Knowing me, knowing you: on Russian spies and identity

Who are you, and who tells me so?

Who are you, and who tells me so?  These are questions which are really important for almost any IT-related system in use today.  I’ve previously discussed the difference between identification and authentication (and three other oft-confused terms) in Explained: five misused security words, and what I want to look at in this post is the shady hinterland between identification and authentication.

There has been a lot in the news recently about the poisoning in the UK of two Russian nationals and two British nationals, leading to the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess.  I’m not going to talk about that, or even about the alleged perpetrators, but about the problem of identity – their identity – and how that relates to IT.  The two men who travelled to Salisbury, and were named by British police as the perpetrators, travelled under Russian passports.  These documents provided their identities, as far as the British authorities – including UK Border Control, who allowed them into the country – were aware, and led to their being allowed into the country.

When we set up a new user in an IT system or allow them physical access to a building, for instance, we often ask for “Government-issued ID” as the basis for authenticating the identity that they have presented, in preparation for deciding whether to authorise them to perform whatever action they have requested.  There are two issues here – one obvious, and one less so.  The first, obvious one, is that it’s not always easy to tell whether a document has actually been issued by the authority by which it appears to be have been issued – document forgers have been making a prosperous living for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The problem, of course, is that the more tell-tale signs of authenticity you reveal to those whose job it is to check a document, the more clues you give to would-be forgers for how to improve the quality of the false versions that they create.

The second, and less obvious problem, is that just because a document has been issued by a government authority doesn’t mean that it is real.  Well, actually, it does, and there’s the issue.  Its issuance by the approved authority makes it real – that is to say “authentic” – but it doesn’t mean that it is correct.  Correctness is a different property to authenticity. Any authority may decide to issue identification documents that may be authentic, but do not truly represent the identity of the person carrying them. When we realise that a claim of identity is backed up by an authority which is issuing documents that we do not believe to be correct, that means that we should change our trust relationship with that authority.  For most entities, IDs which have been authentically issued by a government authority are quite sufficient, but it is quite plausible, for instance, that the UK Border Force (and other equivalent entities around the world) may choose to view passports issued by certain government authorities as suspect in terms of their correctness.

What impact does this have on the wider IT security community?  Well, there are times when we are accepting government-issued ID when we might want to check with relevant home nation authorities as to whether we should trust them[1].  More broadly than that, we must remember that every time that we authenticate a user, we are making a decision to trust the authority that represented that user’s identity to us.  The level of trust we place in that authority may safely be reduced as we grow to know that user, but it may not – either because our interactions are infrequent, or maybe because we need to consider that they are playing “the long game”, and are acting as so-called “sleepers”.

What does this continuous trust mean?  What it means is that if we are relying on an external supplier to provide contractors for us, we need to keep remembering that this is a trust relationship, and one which can change.  If one of those contractors turns out to have faked educational qualifications, then we need to doubt the authenticity of the educational qualifications of all of the other contractors – and possibly other aspects of the identity which the external supplier has presented to us.  This is because we have placed transitive trust in the external supplier, which we must now re-evaluate.  What other examples might there be?  The problem is that the particular aspects of identity that we care about are so varied and differ between different roles that we perform.  Sometimes, we might not care about education qualifications, but credit score, or criminal background, or blood type.  In the film Gattaca[2], identity is tied to physical and mental ability to perform a particular task.

There are various techniques available to allow us to tie a particular individual to a set of pieces of information: DNA, iris scans and fingerprints are pretty good at telling us that the person in front of us now is the person who was in front of us a year ago.  But tying that person to other information relies on trust relationships with external entities, and apart from a typically small set of inferences that we can draw from our direct experiences of this person, it’s difficult to know exactly what is truly correct unless we can trust those external entities.


1 – That assumes, of course, that we trust our home nation authorities…

2 – I’m not going to put a spoiler in here, but it’s a great film, and really makes you think about identity: go and watch it!

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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