Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Trust vs Confidence

Over the years, in my own mind, I have built specific semantics around the terms 'Trust' and 'Confidence'. These are closely related to the validity of 'Proof'... I think that often the use of these terms in the vernacular are too fuzzy to be of use in identity system discussions. I would posit:


Security and its many mechanisms are used to establish trust; once trust is established, you just trust. My canonical use-case for this is access to the school blog. I can grant or revoke write access to my kids' school blog. I give access to people who I trust will only post age appropriate material. I could use manual or automated mechanisms to check posts before they are published but the effort or cost outweighs the risks. I choose to trust. Trust is a human, emotional, social construct that implies a loosening of control. Trust can be abused and it is, knowing the risks, the rewards and the remediations for abuse of trust is important (systems of accountability; reputation? legal?). So trust needs to be bounded "I trust XX to do YY".

Concretely: I trust an entity with my money, like coinbase, who has my bitcoin wallet. I have taken a leap. Coinbase could steal my money despite all of the controls of the blockchain and distributed ledger technology. I could use a different wallet technology but then I am still choosing to trust the software that enables that wallet, or the hardware that the software runs on. At some point the cost of not trusting outweighs the risk and the expense of trusting.

So on some level... this poses the question: If my relationship with coinbase is purely one of trust that they will hold my money and return it based on the current value of bitcoin, what difference does the underlying blockchain technology actually make to me? I could use bitcoin in a way that I don't need a trusted third party (at the extreme: build my own hardware and software) but I don't, and most people don't.

I think it is incumbent on people talking about identity systems to really understand where security ends and trust starts. Do most people understand how misplaced their trust in their mobile hardware could be?

So to me Trust is what happens beyond the bounds of control. Or to put it another way; Trust is what happens within 'pipes' or 'bubbles' of control established using security mechanisms. 


Confidence is, when I'm trying to use it precisely, a measure of certainty in a claim. In terms of an identity system a claim might be:

  • an authentication claim (I am the person identified by ID XX) 
  • an authorization claim (I should have access to this resource)
  • an attribute claim (I am over 18 years of age)
These claims often get delivered in terms of or together with 'Proofs'. Where 'Proof' is a mechanism (hopefully standardized) to deliver a claim with metadata to increase confidence (in the absence of trust). Some examples:

In an authentication claim, the claim of the ID may be accompanied with claims of who established the ID (signed by a private key of a trusted party) the claim may also include details of how the user was authenticated (password, multi-factor, smart card, etc...). The associated metadata establishes a level of confidence in the claim.  Step-up authentication models (you can view your balance if you logged in with a password but you have to use multi-factor to initiate a transfer) are a direct result of your levels of confidence in various authentication claims. 
In an attributes claim again one would expect the claim to be signed by a trusted party, trusted to make the specific claim, and the claim may include metadata about how the attribute was validated. An over 18 years of age claim that was self asserted (they checked a checkbox that says "i'm over 18") may be enough to satisfy COPPA compliance requirements in the US but would be insufficient to provide legal access to porn in the UK. 

Bringing Confidence and Trust together:

So with a claim that is signed by a party that is trusted to make age claims; the signature gives me confidence that claim is from the the trusted party and then I trust the age claim rarely do I require proof of the mechanics of acquiring the validation. Even if I require details of how the claim was was established (self asserted or credit system check) I could, but I don't, make the third party 'prove' it.

That is establishing a Trust space using a security mechanism (in this case; PKI and standardized claim semantics) and then... trusting the information that is provided in that secured context.


Is there is a source (glossary) that you use to define these fuzzy terms when you reference them in specs? I know that there were efforts to normalize identity terminology back in the day... did any survive the test of time? 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Eight years and counting

Well it was 8 years since I last posted here and 12 years since I started this blog and I have to ask... what has changed, what has been achieved in all that time?  I've been out of touch with this space for a while and i'm going to go on a little personal voyage of discovery to see what I can learn and see if any of the fundamental problems have been solved.

My first step is going to be attempting to articulate in abstract terms what I consider to be 'the fundamental problems'.

My primary point of interest since this all started has been to give people access to and appropriate control over data about themselves and their transactions. It is well known that the likes of Google, Facebook, Experian, Equifax and many others make their money trading in data generated by or about us. These companies provide important and valuable services but they do not adequately respect individual privacy nor do they fairly include the individuals that are their currency in the value chain.

I have spoken with business stakeholders in large organizations that use these services, despite knowing that they are 'unclean', because the value they add is very real. The increase of ROI on targeted marketing based on these services is phenomenal. As we, as a community, worked on alternate models they were eager: Gives us a viable alternative, they would say, and we will use it. As far as I can tell there is still no viable alternative... I will try to unpack why.

I will try to discover if we have a technology problem, a communications problem, a legal problem, an education problem or a business problem; presumably we have a little of each.

The lack of a viable alternative is closely related to scale. The aforementioned companies have huge user populations which is what makes them so appealing and so valuable. Users do not adopt a technology based on the elegance of the standards or even, unfortunately, based on the strength of the privacy. Users primarily adopt technology because it makes it easier for them to do something they want to do (including playing games and consuming porn). With that said I do believe that there is a growing number of people dissatisfied with the status quo. People who would be willing to engage in an alternative system even if it costs them a little. How do we provide them a viable alternative?

So a fundamental question I have is: Do we have the building blocks to build a viable alternative and we just haven't found the right constellation of services and apps to provide or, are there still gaps in the technology stack to build a viable alternative? I hope to find out.

In my upcoming posts I will start to dig into what I believe are the important qualities of systems that might address this need. I will undoubtedly build on old classics like Kim Cameron's Laws of Identity but will also add some flavor of my own in terms of business and legal frameworks that I believe need to be in place. I will also address the qualities that I believe are necessary for a distributed data network to actually work, at scale, as a data network (Spoiler: Link based systems like "Linked Data" work great for unstructured content, documents, but fail rapidly to satisfy operational requirements for structured data).

I'm excited to dig in and learn blockchain and blockchain alternatives... Please let me know about stuff that you think is worth reviewing and including as stops on my voyage of discovery!