Where We Are Now
I have spent a good part of my professional life looking for ways to make computer systems more secure, and I believe that many of the problems we face today are not only tractable–many of them have already been solved. The threat of data theft by insiders can be mitigated by paying employees enough, auditing their work, limiting the amount of authority that any one employee has, and harshly punishing any individual who abuses the employer’s trust. Computer systems can be made immune to buffer-overflow attacks, one of the most common security vulnerabilities in recent years, by programming them in modern languages like Java and Python instead of 1980s standards like C and C++. We really do know how to build secure systems. Unfortunately, these systems cost more to develop, and using them would require us to abandon the ones we already have–at least for our critical applications.
But one fundamental problem is harder to solve: identifying people on the Internet. What happens if somebody impersonating you calls up a company and demands access to your data?
If Google or Yahoo were storefronts, they would ask to see a state-issued ID card. They might compare a photo of you that they took when you opened the account with the person now standing in their lobby. Yes, there are phony IDs, and there are scams. Nevertheless, identification technology works pretty well most of the time in the physical world.
It turns out that we essentially have the technology to solve this problem in the digital world as well. Yet the solutions that have been developed aren’t politically tenable–not only because of perceived costs but also, ironically, because of perceived privacy concerns.
I understand these fears, but I think they are misplaced. When someone can wreak havoc by misappropriating your personal data, privacy is threatened far more by the lack of a reliable online identification system than it would be by the introduction of one. And it is likely that it would cost society far more money to live with poor security than to address it.
I believe that we will be unable to protect online privacy without a strong electronic identity system that’s free to use and backed by the governments of the world–a true passport for online access. One of the fundamental duties of government is to protect the internal security of the nation so that commerce can take place. For hundreds of years, that has meant creating identification documents so that people can prove their citizenship and their identity. But the U.S. government has abdicated its responsibility in the online world, and businesses have made up their own systems–like asking for your Social Security number and address, and perhaps your favorite color.
The difficulty of identifying people in the electronic world is a problem for every single company, every single organization, every single website. And it is especially a problem for Facebook and Google, because at a very basic level, they don’t know who their customers are. When you open an account at a bank, U.S. law requires that you prove your identity with some state-issued identification. Bank accounts are linked to an actual identity. But electronic accounts like those on Facebook and Google aren’t. They project an identity, but they aren’t linked, really, to anything. That’s a real problem if some hacker takes over your Gmail account and you need to get it back.