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October 03, 2011


Cyberspace trust: Proving you're not a dog

A very real discomfort underlies the classic joke: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." How can you prove your own identity and confirm the identity of others during virtual interactions? Every time you reach out to a friend on Gchat, post on a classmate's Facebook wall, or send money to a colleague via PayPal, you are relying on a key assumption: that the person you're reaching out to behind that Gmail address, Facebook profile, or PayPal screen name is who they say they are. Without this baseline confidence, online interactions and commerce would be paralyzed.

The most recent installment of the Payments Spotlight podcast series features Jeremy Grant, leader of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Program Office for the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). NSTIC is a White House initiative that works collaboratively with the private and public sectors to improve the security of online transactions by increasing online security and solving the problem of weak and inconvenient passwords.

"The genesis of it was President Obama's cyberspace policy review that was conducted shortly after he took office in 2009," Grant explains. The goals of the new cyberspace policy include "the creation of an identity management vision and strategy that the country could implement that would focus both on the securities aspects of the topic, as well as be dedicated to preserving or enhancing privacy and civil liberties." A critical first step, says Grant, is addressing the fact that "passwords are fundamentally broken and insecure, and simply don't cut it these days as a way to identify and authenticate online." (A May 2011 Payments Spotlight podcast addressed the weakness of single-factor authentication, such as logging in with just a password.)

Although the government is coordinating the NSTIC effort, the program is designed as a private-public partnership. Grant says it is not the government's role "to figure this out for the rest of the world, but to convene different private sector stakeholders, [including] tech firms, banks, healthcare firms, security firms, advocacy groups in the privacy and consumer communities, and other interested individuals." A major goal of NSTIC is to foster collaboration. He says, "We really want to have an open and participatory process where all different stakeholders can come together and collaborate and work out practical solutions to some of the challenges that the NSTIC lays out. Government will convene and we'll be an early adopter, but we are not going to actually lead this." Some private businesses are already excited about NSTIC. Michael Barrett, Chief Information Security Officer at PayPal, has voiced his support: "[We] will be offering more services to our customers over the coming months that directly support the NSTIC, which we expect will result in many new benefits to both our customers and the Internet overall."

So when can we expect to see NSTIC implemented? Currently the National Program Office is laying the groundwork for pilots, which can be expected sometime next year. In terms of resources, Grant notes that "for fiscal year 2012, the White House has proposed $24.5 million for NSTIC, including $17.5 million that would go towards pilot programs." The funds have not yet been appropriated, so budget wrangling may still change those numbers. Those pilots will be just the first step in architecting a more secure Internet identity infrastructure. If NSTIC achieves its vision, we can be confident that no fraudsters—or dogs—lurk behind our friends' Facebook profiles and e-mail addresses!

By Jennifer C. Windh, a payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

October 3, 2011 in collaboration, consumer protection, cybercrime | Permalink

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