What If: Ditching Social Security Numbers for Personal ID Keys

I’ve been thinking about this discussion on a National ID and the end of using Social Security Numbers. We’re used to having these 9 digit numbers represent us for loans, credit card transactions, etc., but in the modern age one would think we could do better.

Any replacement for Social Security Numbers would need to be secure, reduce the chances of identity theft, be able to withstand fraud/theft, and must not be scannable without knowledge (to avoid being able to track a person without their knowledge as they go from place to place). The ACLU has a list of 5 problems with National ID cards, which I largely agree with (though some — namely the database of all Americans — already exist in some forms (SSN, DMV, Facebook) and are probably inevitable).

In an ideal world, we’d have a solution in place that offered a degree of security, and there are technical ways we could accomplish this. The problem with technical solutions is that not every person would necessarily benefit (there are still plenty of Americans without easy access to computers), and technical solutions leading to complexity for many. However, generations are getting more technically comfortable (maybe not literate, but at least accustomed to being around smartphones and gadgets), and it should be possible to design solutions that require zero technical expertise, so let’s imagine what could be for a moment.

Personal ID Keys

Every year we have to renew our registration on our cars, and every so many years we have to renew our drivers license cards. So we’re used to that sort of a thing. What if we had just one more thing to renew, a Personal ID Key that went on our physical keychain, next to the car keys. Not an ID number to remember or a card that can be read by any passing security guard or police officer or device with a RFID scanner, but a single physical key with a safe, private crypto key inside, a USB port on the outside, that’s always with us.

I’m thinking something like a Yubikey, a simple physical key without any identifiable information on the outside that can always be carried with you. It would have one USB port on the outside and a single button (more on this in a minute). You’d receive one along with a PIN. People already have to remember PINs for bank accounts and mobile phones, so it’s a familiar concept.

Under the hood, this might be based around PGP or a similar private/public key cryptography system, but for the purpose of this “What if,” we’re going to leave that as an implementation detail and focus on the user experience. (Though an advantage of using PGP is that a central government database of all keys is not needed for all this to work.)

When you receive your Personal ID Key and your PIN (which could be changed through your computer, DMV, or some other place), it’s all set up for you, ready to be used. So how is it used? What benefits does this really give? Well, there’s a few I can think of.

Signing Documents

When applying for a home loan or credit card agreement, or when otherwise digitally signing a contract online, you’d use your Personal ID Key. Simply place it in the USB port and press the activation button on the key. You’ll have a short period of time to type your PIN on the screen. That’s it, you’re done. A digital signature is attached to the document, identifying you, the date, and the time. That can be verified later, and can’t be impersonated by anyone else, whether by a malicious employee in the company or a hacker half-way across the world.

Replacing Passwords

People are terrible when it comes to passwords. They’ll use their birthdates or their pet’s name on their computer and every site on the Internet. More technical people try to solve this with password management products, but good luck getting the average person to do this. I’ve tried.

This can be largely addressed with a Personal ID Key and the necessary browser infrastructure. Imagine logging into your GMail account by typing your username, placing your key in the USB port on any computer, pressing the activation button, and typing your PIN. No simple passwords that can be cracked, and no complex passwords that you’d have to write down somewhere. No passwords!

Actually, for some sites, this is possible today with Yubikeys (to some degree). Modern browsers and sites supporting a standard called U2F (such as any service by Google) allow the usage of keys like this to help authenticate you securely into accounts. It’s wonderful, and it should be everywhere. Granted, in these cases they’re used as a form of two-factor authentication, instead of as a replacement for a password. However, server administrators using Yubikeys can set things up to log into remote servers using nothing but the key and a PIN, and this is the model I’d envision for websites of the future. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s easy.

Replacing the Key If Things Go Wrong

Inevitably, someone’s going to lose their key, and that’s bad. You don’t want someone else to have access to it, especially if they can guess your PIN. So there needs to be a process for replacing your key at a place like the DMV. This is just one idea of how this would work:

Immediately upon discovering your key is gone, you can go online or call a toll-free number to indicate your key is lost. This would lead to an appointment at the DMV (or some other place) to get a new key, but in the meantime your old key would be flagged as lost, which would prevent documents from being signed and prevent logging into systems.

Marking your key as lost would give you a special, lengthy, time-limited PIN that could be used to re-activate your key (in case you found out you left it in your other pants).

The owner of the key would need to arrive at the DMV (or wherever) and prove they are who they say they are and fill out a form for a new key. This would result in a new private key, and would require going through a recovery process for any online accounts. It’s important here that another person cannot pretend to be someone else and claim a new key.

Once officially requested at the DMV, the old key would be revoked and could no longer be used for anything.

