Deployment and Usability of Cryptographic Credentials

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

Experience has shown that it is difficult to deploy cryptographic credentials on the Web and have them adopted by users, relying parties and credential issuers. This is true for privacy-friendly credentials as well as for ordinary public-key certificates, both of which have a place in the NSTIC Identity Ecosystem, as I argued in the previous post.

I believe that this difficulty can be overcome by putting the browser in charge of managing and presenting credentials, by supporting cryptographic credentials in the core Web protocols, viz. HTTP and TLS, and by providing a simple and automated process for issuing credentials.

Browsers should manage and present credentials

For credentials to be widely adopted, users must not be required to install additional software, let alone proprietary software that only runs on one operating system, such as Windows Cardspace. Therefore credentials must be managed and presented by the browser.

The browser should allow users to set up multiple personas or profiles and associate particular credentials with particular personas. Many users, for example, have a personal email address and a business email address, which could be associated with a personal profile and a business profile respectively. The user could declare one profile to be the “currently active persona” in a particular browser window or tab, and thus facilitate the selection of appropriate credentials when visiting sites in that window or tab.

People who use multiple browsers in multiple computing devices (including desktop or laptop computers, smart phones and tablets) must have access to the same credentials on all those devices. Credentials can be synced between browsers through a Web service without having to trust the service by equipping each browser with a key pair for encryption and a key pair for signature (in the same way as email can be sent with end-to-end confidentiality and origin authentication using S/MIME or PGP). Credentials can be backed up to an untrusted Web service similarly.

Cryptographic credentials should be supported by HTTP and TLS

HTTP should provide a way for the relying party to ask for particular credentials or attributes, and TLS should provide a way for the browser to present one or multiple credentials. Within TLS, the mechanism for presenting credentials should be separate from and subsequent to, the handshake, to benefit from the confidentiality and integrity offered by the TLS connection after it has been secured.

Credentials should be issued automatically to the browser, through TLS

Privacy-friendly credentials have cryptographically complex interactive issuance protocols. Paradoxically, this suggests a way of simplifying the issuance process, for both PKI certificates and privacy-friendly credentials.

Since the process is interactive, it should be run directly on a transport layer connection, to avoid HTTP and application overhead. That connection should be secure to protect the confidentiality of the attributes being certified. To reduce the latency due to the cryptographic computations, the protocol interactions should be interleaved with the transmission of other data. And the cryptographic similarity of issuance and presentation protocols suggests that they should be run over the same kind of connection.

All this leads to the idea of running issuance protocols, like presentation protocols, directly over a TLS connection. TLS has a record layer specification that could be extended to define two new kinds of records, one for issuance protocol messages, the other for presentation protocol messages. TLS would then automatically interleave protocol interactions with transmission of other data. (Another benefit of TLS is that its PRF facility could be readily used to generate the common reference string used by some cryptographic protocols.)

Since TLS is universally supported by server middleware, implementing issuance protocols directly over TLS would make allow servers to issue credentials automatically without installing additional software. In particular, it would make it easy for any Web site to issue a PKI certificate as a result of the user registration process, for use in subsequent logins.

User Experiences

Once credentials are handled by browsers and directly supported by the core protocols of the Web, smooth and painless user experiences become possible.

For example, a user can open a bank account online as follows. The user accepts terms and conditions and clicks on an account creation button button. The bank asks the browser for a social security credential and a driver’s license credential. The browser presents the credentials to the bank after asking the user for permission. The bank checks the user’s credit ratings and automatically creates an account and issues a PKI certificate binding the account number to the public key component of a new key pair generated by the browser on the fly. On a return visit, the user clicks on a login button and the bank asks the browser for the certificate. The user may allow the browser to present the certificate without asking for permission each time. Double factor authentication can be achieved, for example, by keeping the private key and certificate in a password-proctected smart card.

As a second example, suppose a user visits a site to sign up for receiving coupons by email. The user accepts terms and conditions and clicks on a sign-up button. The site asks the browser for a verified email-address certificate (issued by an email service provider) and a number of self-asserted attributes, such as zip code, gender, age group, and set of shopping preferences. The browser finds in its certificate store (or in a connected smart card) an email address certificate and a personal-data credential associated with the currently active persona. The personal-data credential is a privacy-friendly credential featuring unlinkability and selective disclosure. The browser presents simultaneously the email certificate and the personal-data credential, disclosing only the personal-data attributes requested by the site. The browser may or may not ask the user for permission to present the credentials, depending on user preferences that may be persona-dependent.


In this series of posts I have argued that new privacy-enhancing technologies should be developed to fill the gaps in currently implemented systems and to take advantage of new techniques developed by cryptographers over the last 10 or 15 years. I have also argued that the NSTIC Identity Ecosystem should accomodate both privacy-friendly credentials and ordinary PKI certificates, because different use cases call for different kinds of credentials. Finally I have sketched above two examples of user experiences that can be provided if credentials are handled by browsers and directly supported by the core protocols of the Web.

Of course this requires major changes to the Web infrastructure, including: extensions to HTTP; a revamp of TLS to allow for the presentation of privacy-friendly credentials, the simultaneous presentation of multiple credentials, and the issuance of credentials; support of the protocol changes in browsers and server middleware; and implementation of browser facilities for managing credentials.

These changes may seem daunting. The private sector by itself could not carry them out, especially given the current reliance of technology companies on business models based on advertising, which benefit from reduced user privacy. But I hope NSTIC will make them possible.

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