Why Tim Berners-Lee Is Right On Privacy

Last week, the “father” of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, did a series of interviews to mark the 28 year anniversary since he submitted his original proposal for the worldwide web.

The interviews were focused on the phenomenal success of the web, along with a macabre warning describing 3 key areas we need to change in order to “save” the Internet as we know it.

The three points were:

  1. We’ve lost control of our personal data
  2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
  3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

I want to primarily discuss the first point – personal data, privacy and our lack of control.

As nearly every private, non-profit and public sector organisation on the planet, either has a digital presence, or is in the process of transforming itself to be a digital force, the transfer of personal data to service provider is growing at an unprecedented rate.

Every time we register for a service – be it for an insurance quote, to submit a tax return, when we download an app on our smart phones, register at the local leisure centre, join a new dentists or buy a fitness wearable, we are sharing an ever growing list of personal information or providing access to our own personal data.

The terms and conditions often associated with such registration flows, are often so full of “legalese”, or the app permissions or “scope” so large and complex, that the end user literally has no control or choice over the type, quality and and duration of the information they share.  It is generally an “all or nothing” type of data exchange.  Provide the details the service provider is asking for, or don’t sign up to the service. There are no alternatives.

This throws up several important questions surrounding data privacy, ownership and control.

  1. What is the data being used for?
  2. Who has access to the data, including 3rd parties?
  3. Can I revoke access to the data?
  4. How long with the service provider have access to the data for?
  5. Can the end user amend the data?
  6. Can the end user remove the data from the service provider – aka right to erasure?

Many service providers are likely unable to provide an identity framework that can answer those sorts of questions.

The interesting news, is that there are alternatives and things are likely to change pretty soon.  The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), provides a regulatory framework around how organisations should collect and manage personal data.  The wide ranging regulation, covers things like how consent from the end user is managed and captured, how breach notifications are handled and how information pertaining to the reasons for data capture are explained to the end user.

The GDPR isn’t a choice either – it’s mandatory for any organisation (irregardless of their location) that handles data of European Union citizens.

Couple with that, new technology standards such as the User Managed Access working group being run by the Kantara Initiative, that look to empower end users to have more control and consent of data exchanges, will open doors for organisations who want to deliver personalised services, but do so in a more privacy preserving and user friendly way.

So, whilst the Internet certainly has some major flaws, and data protection and user privacy is a big one currently, there are some green shoots of recovery from an end user perspective.  It will be interesting to see what the Internet will look like another 28 years from now.

This blog post was first published @ www.infosecprofessional.com, included here with permission.

Why Tim Berners-Lee Is Right About Internet Privacy

Last week, the "father" of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, did a series of interviews to mark the 28 year anniversary since he submitted his original proposal for the worldwide web.

The interviews were focused on the phenomenal success of the web, along with a macabre warning describing 3 key areas we need to change in order to "save" the Internet as we know it.

The three points were:


  1. We’ve lost control of our personal data
  2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
  3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
I want to primarily discuss the first point - personal data, privacy and our lack of control.

As nearly every private, non-profit and public sector organisation on the planet, either has a digital presence, or is in the process of transforming itself to be a digital force, the transfer of personal data to service provider is growing at an unprecedented rate. 

Every time we register for a service - be it for an insurance quote, to submit a tax return, when we download an app on our smart phones, register at the local leisure centre, join a new dentists or buy a fitness wearable, we are sharing an ever growing list of personal information or providing access to our own personal data.

The terms and conditions often associated with such registration flows, are often so full of "legalese", or the app permissions or "scope" so large and complex, that the end user literally has no control or choice over the type, quality and and duration of the information they share.  It is generally an "all or nothing" type of data exchange.  Provide the details the service provider is asking for, or don't sign up to the service. There are no alternatives.

This throws up several important questions surrounding data privacy, ownership and control.
  1. What is the data being used for?
  2. Who has access to the data, including 3rd parties?
  3. Can I revoke access to the data?
  4. How long with the service provider have access to the data for?
  5. Can the end user amend the data?
  6. Can the end user remove the data from the service provider - aka right to erasure?
Many service providers are likely unable to provide an identity framework that can answer those sorts of questions.

