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Open Source
Web Development

Jon Udell Control Your Identity or Microsoft and Intel Will

by Jon Udell

I've been mulling over the list of features touted for the Microsoft/Intel/AMD security scheme called Palladium.

If you're unfamiliar with Palladium, Ross Anderson has put together a good FAQ on the topic. In his Newsweek story The Big Secret, Steven Levy said that a security chip such as what Intel's Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA) proposes, combined with a new OS layer (such as Microsoft's Palladium), will:

  • Tell you who you’re dealing with

  • Protect information

  • Stop viruses and worms

  • Can spam

  • Safeguard privacy

  • Control your information after you send it

We have had most of these capabilities in software for years, but haven't bothered to exercise them. The exception is the last item, Palladium's DRM (digital rights management) "feature", which can only work in a world of proprietary devices--and probably not even then. As Ed Felten, the Princeton University security guru, said in a Salon article:

"Society must either give up on copy protection or the general-purpose PC and the Net." And no matter how hard Hollywood tries, Felten argues, society will eventually choose the latter because "the sheer value of the Net and computers is so much greater than any value that copy protection can provide."

DRM aside, the items on Levy's shopping list are useful, mostly implemented in existing software, and more widely available than we realize. For years I've been pointing out that control of our own digital identities is built into the email software that most of us spent most of our days using. Essentially nobody knows about this capability, so nobody exploits it for message signing, encryption, and integrity assurance. As a result, second-order effects like protection against worms and spam have never had a chance to evolve.

Spam, I'm afraid, will be Palladium's toe in the door. This week's New York Times article painted a typically bleak picture: spam has tripled over the past nine months, users are abandoning email addresses, the FTC receives 40,000 complaints every day, and "no-one can do much about it," The Times laments, because:

"All a spammer needs for business is a computer, an Internet connection, and an inexpensive CD containing spamming software and tens of millions of email addresses."

That's true, but suppose the spammer needed one more thing: a revocable digital certificate, bound at least to a verifiable email address and ideally to something more tangible.

The world I envision is divided into two groups: those who assert their identities in cyberspace, and those who do not. Call them, for the sake of argument, professionals and amateurs. By signing my email, I choose to be a professional, and I'll take other professionals much more seriously than amateurs. For example, I'll route all unsigned email to a low-priority folder. Because signing will be a mark of professionalism (and not the geeky affectation it is today), you'll likewise choose to sign your emails so they'll land in the high-priority folders of people like me. If you're a spammer, you'll need to do the same. But now, there's a new kind of accountability. When you broadcast spam, your ID can be revoked. If you send me messages signed with a bogus ID, I'll treat them just like unsigned messages, and route them to the low-priority folder or just /dev/null.

We can choose accountability, or we can let the unholy alliance of Hollywood, Microsoft, Intel, and the government choose for us. The alliance, cleverly, pretends to solve problems that really annoy us, like spam and email worms. But these violations of trust won't yield simply to trusted motherboards and operating systems. People have to assert (and prove) their claims of trustworthiness, and other people have to make judgments about those assertions. The PKI technologies haven't yet perfected the art of binding real identities to virtual ones, but that's just what will be needed on top of TCPA/Palladium in order to deliver the benefits that people actually want.

For years I've argued that activating the security features dormant in popular email software--including Outlook, Outlook Express, and Netscape/Mozilla--is a good idea. Voluntary message signing can establish trust in a way that's useful, and doesn't require reinventing the PC around a digital-rights-management chip.

Related Reading

Web Security, Privacy & Commerce
By Simson Garfinkel

It's easy to acquire the client certificate that enables S/MIME signatures. It's been years since I did so, so to review the procedure I recently enrolled my 14-year-old daughter in Thawte's Freemail program. Here were the steps:

  1. Terms and conditions.
    This page includes a strong privacy statement, and informs you that enrollment will require one of the following pieces of ID: passport number, social security number, driver's license number. "We need this information even if you only intend subscribing to the Freemail program," Thawte says.

    The Freemail option binds your identity to none of these tokens. Instead, it binds to the email address you enroll with. This is the lowest level of assurance--far better than nothing, but still weak. There are two ways to strengthen it. One, available to Freemail users, is Thawte's Web of Trust, a PGP-like system of notarization. The other is to pay Thawte to assert, in your certificate, that an official fact (like your passport number) binds to your identity.

  2. Core ID information.
    Here I supplied my daughter's passport number, and an email address. I didn't use her address, but rather one of mine, since I'll be the administrator of this account on her behalf. Once she's enrolled, I can generate an ID that binds to her email address.

  3. Language and charset preferences.
    I just took the default: "Use browser settings."

  4. Password.
    The account password is a very serious matter, as this page explains in great detail. In particular, it notes that Thawte will not email you a forgotten password, and that an identity token (for example a passport number) linked to an account whose password is forgotten will be permanently compromised. I'd guess that most of the attrition in the enrollment process happens here.

  5. Set Password Questions and Contact Telephone Number.
    Despite the dire warnings in step 4, there is a password recovery procedure. Thawte would have to be able to call you at the number you give here, and then you would have to answer five questions, which you select (or invent) on this page.

  6. Please Confirm Enrollment Information.

  7. Email Message Sent.

  8. Enter Probe and Ping
    The email message at step 7 contains a URL and two values marked "probe" and "ping." To complete your enrollment you follow the URL to a form, paste in the values, and submit the form.

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