E-Commerce Security, White House Style

Written by Evan Schuman
June 27th, 2010

The White House is pushing a plan for E-Commerce sites to authenticate users, but to do so while revealing far less information than most customers do today. The plan, for example, wants the ability to prove age without revealing the consumer’s date and year of birth.

The concept is essentially a minimalistic data strategy, which is a good concept, although it’s a lot trickier to deliver than to discuss. Take that age concept example. Age verification typically needs to establish that a consumer is merely older than 18 or 21. There’s no need to reveal an exact age, let alone a birth date.

The report, called the “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” and issued June 25, also raised concerns about where information-sharing might be some years down the road, when online systems are better at keeping records current.

“There are practical barriers in place that preserve individual privacy in the offline world. For example, an individual can utilize a driver’s license to open a bank account, get onto an airplane or get into an age-restricted movie. The Department of Motor Vehicles does not know all the places that service providers accept driver’s licenses as identification,” the report said. “It is also difficult for the bank, the airport and the movie theater to get together and link the transactions together. At the same time, there are aspects of these offline transactions that are not privacy-protective. The movie theater attendant that checks the driver’s license only needs to know that the individual is over age 18. However, the driver’s license reveals unnecessary information, such as address and actual date of birth, when the individual provides it for age verification.”

The government document also looks at other two-way communications and wants to propose limitations.

“An individual authenticates himself to an online pharmacy using a credential bound to his personal computer. The individual makes an online request for the pharmacy to fill his prescription. Through privacy-enhancing technology, the individual’s attribute provider provides authoritative proof that he is over 18 and that his prescription is valid,” the report said. “The technology ensures that no unnecessary information is exchanged in this transaction (e.g., his birth date, reason for the prescription). The technology also filters information so that the attribute providers–the authoritative sources of the age and prescription information–do not know which pharmacy the individual is using.”

Here’s a part that IT is going to love, an area where it restricts how the data is maintained. “The Identity Ecosystem includes limits on the length of time organizations can retain personal information and requires such organizations to provide individuals with appropriate opportunities to access, correct and delete it. The Identity Ecosystem also requires organizations to maintain auditable records regarding the use and protection of personal information and compliance with applicable standards, law and policies.”

How practical is that? Once such data enters a chain’s systems, enforcing such restrictions may prove challenging.

The report also proposes password restrictions. “From the individual’s perspective, the increasing complexity and risk of managing multiple credentials threaten the convenience associated with online transactions. The number and diversity of service providers requires individuals to have multiple usernames and passwords, generally one for each provider,” the report said. “Many require complex and frequent password changes, a burden for both the service provider and the individual. This also imparts an increased risk of account compromise through insecure user management of account credentials and an increased likelihood of account abandonment.”

The full report is available from The White House.


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