understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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On E-Government Authentication and Privacy PDF Print
On E-Government Authentication and Privacy
By: Stefan Brands

November 1, 2005

Governments around the world are working to implement digital identity and access management infrastructures for access to government services by citizens and businesses. E-government has the potential of bringing major cost, convenience, and security benefits to citizens, businesses, and government alike. There are major architecture challenges, however, which cannot be solved by simply adopting modern enterprise architectures for identity management. Namely, these architectures involve a central server that houses the capability to electronically trace, profile, impersonate, and falsely deny access to any user. In the context of an e-government infrastructure, the privacy and security implications for citizens of such a panoptical identity architecture would be unprecedented.

By way of example, consider the implications of adopting the Liberty Alliance ID-FF architecture (the leading industry effort for so-called "federated" identity management) for e-government. The ID-FF describes a mechanism by which a group of service providers and one or more identity providers form circles of trust. Within a circle of trust, users can federate their identities at multiple service providers with a central identity provider. Users can also engage in single sign-on to access all federated local identities without needing to authenticate individually with each service provider. Liberty Alliance ID-FF leaves the creation of user account information at the service provider level, and in addition each service provider only knows each user under a unique “alias” (also referred to by ID-FF as “pseudonyms”). However, the user aliases in Liberty Alliance ID-FF are not pseudonyms at all: they are centrally generated and doled out by the identity provider, which acts in the security interests of the service providers.

While the Liberty Alliance ID-FF architecture may be fine for the corporate management of the identities of employees who access their corporate resources, it would have scary implications when adopted for government-to-citizen identity management. The identity provider and the service providers would house the power to electronic monitor all citizens in real time across government services. Furthermore, insiders (including hackers and viruses) would have the power to commit undetectable massive identity theft with a single press of a central button. Carving out independent “circles of trust” is not a solution: the only way to break out of the individual circle-of trust “silos” that would result would be to merge them into a “super” circle by reconciling all user identifiers at the level of the identity providers. This would only exacerbate the ID-FF privacy and security problems.

More generally, replacing local non-electronic identifiers by universal electronic identifiers has the effect of removing the natural segmentation of traditional activity domains; as a consequence, the damage that identity thieves can do is no longer confined to narrow domains, nor are identity thieves impaired any longer by the inherent slowdowns of a non-electronic identity infrastructure. At the same time, when the same universal electronic identifiers are relied on by a plurality of autonomous service providers in different domains, the security and privacy threats for the service providers no longer come only from wiretappers and other traditional outsiders: a rogue system administrator, a hacker, a virus, or an identity thief with insider status can cause massive damage to service providers, can electronically monitor the identities and visiting times of all clients of service providers, and can impersonate and falsely deny access to the clients of service providers.

On the legal side, the compatibility of modern enterprise identity architectures with data protection legislation and program statutes is highly questionable. Also, the adoption of enterprise identity architectures in the context of e-government would directly interfere with Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, any interference with privacy rights under Article 8 must do so to the minimum degree necessary. Enterprise identity architectures violate this requirement: far less intrusive means exist for achieving the objectives of e-government.

Specifically, over the course of the past two decades, the cryptographic research community has developed an array of privacy-preserving technologies that can be used as building blocks for e-government in a manner that simultaneously meets the security needs of government and the legitimate privacy and security needs of individuals and service providers. Relevant privacy-preserving technologies include digital credentials, secret sharing, private information retrieval, and privacy-preserving data mining.

By properly using privacy-preserving technologies, individuals can be represented in their interactions with service providers by local electronic identifiers. Service providers can electronically link their legacy account data on individuals to these local electronic identifiers, which by themselves are untraceable and unlinkable. As a result, any pre-existing segmentation of activity domains is fully preserved. At the same time, verifier-trusted authorities can securely embed into all of an individual’s local identifiers a unique “master identifier” (such as a random number). These embedded identifiers remain unconditionally hidden when individuals identify themselves on the basis of their local electronic identifiers, but their hidden presence can be leveraged by service providers for all kinds of security and data sharing purposes without introducing privacy problems. The privacy guarantees do not require users to rely on third parties - the power to link and trace the activities of a user across his or her activity domains resides solely in the hands of that user.

In the context of e-government, security and privacy are not opposites but mutually reinforcing, assuming proper privacy-preserving technologies are deployed. In order to move forward with e-government, it is important for government to adopt technological alternatives that hold the promise of multi-party security while preserving privacy.

For more information, interested readers are referred to my personal blog at www.idcorner.org.

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