Replacing the Key If Standards Change

Technology changes, and a Personal ID Key inevitably will be out-of-date. We’ve gone through this with credit cards, though. Every so often, the credit card company will send out a new card with new information, and sites would have to be updated. Personal ID Keys wouldn’t have to be much different. Get a new one in the mail, and go through converting your accounts. Sites would need to know about the new key, so there’d need to be a key replacement process, but that’s doable.

Back to Reality

This all could work, but in reality we have infrastructure problems. I don’t mean standards support in browsers or websites. That’s all fixable. I mean the processes by which people actually apply for loans, open bank accounts, etc. These are all still very heavily paper-based, and there’s not always going to be a USB port to plug into.

Standards on tablets and phones (in terms of port connectors and capabilities) would have to be worked out. iPads and iPhones currently use Lightning, whereas most phones use a form of USB. Who knows, in a year even Apple’s devices might be on USB 3, but then we’re still dealing with different types of USB ports across the market, with no idea what a future USB 4 or 5 would look like. So this complicates matters.

Some of this will surely evolve. Just as Square made it easy for anyone to start accepting credit card payments, someone will build a device that makes it trivial to accept and verify signatures, portably. If the country moved to a Personal ID Key, and there was demand for supporting, devices would adapt. Software and services would adapt.

So I think we could get there, and I think such a key could actually solve a lot of problems, particularly compared to Social Security Numbers and a National ID Card. Whether people would accept it, and how difficult it would be to get everyone on-board with it, I have no idea, but if designed just right, we could take some major steps toward personal digital security and fraud protection in this country.

Terror with Glaze

The 2016 US Presidential Election has seen its share of controversies and hot-button topics, from the leaked Clinton e-mails to Donald Trump’s statements on Muslims. All have weighed in on the horrible attacks on Paris and Brussels, the threat of ISIS, and even Apple’s fight with the FBI over an encrypted iPhone.

As someone in the technology space, the encryption fight has been simultaneously interesting and concerning to me, as any precedent set could cause serious problems for the privacy and security of all those on the Internet.

The concern by the authorities is that technology-based encryption (which can be impossible to intercept and crack) makes it extraordinarily difficult to stop the next impending attack. Banning encryption, on the other hand, would mean making the average phone and Internet communication less secure, opening the door to other types of threats.

This is an important topic, but what few in the media talk about is that terrorists have been using an alternative method for years before encryption was available to the masses. They don’t talk about it because it hits maybe too close to home.

They don’t talk about the dangers of your local donut shop.

Happy Donuts in Palo Alto

Passing coded messages

Passing a message between conspirators is nothing new. Just as little Tommy might write a coded note in class to Sally so the teacher couldn’t find out, terrorists, crime syndicates, and spy agencies have been using all manner of coded messages for thousands of years to keep their communication secure. Such messages could be passed right in front of others’ noses, and none would be the wiser.

These have been used all throughout history. The German Enigma Code is perhaps one of the most famous examples.

Enigma Machine

Such messages often entail combinations of letters, numbers, symbols, or may contain specialized words (“The monkey flaps in the twilight,” for instance) that appear as gibberish to most, but have very specific meaning to others. The more combinations of letters, numbers, symbols, or words, the more information you can communicate, and the less likely it is that someone will crack it.

That said, many of these have been cracked or intercepted over time, causing such organizations to become even more creative with how they communicate.

The Donut Code

Donuts have a long history, and its origins are in dispute, but it’s clear that donut shops have been operating for quite some time now. They’re a staple in American culture, and you don’t have to drive too far to find one. Donuts also come in all shapes, sizes, and with all sorts of glazes and toppings, and it’s considered normal to order a dozen or so at once.

In other words, it’s a perfect delivery tool for discrete communication.

When one walks into a donut shop, they’re presented with rows upon rows of dozens of styles of donuts, from the Maple Bar to the Chocolate Old Fashioned to the infamous Rainbow Sprinkle.

So many donuts

While most will simply order their donuts and go, those with something to hide can use these as a tool, a message delivery vehicle, simply by ordering just the right donuts in the right order to communicate information.

Let’s try an example

“I’ll have a dozen donuts: 2 maple bars, 1 chocolate bar, 2 rainbow sprinkles, 3 chocolate old fashioned, 1 glazed jelly, and 2 apple fritters. How many do I have? … Okay, 1 more maple bar.”

If top code breakers were sitting in the room, they may mistake that for a typical donut order. Exactly as intended. How could you even tell?

Well, that depends on the group and the code, but here’s a hypothetical example.

The first and last items may represent the message type and a confirmation of the coded message. By starting with “I’ll have a dozen donuts: 2 maple bars,” the message may communicate “I have a message to communicate about <thing>”. Both the initial donut type and number may be used to set up the formulation for the rest of the message.