The interesting news, is that there are alternatives and things are likely to change pretty soon.  The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), provides a regulatory framework around how organisations should collect and manage personal data.  The wide ranging regulation, covers things like how consent from the end user is managed and captured, how breach notifications are handled and how information pertaining to the reasons for data capture are explained to the end user.

The GDPR isn't a choice either - it's mandatory for any organisation (irregardless of their location) that handles data of European Union citizens.

Couple with that, new technology standards such as the User Managed Access working group being run by the Kantara Initiative, that look to empower end users to have more control and consent of data exchanges, will open doors for organisations who want to deliver personalised services, but do so in a more privacy preserving and user friendly way.

So, whilst the Internet certainly has some major flaws, and data protection and user privacy is a big one currently, there are some green shoots of recovery from an end user perspective.  It will be interesting to see what the Internet will look like another 28 years from now.










Protection & The Internet of Things

The 'Internet of Things' is one of the technical heatwaves that has genuinely got me excited over the last 24 months or so.  I've been playing with computers since I was 8 and like to think of myself as being pretty tech-savvy.  I can code in a number of languages, understand different architectural approaches easily and pick up new technical trends naturally.  However, the concept of the truly connected world with 'things' interconnected and graphed together, is truly mind blowing.  The exciting thing for me, is that I don't see the outcome.  I don't see the natural technical conclusion of devices and objects being linked to a single unique identity, where information can flow in multiple directions, originating from different sources and being made available in contextual bundles.  There is no limit.



They'll be No 'Connected', Just 'On'

Today we talk about connectivity, wifi hotspots and 4G network coverage.  The powerful difference between being on and off line.  As soon as you're off line, you're invisible.  Lost, unable to get the information you need, to interact with your personal and professional networks. This concept is slowly dying.  The 'Internet' is no longer a separate object that we connect with explicitly.  Very soon, the internet will be so intrinsically tied to us, that without it, basic human interactions and decision making will become stunted.  That is why I refer to objects just being 'on' - or maybe just 'being', but that is a little too sci-fi for me.  Switching an object on, or purchasing it, enabling it, checking in to it, will make that device become 'smart' and tied to us.  It will have an IP address and be able to communicate, send messages, register, interact and contain specific contextual information.  A simple example is the many running shoe companies that now provide GPS, tracking and training support information for a new running shoe.  That information is specific to an individual, centrally correlated and controlled, and then shared socially to allow better route planning and training techniques, to be created and exchanged.


Protection, Identity & Context

But what about protection?  What sort of protection?  Why does this stuff need protecting in the first place? And from what?  The more we tie individual devices to our own unique identity, the more information, services and objects we can consume, purchase and share.  Retailers see the benefit in being able to provide additional services and contextual information to a customer, as it makes them stickier to their brand.  The consumer and potential customer receives a more unique service, requiring less explicit searching and decision making.  Everything becomes personalised, which results in faster and more personalised acquisition of services and products.

However, that information exchange requires protection.  Unique identities need to be created - either for the physical person, or the devices that are being interacted with.  These identities will also need owners, custodians and access policies that govern the who, what and when, with regards to interactions.  The running shoe example may seem unimportant, but apply that logic to your fridge - seems great to be able to manage and monitor the contents of your refrigerator.  Automatic ordering and so on, seems like a dream.  But how might that affect your health insurance policy?  What about when you go on holiday and don't order any food for 3 weeks?  Ideal fodder for a burglar.  The more we connect to our own digitalpersona, the more those interactions need authentication, authorization and identity management.

Context plays an important part here too.  Objects - like people in our own social graphs - have many touch points and information flows.  A car is a simple example.  It will have a manufacturer (who is interested in safety, performance and so on), a retailer (who is interested in usage, ownership years), the owner (perhaps interested in servicing, crash history) and then other parties such as governments and police.  Not to mention potential future owners and insurance companies.  The context to which an interacting party comes from, will obviously determine what information they can consume and contribute to.  That will also need managing from an authorization perspective.


