architect at the Department of Welfare and Pensions, expected to be the first user service; Twitter: @mikepegman), and others manning the GDS stall - said, the plan is much more like the structure that privacy advocates and cryptographers have been pushing for 20 years: systems that give users choice about who they trust to authenticate them for a given role and that share no more data than necessary. The notion that this might actually happen is shocking - but welcome.

None of which means we shouldn't be asking questions. We need to understand clearly the various envisioned levels of authentication. In practice, will those asking for identity assurance ask for the minimum they need or always go for the maximum they could get? For example, a bar only needs relatively low-level assurance that you are old enough to drink; but will bars prefer to ask for full identification? What will be the costs; who pays them and under what circumstances?

Especially, we need to know what the detail of the standards organizations must meet to be accepted as IDPs, in particular, what kinds of organization they exclude. The GDS as presently constituted - composed, as William Heath commented last year, of all the smart, digitally experienced people you *would* hire to reinvent government services for the digital world if you had the choice - seems to have its heart in the right place. Their proposals as outlined - conforming, as Pegman explained happily, to Kim Cameron's seven laws of identity - pay considerable homage to the idea that no one party should have all the details of any given transaction. But the surveillance-happy type of government that legislates for data retention and CCDP might also at some point think, hey, shouldn't we be requiring IDPs to retain all data (requests for authentication, and so on) so we can inspect it should we deem it necessary? We certainly want to be very careful not to build a system that could support such intimate secret surveillance - the fundamental objection all along to key escrow.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.


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