Some modern organizations and institutions including governments now incorporate electronic identities into their normal functions, permitting new forms of digital engagement and interaction.
The technology and concepts are not new but the increasing use of this technology in society is impactful and has much potential. Long-understood cryptographic applications for electronic identity are finally becoming deployed by important institutions and used for social and legal purposes. While not the most effortless and user friendly systems yet, apparent progress is being made and new programs are being invented around them.
What Is Signing?
The main component to this system is your identity which can be linked to the real world or can be purely digital. Your identity is connected to your electronic key which you alone possess. Your key can exist unconnected to anything else as a purely anonymous identity, or it can be “signed” and verified by other identity keys which are in some way recognized as authoritative.
The holder of the “secret” half of their digital identity can electronically sign anything that can be digitally encoded in a computer. The meaning of the signature varies depending on the item they are signing but can have the same legal force as a handwritten signature in some jurisdictions. In addition to signing documents one can use their key to authenticate to online services and encrypt documents only readable by specific people.
Any computer system can verify that the user’s signature corresponds to their public identity, which has been signed by their trusted institution key in turn. The “public” half of the trusted “root” certificate is distributed ahead of time and widely available for any humans or software to verify the validity of a user and confirm their identity as defined by the institution.
Examples Of Uses
A citizen of a government implementing e-ID can use their secret key to sign an electronic document confirming they want to vote for a particular candidate for office over the internet. Or they can sign into their bank account, government websites, private forums, or any other service as their government-verified identity. Participants in an organization can collaborate online using identities that the organization previously has verified to their satisfaction. Such services can be assured of the real-world identity of the user communicating with them over the internet.
None of this necessarily has to take place over the internet; the mechanisms of signing and verification can work offline. The real potential of these systems comes with the ability to participate electronically yet with a verified identity.
The deployment of SSL made it possible for people to trust entering their credit cards on websites, resulting in a massive transformation of the economy. So too is the potential of cryptographically secure identities issued by trusted parties.
Institutions, governments, political parties, cooperatives, and any other type of organization can allow its members to participate remotely with the same assurance of their identity as in person. Voting, citizen input, taxes, banking, document signing, secured websites, smart cities and more applications not yet thought up can all be implemented with e-identity. The possibilities for digital self-organization enabled with this technology are extraordinary.
Traditional ballot-based voting can only be done very infrequently by governments and organizations because of the enormous expense and overhead involved. With e-IDs, polls could be taken as often as desired to maximize representation and participation from the local community level to national or even international levels.
New types of online communities could exist where people would choose between totally anonymous identities or decide to be linked to their real-world identity. A continuum of anonymity would be possible as people could choose how much to use or conceal their verified identity, with other participants taking this into account to weigh the credibility of the speaker. Imagine how polite a web forum comprised of only Canadian citizens speaking with their real identity would be.
The prerequisites to adoption of electronic identity of are the existence of willing governments and institutions and a widespread layperson understanding of how such a system works and can be used.
e-ID In Practice: Estonia
The Estonian government is not only a pioneer in the area of digital identity but also in extending verified identities to non-Estonian residents. The Estonian parliament created law in the year 2000 to give digital signatures the same legal status and handwritten ones and to implement a nationwide public key infrastructure and digital signature program. Their e-ID system is now available to non-Estonians via their e-Residency program.
Anyone at all can apply to get an identity key verified by the Estonian Police and Border Guard for €100. The main idea of the e-Residency program is to make it really easy for foreigners to open businesses and bank accounts in the country, while also building institutional knowledge and proficiency in using electronic identities. It also doesn’t hurt the much-touted tech innovator image of the tiny Baltic country, noted so for developing Skype and more recently Taxify and Transferwise.
In practice this means anyone can obtain a key signed by the Estonian certification centre. After applying and having been approved, you must visit an Estonian embassy in any country and verify your passport and give your fingerprints to get your key. The key comes on a chipped card (it comes with a miniature USB smartcard reader) protected by a PIN code which you can set. There is a sheet of paper with your PINs and another card with a backup reset PIN in case you forget. This is the ideal form of authentication; a combination of something you have (the chip card) and something you know (your PIN). On the card, protected by your PIN, is the secret half of your key. The government-signed public half of your key can be used to register yourself with electronic services and declare your official identity, and the secret half is used to prove that you are who you say you are.
