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Stop Building Identity Houses On Sand

Jericho Forum puts forward its vision of a new identity paradigm at the RSA Conference
Believe it or not, it has been 20 years since the debut of Peter Steiner's seminal cartoon, captioned with the ubiquitous "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" joke.

But even after two decades, the core identity problem that makes that gag so funny still stands true, said Paul Simmonds, a board member of the Jericho Forum. In an RSA Conference talk last week, Simmonds unveiled some visionary work done by the group to push forward a new paradigm for asserting identity and entitling authentication across the Internet personas that a person may identify with, be it corporate, banking, social or citizen information.

"It's really easy to be whoever you want to be on the Internet," Simmonds said, "We've known about it as an industry for 20 years. We've done almost nothing about it. So shame on us."

RSA Conference 2013
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Some examples he gave to prove his point were the ease with which anyone can still send spoofed email messages and the card-not-present fraud problem, which pretty quickly cropped up after Europe and much of the world outside of the U.S. instituted chip-and-pin technology in their cards.

Though the industry for years now has been declaring the death of passwords, these authenticators still remain because the alternatives are largely schemes built on flawed assumptions, Simmonds said.

"We all know about building houses on sand. If you build your house or your identity system on a flawed assumption, then the ecosystem doesn't work," he said, "which is why we haven't solved the getting rid of passwords problem."

As examples, Simmonds pointed to the credit card industry, which has tried alternatives, such as cards with one-time password (OTP) technology built in. In the case of OTP, he argues that the system is actually less secure because when the vendor can't see the card itself, how is it going to know that the user hasn't compromised the system by writing the PIN on the card or giving that information to an untrusted party?

"I would argue that this is less secure," he said. "Why? Because you've changed the risk dimension that goes with this. Basically the receiving system that doesn't see this card said this has a higher grade of intelligence behind it and a higher grade of authentication."

In his talk, Simmonds talked about the Global Identity Foundation, a nonprofit bootstrap effort his group hopes will spur industry players into building a stronger foundation for identity around a core identifier backed by some sort of cryptography and biometrics foundation that can be federated across multiple identity personas online.

"So if you distribute your personas over the Internet, then if the bad guys get one of them, they don't get the rest of your identity and, more, they don't get the root crypto," he said. "So even if they take the identity, they can't assert it because they don't have the crypto components that go with it because you hold those yourself."

Using the persona entitlement system, access to data, systems, or e-commerce applications would be based on the trusted identity and all of the attributes of the entities and components in a transaction chain, Simmonds said.

"When you try to access something or go an e-commerce system, you take the identity sources and the identity attributes from everything in that chain coming in," he said. "You make an authorization decision based on those entitlement rules, and then you get access either to buy something or granular access even to the level of data."

It's a system that creates "some seriously good risk-based decisions," Simmonds said.

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