New White House E-Commerce Security Report Trusts Technology Way Too Much

Written by Evan Schuman
April 21st, 2011

The White House has issued its “final strategy document” on a national security approach that would sharply impact E-Commerce. Although the report is a vast improvement over the initial report released last summer, it still suffers from the belief that cramming tons of sensitive information into a token—which may or may not be adequately secured—is a safe move. Also, it comes close to encouraging consumers to trust these tokens, perhaps to a very dangerous extent.

Some examples from the report: “Mary is tired of remembering dozens of usernames and passwords, so she obtains a digital credential from her Internet service provider that is stored on a smartcard. Now that she has the smartcard, she is also willing to conduct more sensitive transactions, like managing her healthcare, online. One morning, she inserts the smartcard into her computer and uses the credential on it to run some errands, including logging in to her bank and obtaining digital cash, buying a sweater at a new online retailer—without having to open an account—signing documents to refinance her mortgage, reading the note her doctor left in her personal health record—in response to the blood sugar statistics she had uploaded the day before—sending an E-mail to confirm dinner with a friend and checking her day’s schedule on her employer’s intranet portal.”

So anyone who steals (or clones) her smartcard can now do all of those things pretending to be her? Yeah, that’s a hugeimprovement. Not for Mary but for any cyberthief. (A colleague suggested that it would be ideal for “a future Albert Gonzalez.” Why future? By the time this gets deployed, Gonzalez will be out on parole and in need of some spending money.)

Here’s one for the parents in the audience. Again, quoting verbatim from the White House report: “Antonio, age 13, wants to enter an online chat room that is specifically for adolescents, between the ages of 12 and 17. His parents give him permission to get a digital credential from his school. His school also acts as an attribute provider: It validates that he is between the ages of 12 and 17 without actually revealing his name, birth date or any other information about him. The credential employs privacy-enhancing technology to validate Antonio’s age without informing the school that he is using the credential. Antonio can speak anonymously but with confidence that the other participants are between the ages of 12 and 17.”

Let’s take this one slowly. First, let’s assume that this approach actually works. Antonio can speak “with confidence” that the other participants are his close to his age. What exactly does that mean? That he should feel comfortable offering identifiable details out in his posts? That if someone suggests a meeting, it’s a good idea? The idea of a well-established digital credential is a fine one, but not to encourage people (especially children) to ever lower their guard online.

Why? Because couldn’t a 17-year-old be a child molester or murderer? And because this credential merely means that there exists someone who is (theoretically) that age. What if the murderer is doing the actual typing, with the 17-year-old as an unwilling accomplice?

Most critically, the school is issuing this certificate. So any employee of any of the decillion private, public and parochial schools in the U.S. can grant this certificate? Or, for that matter, anyone who can break into the system of any of those schools? And if any of that happens, then the credentials suddenly mean nothing.

One of the government’s arguments is that today’s identification devices reveal far too much information. That is a legitimate argument. From the report: “Consider a driver’s license. An individual can use a driver’s license to open a bank account, board an airplane or view an age-restricted movie at the cinema, but the Department of Motor Vehicles does not know every place that accepts driver’s licenses as identification. It is also difficult for the bank, the airport and the movie theater to collaborate and link the transactions together.


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