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Digital Identity, Trust and Privacy on the open Internet

Archive for the ‘Trust’ Category

Public keys on blockchains: confusing existence with trust

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Today Identity and Access Management (IAM) represents a core component of the Internet infrastructure,  without which users would not be able to obtain online services in a timely and scalable manner. Enterprise IAM infrastructures are well integrated into other enterprise infrastructure services — such as directory services — which provide control over employees and assets. In the case of Consumer IAM most end-users are oblivious to the underlying identity federation infrastructures that allow them to perform Web Single Sign-On (SSO) to various online services and which enables them to grant their mobile apps access to various personal resources (e.g. contacts list, calendar, etc).

The recent emergence of the Bitcoin system has created various discourses of the role of “blockchain identity”. Here the three notable fundamental features of Bitcoin are its combined use of:

  • peer-to-peer network of physically distributed mining nodes,
  • consensus-based transaction status agreement algorithm and
  • restrictive scripting language (opcodes) for transaction expression.

These three aspects of the Bitcoin system provide mining nodes with true independence in processing transactions, subject only to the 51\% majority requirement of the consensus scheme. It is precisely this node-independence that translates to “user independence” in the sense of the user not being beholden to any one mining node (or a small minority of nodes) in the Bitcoin system.

However, it is this “user independence” (in the context of Bitcoin) that have led many to incorrectly extrapolate (speculate) that the same degree user independence can be achieved in all DLTs (distributed ledger technology) in general — something that is not necessarily true in DLTs generically speaking. The Bitcoin system is an instance of a DLT, but not all proposed DLTs possess the three fundamental features of Bitcoin.

Furthermore, many commentators have equated “user independence” (in Bitcoin) to “individual empowerment” in DLTs in general, a jump in speculation that is too far and which have led to confusion among the non-technical audience.

This misunderstanding regarding individual empowerment is exacerbated when the use of self-issued public-key pairs (in the Bitcoin system) is extrapolated to mean that these self-issued keys can be used as a “digital identity” for individuals in general. More specifically, the use of self-issued public-key pairs have led many to deduce (incorrectly) that a public-key used in the Bitcoin system can be “trusted” as a “digital identity” simply because it has been recorded on a transaction-block which has been replicated by all nodes on the peer-to-peer network.

That is, the existence of a key in transaction block is being confused with trust in the provenance and ownership of that key.

Some have even coined the term “trustless” when referring to the peer-to-peer network of mining nodes, forgetting that high-value transaction networks are built on both technical-trust and legal-trust — both leading to business and social trust.

It is worth recalling that this problem of digital identity versus public keys emerged first in the mid-1990s in the context of self-signed X509 certificates,  Simple PKI (RFC2693) and in the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) system (RFC1991). Although an implementation of the PGP system may provide technical-trust, the PGP proposal was never broadly adopted by industry due to a lack of a corresponding model for business and legal trust.

Written by thomas

April 21st, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Blockchains: Evidence of Mediated Computation

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In writing of the report of the Kantara BSC group (Blockchain and Smart Contracts) – a group that has been meeting bi-weekly for the past 7 months – we have come across numerous use-cases proposed by members who are looking closely at blockchain technology (or more generally from distributed ledger technology).

To enable classification of these use-cases,  some criteria were agree upon that  would highlight the features of blockchain systems. Since the attraction of blockchain technology (and more generally of distributed ledgers) lies in its empowering parties to transact without the need for a single (or few) intermediary, the following criteria has helped the team classify the received use-cases:

  • Individuals controlling their own data: Does the use-case seek to empower individuals to begin with, and does blockchain technology help to achieve that goal.
  • Individuals rising to the level of a “peer” in transactions with others: Does the use-case require individuals to function at a peer-level (or can the same outcome be achieved using other paradigms), and does blockchain technology help to achieve that goal.
  • Evidence of mediated computation: Does the use-case require immutable evidence that a neutral third party (e.g. some computer, somewhere) mediated the transaction, without which the transaction outcome would be worthless to the transacting parties.

The last criterion points to a feature of blockchain technology that is often overlooked. In many discourses regarding applications of blockchain technology, authors assume (forget) that the blockchain system consists of a network of peer-to-peer nodes which perform some computation (e.g. proof or work mining) towards the completion of a transaction. As such, one or more of these nodes are in fact performing mediated computation (to some degree) and at the same time provide evidence of this mediated act.

If evidence of mediated computation is crucial to the acceptance of a transaction, it implies that stronger forms of technical-trust must be produced by the entity (i.e. node; server; device) that is performing the computation. New forms of remote attestation may need to be devised, something along the lines of the SGX architecture that provide evidence that a given computation was performed within a secure enclave.

This raises another prospect: different nodes on a blockchain system may offer different levels of trustworthy computation, each with an associated cost (i.e. tiers of trusted computation services on the P2P network).

 

 

 

Written by thomas

April 2nd, 2017 at 2:56 pm

What and why: MIT Enigma

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I often get asked to provide a brief explanation about MIT Enigma — notably what it is, and why it is important particularly in the current age of P2P networking and blockchain technology.  So here’s a brief summary.

