Monday, November 18, 2013

Social identities are becoming our online driver’s licence

Note: This is a companion blog post to an article I wrote earlier this year for CSO Australia. The original essay was too long for an online publication, so I split it up into 2 related, but independent pieces.

For the generation that assumes a priori that the Internet is a tangible, more-essential-than-oxygen component of the air, social networks have become the digital manifestation of their identities as people. Most use each social network for a specific purpose. For example, Facebook content is typically personal and LinkedIn content is almost always professional. Where possible, we try to confine their use within our subconscious boundaries, but they invariably bleed into each other through porous walls. Nevertheless, each is a persona; a one dimensional representation of our real selves.

While online, much of our significant actions require some form of identification: a licence that says enough about us as unique individuals. While we don’t need a driver’s licence to walk along a road, we do need one to drive along it. Similarly, to do anything of significance online, we need to prove who we are to varying degrees; we need a licence that says enough about ourselves to be allowed to perform certain activities.

A majority of our individual activities both online and off can be divided into two categories: transactions and interactions. We transact with retailers, financial institutions and governments. We interact with friends, family, colleagues, employers and government institutions. There are exceptions to these, but a majority of what we do conforms to this model.

The word “transact” in this sense is not always tied to financial activities. Anything that has a negative real-life impact when fraud is committed can be deemed as transactional. In life, our identity matters when we transact and interact with retailers, financial institutions, governments and other people. There is however, a distinct difference in the acceptable forms of identity when comparing transactional activities and interactions which is tied to risk. It is why certain organisations will accept your Facebook account as proof of identity, but others will not.

Appropriate use of social identities

The key to understanding appropriate use for social identities is context. In real life, activities that require proper identification such as a passport or driver’s licence are transactional.

If you analyse the scenarios you are familiar with in dealing with retailers, financial institutions and governments, you will quickly realise that for anything we classify as an interaction, using social identifiers for access is sufficient. For transactions, they are not.

In the Information Security world, this is known as using the appropriate Level of Assurance (LOA) for the appropriate context. A higher LOA is required for transactions than interactions. The progression to a higher LOA is typically achieved using multi-factor authentication. If you’ve ever received a code on your mobile phone immediately after your username and password has been accepted and asked to enter it into a site before it allows you access, you have used multi-factor authentication. The SMS code sent to your mobile phone increases your LOA.

In situations where social identities play a part in the authentication process, they are best used as first level of authentication. As a “lightweight” identity, this provides the personalisation we psychologically crave and the added usability organisations would like to provide. The fact that personalisation provides additional insight to organisations is a bonus for them. When the interactions verge on being transactional, the LOA needs to be raised using either a second factor or a stronger form of identification. In real life, this is best demonstrated by the fact that a driver’s licence is sufficient for entry to a bar but a passport is required to cross international borders.

Excessive collection of personal information

A major concern regarding the use of social identities as a login mechanism relates to the amount of sensitive personal information stored within social networks. Using your Facebook account to login to another site does not necessarily give it access to your Facebook account (e.g. to make updates). More commonly, the login process involves sharing an amount of information about yourself that the site requires.

The word “requires” is used loosely here. Far too often sites ask for more information than they actually need because they can. We have become so accustomed that we accept it as the norm. Bad data collection practices have trained us into accepting additional risk as a condition for using the Internet. In reality, most sites really only need a way to contact you (e.g. email) and perhaps your name. Put simply, a site should only ask for the information it needs for you to complete your tasks.

The breach the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website suffered earlier this year is a perfect recent example of data collection misuse. The information stolen included easily cracked hashed passwords and personal details about each person that the website did not need. When we give up our information to an organisation, we almost never have control over anything that happens to it after the fact.

This is something that the Kantara Initiative is attempting to address through its User Managed Access (UMA) work group and the associated UMA protocol. But until this or something like it is mandated across sites that store information about individuals, it is extremely difficult to address the lack of control we have over our personal details and their proliferation.

Note (not part of original blog post): I strongly suggest checking out Ian Glazer's "Big P Privacy in the Era of Small Things" video if you are interested in exploring and understanding this topic in more depth.

Potential benefit of social identities

Social networks have the potential to reduce the number of places that our information is stored. In addition, they can potentially become the gatekeepers to our information. Imagine if the interaction between a social network and another site included the obligation to delete our information upon request by the social network using a protocol like UMA? Better still, what if it required that the information used be transient and disappears when our session with the site in question ends? Nothing actually gets stored.

In fact, some social networks enforce this today, although this is used more as a defensive tactic to reduce the likelihood that a partner site becomes a competitor by replicating all their user data than a way to protect the information for the benefit of users. Sites that do not conform to the policy are unceremoniously prevented from being able to interact with the social network in any way.

There are benefits to be had for the sites accepting social identities as logins too. Studies have shown that user drop-off rates decrease because users no longer have to fill in forms to access the site. Data storage costs drop as a result and for organisations that do not want to be front page news for losing user data, this risk is no longer present.

A driver’s licence is not a passport

We began by referencing the generation of digital natives driving the assimilation of our digital and physical lives. They influence online innovation today through their demands and expectations. They are the demographic many businesses target. As a result, their behaviour shapes the evolution of the online world and by extension, the real world.

The rest of us have to begrudgingly adapt to a reality being built for them. Like it or not, social identities are becoming the Internet’s driver’s licence of choice. However, social identities are not our online passports. The world is not ready for that reality. And unless social networks start vetting people like banks do, that reality is unlikely to ever be achieved.

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