Are Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Really Needed for NSTIC?

This is the third of a series of posts on the prospects for using privacy-enhancing technologies in the NSTIC Identity Ecosystem.

In the first two posts we’ve looked at two, or rather three, privacy-enhancing authentication technologies: U-Prove, Idemix, and the Idemix Java card. The credentials provided by these technologies have some or all of the privacy features called for by NSTIC, but they have various practical drawbacks, the most serious of which is that they are not revocable by the credential issuer.

Given these drawbacks, it is natural to ask the question: are privacy-friendly credentials really necessary for NSTIC? My answer is: they are not needed in many important use cases, and they are useful but not indispensable in other important cases; but they are essential in cases that are key to the success of NSTIC.

Use Cases Where Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Are Not Needed

The most common use case of Web authentication is the case where a user registers anonymously with a Web site and later logs in as a returning user. Traditionally, the user registers a username and a password with the site and later uses them as credentials to log in. Today, third-party login is becoming popular as a way of mitigating the proliferation or reuse of passwords: the user logs in with username and password to a third-party identity provider, and is then redirected to the Web site, which plays the role of relying party. But there is a way of avoiding passwords altogether: the Web site can issue a cryptographic credential to the user upon registration, which the user can submit back to the Web site upon login. In that case there is no third party involvement and no privacy issues. The cryptographic credential can therefore be an ordinary PKI certificate. No privacy-enhancing technologies are needed.

Update. The PKI certificate binds the newly created user account to the public key component of a key pair that the browser generates on the fly.

Other cases where privacy-enhancing technologies are not needed are those where a credential demonstrates that the user possesses an attribute whose value uniquely identifies the user, and the relying party needs to know the value of that attribute. (One example of such an attribute is an email address.) Privacy-enhancing technologies are not useful in such cases because a uniquely-identifying attribute communicated to relying parties can be used to track the user no matter what type of credential is used to communicate the attribute.

Use Cases Where Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Are Useful but not Essential

Privacy-enhancing technologies are useful but not essential when the attributes certified by a credential do not uniquely identify the user, and the user has a choice of credential issuers. They are useful in such cases because they prevent the issuer from tracking the user’s activities by sharing data with the relying parties. They are not essential, however, because the user may be able to choose a credential issuer that she trusts. (Most privacy-enhancing technologies also prevent relying parties from collectively tracking the user by sharing their login information, without involvement of the credential issuer, but the risk of this happening may be more remote.)

Examples of non-identifying attributes are demographic attributes (city of residence, gender, age group), shopping interests, hobby interests, etc.; such attributes are usually self-asserted, but they can be supplied by an identity provider, chosen by the user, as a matter of convenience, so that the user does not have to reenter them and maintain them uptodate at each relying party. Examples of sites that may ask for such attributes are dating sites, shopping deal sites, hobbyist sites, etc.

Of course, a credential that contains non-identifying attributes will not by itself allow a user to log in to a site. But it can be used in addition to a PKI certificate issued by the site itself to recognize repeat visitors.

Use Cases Where Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Are Necessary

Privacy-enhancing technologies are necessary when the relying party does not require uniquely identifying information, and there is only one credential issuer. That one credential issuer could be the government. Non-uniquely-identifying information provided by government-issued credentials could include assertions that the user is old enough to buy wine, or is a resident of a particular state, or is licensed to practice some profession in some state, or is a US citizen, or has the right to work in the US.

I find it difficult to find examples where people would have a reasonable fear of being tracked through their use of government-issued credentials. But the right to privacy is a human right that is held dear in the United States, and has been found to be implicitly protected by the US constitution. Government-issued credentials will only be acceptable if they incorporate all available privacy protections. That makes the use of privacy-enhancing technologies essential to the success of NSTIC.

Wanted: Efficiently-Revocable Privacy-Friendly Credentials

So: privacy-friendly credentials are necessary; but, in my opinion, the drawbacks of existing privacy-enhancing technologies make them impractical. Therefore we need new privacy-enhancing technologies. Those new technologies should have issue-show and multi-show unlinkability; they should provide partial information disclosure, including proofs of inequality relations involving numeric attributes; and they should be efficiently revocable.

Fortunately, that’s not too much to ask. U-Prove and Idemix have been pioneering technologies, but they are now dated. U-Prove is based on research carried out in the mid-nineties, and the core cryptographic scheme later used in Idemix was described in a paper written in 2001. A lot of research has been done in cryptography since then, and several new cryptographic schemes have been proposed that could be used to provide privacy-friendly credentials.

I don’t think a scheme meeting all the requirements, including efficient revocation, has been designed yet. (I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong!) But possible ingredients for such a system have been proposed, including methods for proving non-revocation in time proportional to the square root of the number of revoked credentials [1] or even in practically constant time [2].

Update. Stefan Brands has told me that the cryptosystem described in [1] is considered part of the U-Prove technology, and that the revocation technique of [1] could be integrated into the existing U-Prove implementation to provide issuer-driven revocation. If that were done and the resulting system proved to be suitably efficient, the only ingredient missing from that system would be multi-show unlinkability.

Once a scheme with all the ingredients has been designed and mathematically verified, it still needs to be implemented. Cryptographic implementations are few and far between, but that does not mean that they are difficult. Recently, for example, three different systems of privacy-friendly credentials were implemented just for the purpose of comparing their performance [3].

Next and Last: Usability and Deployment

To conclude the series, in the next post I’ll try to respond to a comment made by Anthony Nadalin on the Identity Commons mailing list: “if it’s not useable or deployable who cares?”.


[1] Stefan Brands, Liesje Demuynck and Bart De Decker. A practical system for globally revoking the unlinkable pseudonyms of unknown users. In Proceedings of the 12th Australasian Conference on Information Security and Privacy, ACISP’07. Springer-Verlag, 2007. ISBN 978-3-540-73457-4. Preconference technical report available at
[2] T. Nakanishi, H. Fujii, Y. Hira and N. Funabiki. Revocable Group Signature Schemes with Constant Costs for Signing and Verifying. In IEICE Transactions, volume 93-A, number 1, pages 50-62, 2010.
[3] J. Lapon, M. Kohlweiss, B. De Decker and V. Naessens. Performance Analysis of Accumulator-Based Revocation Mechanisms. In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Information Security (SEC 2010). Springer, 2010.

2 thoughts on “Are Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Really Needed for NSTIC?”

  1. Have you looked at the concept of variable claims/attributes? Sid Sidner first came up with the idea of it as a method for financial transactions.
    A variable claim is a URI with a query string attached:
    http://schema…/name? vardata
    It can work in SAML, WS-Trust (Inf cards) and I believe OpenID Connect
    So you can have a highly scalable system as a single claim can provide multiple purposes (also cutting costs by removing the need for additional components)

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