NSTIC Is Not Low-Hanging Fruit

In a recent tweet, Ian Glazer quoted Patrick Gallagher, director of NIST, saying at a recent White House meeting on NSTIC that the “current suite of technologies we rely on are insufficient”.

The identity technologies used today both in federal agencies and on the Web at large are indeed insufficient:

  • SSL client certificates have failed to displace passwords for Web authentication since they were introduced 17 years ago.
  • Credentials in PIV cards have failed to displace passwords in federal agencies eight years after HSPD 12; a GAO report does a good job of documenting the many obstacles faced by agencies in implementing the directive, ranging from the fact that some categories of agency employees do not have PIV cards, to the desire by employees to use Apple MAC computers and mobile devices that lack card readers. I’m glad that we don’t live in the Soviet Union and heads of agencies are not sent to the Gulag when they ignore unreasonable orders.
  • Third-party login solutions such as OpenID, as currently used on the Web, not only do not eliminate passwords, they make the password security problem worse, by facilitating phishing attacks. They also impinge on the user’s privacy, because the identity provider is told what relying parties the user logs in to.
  • Social login solutions based on OAuth, e.g. “login with Facebook”, worsen the privacy drawback of third party login by limiting the user’s choice of identity providers to those that the relying party has registered with, and by broadcasting the user’s activities to the user’s social graph. Eric Sachs of Google said at the last Internet Identity Workshop that users participating in usability testing were afraid of logging in via Facebook or Google+ because “their friends would be spammed”.

But some proponents of NSTIC do not seem to realize that. In a recent interview, Howard Schmidt went so far as to say that NSTIC is “low-hanging fruit”, because “the technology is there”. What technology would that be? In a blog post that he wrote last year shortly after the launch of NSTIC, it was clear that the technology he was considering for NSTIC was privacy-enhancing cryptography, used by Microsoft in U-Prove and by IBM in Idemix. He used the words “privacy-enhancing” in the interview, so he may have been referring to that technology in the interview as well.

(Credentials based on privacy-enhancing cryptography provide selective disclosure and unlinkability. Selective disclosure refers to the ability to combine multiple attributes in a credential but disclose only some of them when presenting the credential. Unlinkability, in the case of U-Prove, refers to the impossibility of linking the use of a credential to its issuance; Idemix also makes it impossible to link multiple uses of the same credential.)

But Idemix has never been deployed commercially, and an attempt at deploying U-Prove within the Information Cards framework failed when Microsoft discontinued CardSpace, two months before the launch of NSTIC.

Credentials based on privacy-enhancing cryptography, sometimes called anonymous credentials, have inherent drawbacks. One of them is that unlinkability makes revocation of such credentials harder than revocation of public key certificates, as I pointed out in a blog post on U-Prove and another blog post on Idemix. The difficulty of revoking credentials based on privacy-enhancing cryptography has led ABC4Trust, which can be viewed as the European counterpart of NSTIC, to propose arresting users for the purpose of revoking their credentials! See page 23, end of last paragraph, of the ABC4Trust document Architecture for Attribute-based Credential Technologies.

Another inherent drawback is that it is difficult to keep the owner of an anonymous credential from making it available for use online by others who are not entitled to it. For example, it would be difficult to prevent the owner of a proof-of-drinking-age anonymous credential (a use case often cited by proponents of anonymous credentials) from letting minors use it for a fee.

The mistaken belief that “the technology is there” explains why the NSTIC NPO has made little effort to improve on existing technology. Instead of requesting funding for research, it requested funding for pilots; a pilot is usually intended to demonstrate the usability of a newly developed technology; it assumes that the technology already exists. After the launch of NSTIC, the NPO announced three workshops, on governance, privacy and technology. The first two were held, but the workshop on technology, which was supposed to take place in September of last year, was postponed by six months and merged with the yearly NIST IDtrust workshop, which took place in March of this year. The IDtrust workshop usually includes a call for papers. But this year there was none: new ideas were not solicited.

The NSTIC NPO has been trying to “bring relying parties to the table”. Ian Glazer dubbed the recent White House meeting the NSTIC Relying Party Event. The meeting was about getting a bigger table according to the NPO blog post on the event, and about “getting people to volunteer” according the Senator Mikulski as quoted by the blog post. Earlier, Jim Sheire of the NPO convened a session entitled NSTIC How do we bring relying parties to the table? at the last Internet Identity Workshop.

One idea mentioned in the report on the IIW session for bringing relying parties to the table is to target 100 “top relying parties” in the hope of creating a snowball effect. But it’s not clear what it would mean for those 100 relying parties and any additional ones caught in the snowball, to “come to the table”. What would they do at the table? What technology would they use? OpenID? OAuth? Smart cards? Information cards? Anonymous credentials? NSTIC has not proposed any specific technology. Or would they come to the table just to talk?

There are many millions of Web sites that use passwords for user authentication. The goal should be to get all those sites to adopt an identity solution that eliminates the security risk of passwords. Web site developers will do that of their own initiative once a solution is available that is more secure and as easy to deploy as password authentication.

While the technology is not there, various technology ingredients are there, and missing ingredients could be developed. It is not difficult to conceive a roadmap that could lead to one or more good identity solutions. But success would require a concerted effort by many different parties: not only relying parties and identity and attribute providers, but also standards bodies, browser vendors, vendors of desktop and mobile operating systems, vendors of smart cards and other hardware tokens, perhaps biometric vendors, and the providers of the middleware, software libraries, and software development tools used on the Web. When I first heard of NSTIC I hoped that it would provide the impetus and the forum needed for such a concerted effort. But that has yet to happen.

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