There is software for using your ID card with websites as well as signing and encrypting documents. There are browser extensions and standalone desktop software for macOS and Windows (and tools for Linux). The software is notable in that it is complete with extensive documentation online, is developer-friendly, has tools and services for testing, and is completely open source.
You can digitally sign legal documents as well as encrypt or decrypt files. If you have the personal, company, or registry number of a person or organization you can encrypt files that only they can decrypt without any pre-arranged encryption key. You can also use your card for authentication to websites and services that support it. Fraud is also made much harder compared to more traditional identity verification systems such as those in the US based on social security numbers and credit reports.
How Much Can e-IDs Be Trusted?
It’s up to every person and organization to decide how much trust to put in to the identity features of any given e-ID system. If you decide that you can trust the software you’re using and the root certification authority then you can decide to accept the asserted identity of people electronically.
Put another way, if you trust the verification process of the Estonian Police and Border Guard and you don’t find any issues in the software you’re using to verify identities, then you can be fairly confident that someone presenting an e-ID is exactly who they claim to be. Governments are in a fairly unique position to validate someone’s passport and fingerprints in a controlled environment (like an embassy) and can strongly attest to someone’s real world identity, to the extent that trust that government.
The danger of someone else using your identity card is roughly the same as someone stealing your bank card and withdrawing money from an ATM with it. Someone needs physical access to your card as well as a valid PIN code which can only be tried a few times. There is the possibility that an adversary could steal your backup piece of paper with the PIN reset code on it to defeat the PIN and then sign documents as you or log in to your bank account. However because of the physical access required, this is a vastly safer system than the standard email/password combination used for authentication these days.
The cryptography underlying the system is quite well-understood and has been employed for a long time in other domains. There is an extremely high degree of assurance that one can determine if another party owns the secret part of their identity, that only the recipient of a message encrypted for the recipient can decrypt it, and that the owner of the secret part of their key has signed something with their identity.
This security system like any other is not foolproof; you could get mugged for your ID card and PIN codes leaving the embassy, spyware on your computer or poorly-designed software can compromise the integrity of your ID. People will forget their PIN codes or write them on sticky notes stuck to their cards. People will lose their cards or sign something drunkenly late at night or under duress. Implementation problems can plague the system, as when a supplier of microchips left a theoretically exploitable fatal flaw in a vast quantity of identity documents:
An estimated minimum of 1 billion affected chips are used around the world in a variety of computing devices and on plastic cards.ROCA Vulnerability and eID: Lessons Learned
The Infineon chips that led to the vulnerability in the
Estonian ID cards are used in driving licences, passports, access cards and elsewhere. The identity documents of at least 10 countries were
Such problems are not altogether unsurprising for rollouts of complex new technology and we can hope that these early issues can be learned from. Many precautions are in place for other anticipated difficulties such as a key revocation process, expiration dates on keys, the backup PIN reset codes, and an open source architecture with reference implementation software that can be reviewed by researchers and the public.
e-ID and the underlying technology is something that can be harnessed to enhance the identification measures needed for trustworthy communication and interaction online. It can vastly expand the scope for self-organization and self-government amongst people by enabling digital participation with trusted identities. Completely anonymous yet verifiable interactions are also possible as one can ensure the other person they are communicating with is exactly the same person they have interacted with previously even without knowing any other details about their identity.
Better collaboration is possible for collectives and cooperatives, online communities, local and national governments, businesses, trade groups, and any other sort of organization which can benefit from the fluidity and ease of online interaction with strong form of identity authentication. Types of institutions which had previously been limited by geography can become more virtualized.
Stronger authentication and identity systems, new possibilities for self-organization, and increased easy of civic participation are made possible by architecturally sound, open source, and trustworthy e-ID systems.
Technical notes on interacting with the Estonian e-ID hardware and verifying signatures and identities can be found here.
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