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Chapter: Security in Computing : Privacy in Computing

What Authentication Means

We use the term authentication to mean three different things [KEN03]: We authenticate an individual, identity, or attribute. An individual is a unique person. Authenticating an individual is what we do when we allow a person to enter a controlled room: We want only that human being to be allowed to enter. An identity is a character string or similar descriptor, but it does not necessarily correspond to a single person, nor does each person have only one name.

What Authentication Means


We use the term authentication to mean three different things [KEN03]: We authenticate an individual, identity, or attribute. An individual is a unique person. Authenticating an individual is what we do when we allow a person to enter a controlled room: We want only that human being to be allowed to enter. An identity is a character string or similar descriptor, but it does not necessarily correspond to a single person, nor does each person have only one name. We authenticate an identity when we acknowledge that whoever (or whatever) is trying to log in as admin has presented an authenticator valid for that account. Similarly, authenticating an identity in a chat room as SuzyQ does not say anything about the person using that identifier: It might be a 16-year-old girl or a pair of middle-aged male police detectives, who at other times use the identity FrereJacques.


Finally, we authenticate an attribute if we verify that a person has that attribute. An attribute is a characteristic. Here's an example of authenticating an attribute. Some places require one to be 21 or older in order to drink alcohol. A club's doorkeeper verifies a person's age and stamps the person's hand to show that the patron is over 21. Note that to decide, the doorkeeper may have looked at an identity card listing the person's birth date, so the doorkeeper knew the person's exact age to be 24 years, 6 months, 3 days, or the doorkeeper might be authorized to look at someone's face and decide if the person looks so far beyond 21 that there is no need to verify. The stamp authenticator signifies only that the person possesses the attribute of being 21 or over.


In computing applications we frequently authenticate individuals, identities, and attributes. Privacy issues arise when we confuse these different authentications and what they mean. For example, the U.S. social security number was never intended to be an identifier, but now it often serves as an identifier, an authenticator, a database key, or all of these. When one data value serves two or more uses, a person acquiring it for one purpose can use it for another.


Relating an identity to a person is tricky. In Chapter 7 we tell the story of rootkits, malicious software by which an unauthorized person can acquire supervisory control of a computer. Suppose the police arrest Ionut for chewing gum in public and seize his computer. By examining the computer the police find evidence connecting that computer to an espionage case. The police show incriminating e-mail messages from Ionut on Ionut's computer and charge him. In his defense, Ionut points to a rootkit on his computer. He acknowledges that his computer may have been used in the espionage, but he denies that he was personally involved. The police have, he says, drawn an unjustifiable connection between Ionut's identity in the e-mail and Ionut the person. The rootkit is a plausible explanation for how some other person acted under the identity of Ionut. This example shows why we must carefully distinguish individual, identity, and attribute authentication.


We examine the privacy implications of authentication in the next section.


Individual Authentication


There are relatively few ways of identifying an individual. When we are born, for most of us our birth is registered at a government records office, and we (probably our parents) receive a birth certificate. A few years later our parents enroll us in school, and they have to present the birth certificate, which then may lead to receiving a school identity card. We submit the birth certificate and a photo to get a passport or a national identity card. We receive many other authentication numbers and cards throughout life.


The whole process starts with a birth certificate issued to (the parents of) a baby, whose physical description (height, weight, even hair color) will change significantly in just months. Birth certificates may contain the baby's fingerprints, but matching a poorly taken fingerprint of a newborn baby to that of an adult is challenging at best. (For additional identity authentication problems, see Sidebar 10-2.)


Fortunately, in most settings it is acceptable to settle for weak authentication for individuals: A friend who has known you since childhood, a schoolteacher, neighbors, and coworkers can support a claim of identity.


Sidebar 10-2: Will the Real Earl of Buckingham Please Step Forward?


In a recent case [PAN06], a man claiming to be the Earl of Buckingham was identified as Charlie Stopford who had disappeared from his family in Florida in 1983 and assumed the identity of Christopher Buckingham, an 8-month-old baby who died in 1963. Stopford was questioned in England in 2005 after a check of passport details revealed the connection to the Buckingham baby and then arrested when he didn't know other correlating family details. (His occupation at the time of his arrest? Computer security consultant.) So the British authorities knew he was not Christopher Buckingham, but who was he? The case was solved only because his family in the United States thought they recognized him from photos and a news story as a husband and father who had disappeared more than 20 years earlier. Because he had been in the U.S. Navy (in military intelligence, no less) and his adult fingerprints were on file, authorities were able to make a positive identification.


As for the title he appropriated for himself, there has been no Earl of Buckingham since 1687.


Consider the case of certain people who, for various reasons need to change their identity. When the government does this, for example when a witness goes into hiding, the government creates a full false identity, including school records, addresses, employment records, and so forth. How can we authenticate the identity of war refugees whose home country may no longer exist, let alone a civil government and a records office. How does an adult confirm an identity after fleeing a hostile territory without waiting at the passport office for two weeks for a document?



