Credential Sharing: A Pitfall of Anonymous Credentials

There is an inherent problem with anonymous credentials such as those provided by Idemix or U-Prove: if it is not possible to tell who is presenting a credential, the legitimate owner of a credential may be willing to lend it to somebody else who is not entitled to it. For example, somebody could sell a proof-of-drinking-age credential to a minor, as noted by Jaap-Henk Hoepman in a recent blog post [1].

This problem is known in cryptography as the credential sharing or credential transferability problem, and various countermeasures have been proposed. In this post I will briefly discuss some of these countermeasures, then I will describe a new method of sharing credentials that is resistant to most of them.

A traditional countermeasure proposed by cryptographers, mentioned for example in [2], is to deter the sharing of an anonymous credential by linking it to one or more additional credentials that the user would not want to share, such as a credential that gives access to a bank account, in such a way that the sharing of the anonymous credential would imply the sharing of the additional credential(s). I shall refer to this countermeasure as the “credential linking countermeasure”. I find this countermeasure unrealistic, because few people would escrow their bank account for the privilege of using an anonymous credential.

In her presentation [3] at the recent NIST Meeting on Privacy-Enhancing Cryptography [4], Anna Lysyanskaya said that it is a misconception to think that “if all transactions are private, you can’t detect and prevent identity fraud”. But the countermeasure that she proposes for preventing identity fraud is to limit how many times a credential is used and to disclose the user’s identity if the limit is exceeded. However this can only be done in cases where a credential only allows the legitimate user to access a resource a limited number of times, and I can think of few such cases in the realm of Web authentication. Lysyanskaya gives as an example a subscription to an online newspaper, but such subscriptions typically provide unlimited access for a monthly fee. I shall refer to this countermeasure as the “limited use countermeasure”.

Lysyanskaya’s presentation also mentions identity escrow as useful for conducting an investigation if “something goes very, very wrong”.

At the panel on Privacy in the Identification Domain at the same meeting Lysyanskaya also proposed binding an anonymous credential to a biometric. The relying party would check the biometric and then forget it to keep the presentation anonymous. But if the relying party can be trusted to forget the biometric, it may as well be trusted to forget the entire credential presentation, in which case an anonymous credential is not necessary.

An interesting approach to binding a biometric to a credential while keeping the user anonymous can be found in [5]. The biometric is checked by a tamper-proof smartcard trusted by the relying party, but a so-called warden trusted by the user is placed between the smartcard and the relying party, and mediates the presentation protocol to ensure that no information that could be used to identify or track the user is communicated by the smart card to the relying party.

However, if what we are looking for is an authentication solution that will replace passwords on the Web at large, biometric-based countermeasures are not good candidates because of their cost.

Update. In a response to this post on the Identity Commons mailing list Terry Boult has pointed out that cameras and microphones are pretty ubiquitous and said that, in volume, fingerprint sensors are cheaper than smartcard readers.

In his blog post [1], Hoepman suggested that, to prevent the sharing of an anonymous credential, the credential could be stored in the owner’s identity card, presumably referring to the national identity card that citizens carry in the Netherlands and other European countries. This is a good idea because lending the card would put the owner at risk of impersonation by the borrower. I shall refer to this as the “identity card countermeasure”.

Rather than storing a proof of age credential as an additional credential in a national identity card, anonymous proof of age could be accomplished by proving in zero knowledge that a birthdate attribute of a national identity credential (or, in the United States, of a driver’s license credential) lies in an open interval ending 21 years before the present time; Idemix implements such proofs. The identity credential could be stored in a smartcard or perhaps in a tamper-proof module within a smart phone or a personal computer. I’ll refer to this countermeasure as the “selective disclosure countermeasure”. As in the simpler identity card countermeasure, the legitimate user of the credential would be deterred from sharing the credential with another person because of the risk of impersonation.

But this countermeasure, like most of the above ones, does not help with the following method of sharing credentials.

A Countermeasure-Resistant Method of Sharing Credentials

An owner of a credential can make the credential available for use by another person without giving a copy of the credential to that other person. Instead, the owner can allow that other person to act as a proxy, or man-in-the-middle, between the owner and a relying party in a credential presentation. (Note that this is not a man-in-the-middle attack because the man in the middle cooperates with the owner.)

For example, somebody of drinking age could install his or her national identity credential or driver’s license credential on a Web server, either by copying the credential to the server or, if the credential is contained in a tamper-proof device, by connecting the device to the server. The credential owner could then allow minors to buy liquor by proxying a proof of drinking age based on the birthdate attribute in the credential. (Minors would need a special user agent to do the proxying, but the owner could make such user agent available for download from the same server where the credential is installed.) The owner could find a surreptitious way of charging a fee for the service.

This method of sharing a credential, which could be called proxy-based sharing, defeats most of the countermeasures mentioned above. Biometric-based countermeasures don’t work because the owner of the credential can input the biometric. Credential linking countermeasures don’t work because the secret of the credential is not shared. The identity card countermeasure and the selective disclosure countermeasure don’t work because the owner is in control of what proofs are proxied and can refuse to proxy proofs that could allow impersonation. The limited use countermeasure could work but, as I said above, I can think of few Web authentication cases where it would be applicable.

Are there any other countermeasures that would prevent or inhibit this kind of sharing? If a minor were trying to buy liquor using an identity credential and a payment credential, the merchant could require the minor to prove in zero-knowledge that the secret keys underlying both credentials are the same. That would defeat the sharing scheme by making the owner of the identity credential for pay for the purchase. However there are proof-of-age cases that do not require a purchase. For example, an adult site may be required to ask for proof of age without or before asking for payment.

The only generally applicable countermeasure that I can think of to defeat proxy-based sharing is the identity escrow scheme that Lysyanskaya referred to in her talk [3]. Using provable encryption, as available in Idemix, a liquor merchant could ask the user agent to provide the identity of the owner of the credential as an encrypted attribute that could be decrypted, say, by a judge. (The encrypted attribute would be randomized for unlinkability.) The user agent would include the encrypted attribute in the presentation proof after asking the user for permission to do so.

Unfortunately this requires the user to trust the government. This may not be a problem for most people in many countries. But it undermines one of the motivations for using privacy-enhancing technologies that I discussed in a previous blog [6].


[1] Jaap-Henk Hoepman. On using identity cards to store anonymous credentials. November 16, 2011. Blog post, at
[2] Jan Camenisch and Anna Lysyanskaya. An Efficient System for Non-transferable Anonymous Credentials with Optional Anonymity Revocation. In Proceedings of the International Conference on the Theory and Application of Cryptographic Techniques: Advances in Cryptology (EUROCRYPT 01). 2001. Research report available from
[3] Anna Lysyanskaya. Conditional And Revocable Anonymity. Presentation at the NIST Meeting on Privacy-Enhancing Cryptography. December 8-9, 2011. Slides available at
[4] NIST Meeting on Privacy-Enhancing Cryptography. December 8-9, 2011. At NIST Meeting on Privacy-Enhancing Cryptography.
[5] Russell Impagliazzo and Sara Miner More. Anonymous Credentials with Biometrically-Enforced Non-Transferability. In Proceedings of the 2003 ACM workshop on Privacy in the electronic society (WPES 03).
[6] Francisco Corella. Are Privacy-Enhancing Technologies Really Needed for NSTIC? October 13, 2011. Blog post, at

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