The MIT Enigma system is part of a broader initiative at MIT Connections Science called the Open Algorithms for Equity, Accountability, Security, and Transparency (OPAL-EAST).

The MIT Enigma system employs two core cryptographic constructs simultaneously atop a Peer-to-Peer (P2P network of nodes). These are secrets-sharing (ala Shamir’s Linear Secret Sharing Scheme (LSSS)) and multiparty computation (MPC). Although secret sharing and MPC are topics of research for the past two decades, the innovation that MIT Enigma brings is the notion of employing these constructions on a P2P network of nodes (such as the blockchain) while providing “Proof-of-MPC” (like proof of work) that a node has correctly performed some computation.

In secret-sharing schemes, a given data item is “split” into a number of ciphertext pieces (called “shares”) that are then stored separately. When the data item needs to be reconstituted or reconstructed, a minimum or “threshold” number of shares need to be obtained and merged together again in a reverse cryptographic computation. For example, in Naval parlance this is akin to needing 2 out of 3 keys in order to perform some crucial task (e.g. activate the missile). Some secret sharing schemes possess the feature that some primitive arithmetic operations can be performed on shares (shares “added” to shares) yielding a result without the need to fully reconstitute the data items first. In effect, this feature allows operations to be performed on encrypted data (similar to homomorphic encryption schemes).

The MIT Enigma system proposes to use a P2P network of nodes to randomly store the relevant shares belonging to data items.  In effect, the data owner no longer needs to keep a centralized database of data-items (e.g. health data) and instead would transform each data item into shares and disperse these on the P2P network of node.  Only the data owner would know the locations of the shares, and can fetch these from the nodes as needed.  Since each of these shares appear as garbled ciphertext to the nodes, the nodes are oblivious to their meaning or significance.  A node in the P2P network would be remunerated for storage costs and the store/fetch operations.

The second cryptographic construct employed in MIT Enigma multiparty computation (MPC). The study of MPC schemes seeks to address the problem of a group of entities needing to share some common output (e.g. result of computation) whilst maintaining as secret their individual data items.  For example, a group of patients may wish to collaboratively compute their average blood pressure information among them, but without each patient sharing actual raw data about their blood pressure information.

The MIT Enigma system combines the use of MPC schemes with secret-sharing schemes, effectively allowing some computations to be performed using the shares that are distributed on the P2P. The combination of these 3 computing paradigms (secret-sharing, MPC and P2P nodes) opens new possibilities in addressing the current urgent issues around data privacy and the growing liabilities on the part of organizations who store or work on large amounts of data.

Written by thomas

August 6th, 2016 at 1:10 pm

New Principles for Privacy-Preserving Queries for Distributed Data

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Here are the three (3) principles for privacy-preserving computation based on the Enigma P2P distributed multi-party computation model:

(a) Bring the Query to the Data: The current model is for the querier to fetch copies of all the data-sets from the distributed nodes, then import the data-sets into the big data processing infra and then run queries. Instead, break-up the query into components (sub-queries) and send the query pieces to the corresponding nodes on the P2P network.

(b) Keep Data Local: Never let raw data leave the node. Raw data must never leaves its physical location or the control of its owner. Instead, nodes that carry relevant data-sets execute sub-queries and report on the result.

(c) Never Decrypt Data: Homomorphic encryption remains an open field of study. However, certain types of queries can be decomposed into rudimentary operations (such as additions and multiplications) on encrypted data that would yield equivalent answers to the case where the query was run on plaintext data.

 

Written by thomas

August 30th, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Atmel to support EPID from Intel

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One important news item this week from the IoT space is the support by Atmel of Intel’s EPID technology.

Enhanced Privacy ID (EPID) grew from the work of Ernie Brickell and Jiangtao Li based on previous work on Direct Anonymous Attestations (DAA).  DAA is very relevant because it is built-in into the TPM1.2 chip (of which there are several hundred million in PC machines).

Here is a quick summary of EPID:

  • EPID is a special digital signature scheme.
  • One public key corresponds to multiple private keys.
  • Private key generates a EPID signature.
  • EPID signature can be verified using the public key.

Interesting Security Properties:

  • Anonymous/Unlinkable: Given two EPID signatures one cannot determine whether they are generated from one or two private keys.
  • Unforgeable: Without a private key one cannot create a valid signature.

 

Written by thomas

August 24th, 2015 at 10:33 pm

Technical Trust

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So the topic of “trust” always generates a million emails on various lists.  Rather than rolling-up my own definition, I thought I’d borrow a good definition from the Trusted Computing Group community (courtesy of Graeme Proudler of HP Labs, UK).

It is safe to trust something when:

  1. It can be unambiguously identified.
  2. It operates unhindered.
  3. The user has first hand experience of consistent, good, behavior.

The definition is that of “technical trust”, namely “trust” in the mechanics of some computation (e.g. cryptographic computation, etc). In this case it refers to the TPM hardware. Note that “unhindered operation” is paramount for technical trust.  This is still somewhat of a challenge for software (eg. think multi-tenant clouds and VMs).

 

Written by thomas

March 14th, 2012 at 4:17 pm