Whilst the 'Internet of Things' may seem like buzz, it has a profound impact on how we interact with physical, previously inanimate objects.  As soon as digitize and contextualize them, we can reap significant benefits when it comes to implicit information searching and tailor made services.  But, for that to work effectively, a correct balance with identity and access control needs to be found.

By Simon Moffatt

Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/472281



Protect Data Not Devices?

"Protect Data Not Devices", seems quite an intriguing proposition given the increased number of smart phone devices in circulation and the issues that Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) seems to be causing, for heads of security up and down the land.  But here is my thinking.  The term 'devices' now covers a multitude of areas.  Desktop PC's of course (do they still exist?!), laptops and net books, smart phones and not-so-smart phones, are all the tools of the trade, for accessing the services and data you own, or want to consume, either for work or for pleasure.  The flip side of that is the servers, mainframes, SAN's, NAS's and cloud based infrastructures that store and process data.  The consistent factor is obviously the data that is being stored and managed, either in-house or via outsourced services.


Smarter the Device, The More Reliant We Become

This is a pretty obvious statement and doesn't just apply to phones.  As washing machines became more efficient and dishwashers became cheaper and more energy saving, we migrated in droves, allowing our time to be spent on other essential tasks.  The same is true for data accessing devices.  As phones morphed in to micro desktop PC's, we now rely on them for email, internet access, gaming, social media, photography and so on.  Some people even use this thing called the telephone on them.  Crazy.  As the features and complexity ramp up, we no longer need another device for listening to music, taking pictures or accessing Facebook.  Convenience and service provision increases, as does the single-point-of-failure syndrome and our reliance on them being available 99.999% of the time, up to date and online.

Smarter the Device, The Less Important It Becomes

Now this next bit seems a bit of a paradox.  As the devices becomes smarter, greater emphasis is placed on the data and services those devices access.  For example.  A fancy Facebook client is pretty useless if only 100 people use Facebook.  A portable camera is just that, unless you have a social outlet for which to distribute the images.  The smartness of the devices themselves, is actually driven by the services and data they need to access.  Smartphones today come with a healthy array of encryption features, remote backup, remote data syncing for things like contacts, pictures and music, as well device syncing software like Dropbox.  How much data is actually specifically related to the device?  In theory nothing.  Zip.  Lose your phone and everything can be flashed back down in a few minutes, assuming it was set up correctly.  Want to replace a specific model and brand with a model of equivalent specification from a different vendor?  Yep you can do that too, as long as you can cope with a different badge on the box.  Feature differentiation is becoming smaller, as the technology becomes more complex.

Data Access versus Data Storage

As more and more services become out sourced (or to use the buzz of being moved to the 'cloud'), the storage part becomes less of a worry for the consumer.  The consumer could easily be an individual or an organisation.  Backup, syncing, availability, encryption and access management all fall to the responsibility of the outsourced data custodian.  Via astute terms and conditions and service level agreements, the consumer shifts responsibility across to the data custodian and service provider.

The process of accessing that data then starts to fall partly on the consumer.  How devices connect to a network, how users authenticate to a device and so on, all fall to the device custodian.  Access traffic encryption will generally require a combination of efforts from both parties.  For example, the data custodian will manage SSL certificates on their side, whilst the consumer has a part to play too.

So to slightly contradict my earlier point (!), this is where the device is really the egress point to the data access channel, and so therefore requires important security controls to access the device.  The device itself is still only really a channel to the data at the other end, but once an individual (or piece of software, malicious or not) has access to a device, they then in turn can potentially open access channels to outsourced data.  The device access is what should be protected, not necessarily the tin itself.

As devices become smarter and service providers more complex, that egress point moves substantially away from the old private organisational LAN or equivalent.  The egress point is the device regardless of location on a fixed or flexible network.

Data will become the ultimate prize not necessarily the devices that are used to access it.

By Simon Moffatt