Identity Authentication


We all use many different identities. When you buy something with a credit card, you do so under the identity of the credit card holder. In some places you can pay road tolls with a radio frequency device in your car, so the sensor authenticates you as the holder of a particular toll device. You may have a meal plan that you can access by means of a card, so the cashier authenticates you as the owner of that card.


You check into a hotel and get a magnetic stripe card instead of a key, and the door to your room authenticates you as a valid resident for the next three nights. If you think about your day, you will probably find 10 to 20 different ways some identity of you has been authenticated.


From a privacy standpoint, there may or may not be ways to connect all these different identities. A credit card links to the name and address of the card payer, who may be you, your spouse, or anyone else willing to pay your expenses. Your auto toll device links to the name and perhaps address of whoever is paying the tolls: you, the car's owner, or an employer. When you make a telephone call, there is an authentication to the account holder of the telephone, and so forth.


Sometimes we do not want an action associated with an identity. For example, an anonymous tip or "whistle-blower's" telephone line is a means of providing anonymous tips of illegal or inappropriate activity. If you know your boss is cheating the company, confronting your boss might not be a good career-enhancing move. You probably don't even want there to be a record that would allow your boss to determine who reported the fraud. So you report it anonymously. You might take the precaution of calling from a public phone so there would be no way to trace the person who called. In that case, you are purposely taking steps so that no common identifier could link you to the report.


Because of the accumulation of data, however, linking may be possible. As you leave your office to go to a public phone, there is a record of the badge you swiped at the door. A surveillance camera shows you standing at the public phone. The record of the coffee shop has a timestamp showing when you bought your coffee (using your customer loyalty card) before returning to your office. The time of these details matches the time of the anonymous tip by telephone. In the abstract these data items do not stand out from millions of others. But someone probing a few minutes around the time of the tip can construct those links. In this example, linking would be done by hand. Ever - improving technology permits more parallels like these to be drawn by computers from seemingly unrelated and uninteresting datapoints.


Therefore, to preserve our privacy we may thwart attempts to link records. A friend gives a fictitious name when signing up for customer loyalty cards at stores. Another friend makes dinner reservations under a pseudonym. In one store they always ask for my telephone number when I buy something, even if I pay cash. Records clerks do not make the rules, so it is futile asking them why they need my number. If all they want is a number, I gladly give them one; it just doesn't happen to correspond to me.


Anonymized Records


Part of privacy is linkages: Some person is named Erin, some person has the medical condition diabetes; neither of those facts is sensitive. The linkage that Erin has diabetes becomes sensitive.


Medical researchers want to study populations to determine incidence of diseases, common factors, trends, and patterns. To preserve privacy, researchers often deal with anonymized records, records from which identifying information has been removed. If those records can be reconnected to the identifying information, privacy suffers. If, for example, names have been removed from records but telephone numbers remain, a researcher can use a different database of telephone numbers to determine the patient, or at least the name assigned to the telephone. Removing enough information to prevent identification is difficult and can also limit the research possibilities.


As described in Chapter 6, Ross Anderson was asked to study a major database being prepared for citizens of Iceland. The database would have brought together several healthcare databases for the benefit of researchers and healthcare professionals. Anderson's analysis was that even though the records had been anonymized, it was still possible to relate specific records to individual people [AND98a, JON00]. Even though there were significant privacy difficulties, Iceland went ahead with plans to build the combined database.


In one of the most stunning analyses on deriving identities, Sweeney [SWE01] reports that 87 percent of the population of the United States is likely to be identified by the combination of 5-digit zip code, gender, and date of birth. That statistic is amazing when you consider that close to 10,000 U.S. residents must share any birthday or that the average population in any 5-digit zip code area is 30,000. Sweeney backs up her statistical analysis with a real-life study. In 1997 she analyzed the voter rolls of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of about 50,000 people, one of whom was the then current governor. She took him as an example and found that only six people had his birth date, only three of those were men, and he was the only one of those three living in his 5-digit zip code. As a public figure, he had published his date of birth in his campaign literature, but birth dates are sometimes available from public records. Similar work on deriving identities from anonymized records [SWE04, MAL02] showed how likely one is to deduce an identity from other easily obtained data.


Sweeney's work demonstrates compellingly how difficult it is to anonymize data effectively. Many medical records are coded with at least gender and date of birth, and those records are often thought to be releasable for anonymous research purposes. Furthermore, medical researchers may want a zip code to relate medical conditions to geography and demography. Few people would think that adding zip codes would lead to such high rates of breach of privacy.




As we have just seen, identification and authentication are two different activities that are easy to confuse. Part of the confusion arises because people do not clearly distinguish the underlying concepts. The confusion is also the result of using one data item for more than one purpose.


Authentication depends on something that confirms a property. In life few sound authenticators exist, so we tend to overuse those we do have: an identification number, birth date, or family name. But, as we described, those authenticators are also used as database keys, with negative consequences to privacy.


We have also studied cases in which we do not want to be identified. Anonymity and pseudonymity are useful in certain contexts. But data collection and correlation, on a scale made possible only with computers, can defeat anonymity and pseudonymity.


As we computer professionals introduce new computer capabilities, we need to encourage a public debate on the related privacy issues.


In the next section we study data mining, a data retrieval process involving the linking of databases.

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