Finishing with “How many do I have? … Okay, 1 more maple bar.” may be a confirmation that, yes, this is an encoded message, and the type of message was correct, and that the information is considered sent and delivered.

So the above may easily translate to:

I have a message to communicate about the birthday party on Tuesday.

We will order a bounce house and 2 clowns. It will take place at 3PM. There will be cake. Please bring two presents each.

To confirm, this is Tuesday.

Except way more nefarious.

Sooo many combinations

The other donut types, the numbers, and the ordering of donuts may all present specific information for the receiver, communicating people, schedules, events, merchandise, finances, or anything else. Simply change the number, the type of donut, or the order, and it may communicate an entirely different message.

If a donut shop offers just 20 different types of donuts, and a message is comprised of 12 donuts in a specific order, then we’re talking more combinations than you could count in a lifetime! Not to mention other possibilities like ordering a coffee or asking about donuts not on the menu, which could have significance as well.

Box of donuts

Basically, there’s a lot of possible ways to encode a message.

The recipient of the message may be behind the register, or may simply be enjoying his coffee at a nearby table. How would one even know? They wouldn’t, that’s how.

Should we be afraid of donut shops?

It’s all too easy to be afraid these days, with the news heavily focused on terrorism and school shootings, with the Internet turning every local story global.

Statistically, it’s unlikely that you will die due to a terrorist attack or another tragic event, particularly one related to donuts. The odds are in your favor.

As for the donut shop, just because a coded message may be delivered while you’re munching on a bear claw doesn’t mean that you’re in danger. The donut shop would be an asset, not a target. It may even be the safest place you can be.

So sit down, order a dozen donuts, maybe a cup of coffee, and enjoy your day. And please, leave the donut crackin’ to the authorities. They’re professionals.

 

(I am available to write for The Onion or Fox News.)

You’re not safe on the Internet (but you could be)

It’s a wonderful Friday evening. You’re out enjoying it with some friends, eating dinner at a classy Italian restaurant, telling stories and laughing together as you share a delicious bottle of wine. It’s the perfect end to the week.

As dinner wraps up, you hand the waitress the first card you grab from your wallet, a debit card, and don’t think twice. Moments later, she returns and asks you, quietly, if you have another card they can try. Looking at the debit card in her hand, you put two and two together, and a sinking feeling creeps in.

You pick up your phone and check. Sure enough, your account has a $0 balance. You just deposited your paycheck last week, and have been careful to keep a reasonable balance in there. And it’s gone. All of it.

You can’t begin to understand what happened, as you frantically call the bank, your night utterly ruined. But someone knows. The one who drained your account. The one who entered just the right username and password. The same password you use on a dozen sites. The same one you used to order flowers three years ago on a local boutique’s site. The same site whose password database was quietly hacked last week.

The Internet is a wild place

Most people on the Internet only see the tip of the iceberg. They’re on Netflix, Google, YouTube. They’re playing mobile games, ordering from Amazon. The Internet is like a giant mall with the best shops and arcades.

There’s more to the Internet than you may see. Darknets, where identities, weapons, drugs, and the darkest of pornography can be bought and sold. Cyberwarfare and espionage between countries of all sizes. Enormous “botnets,” or networks of compromised computers just like yours that are used to attack networks and crack passwords. Teams of hackers who work to find vulnerabilities in sites or in people and exploit them for amusement, financial gain, or just to make a statement.

This isn’t a reason to fear the Internet, to fear shopping online or visiting new places. This is a reason to respect it, and to be safe.

The line of fire

“But nobody will come after me!” you might think. “I’m not important. Who would target me?”

The problem with that line of thought is that it assumes a person is going after you specifically. That’s often not the case. Hackers and botnets go after many, many websites. They’re looking to hit the motherload. For instance, here’s some of the bigger sites hacked lately, and how many people were affected:

Ever use any of these? Me too.

So what happens next? Well, automated systems will harvest the results and begin trying these combinations of usernames/passwords on all sorts of different sites. Google/gmail, banks, dating sites, anywhere. And how big are these botnets? They can reach up to the 10s of millions of computers.

You are not specifically being targeted, but you’re in the line of fire. And this is going to keep happening, over and over again.

So let’s protect you from this. I’m going to teach you about three things:

  • Using passwords safely
  • Two-factor authentication, a second layer of protection and alert system
  • Identifying and ensuring secure connections to websites

And in case you’re wondering, yes, you are the target of my post. So keep reading.

Passwords: Your first line of defense

Most people on the Internet treat passwords like they’re a cute little passphrase to get into a clubhouse. We’re trained by our computers to pick something memorable to log us into our desktops, a code that “protects” you from others in the house who might want to check your e-mail. Much like a standard lock on your door protects you from your neighbors simply walking in.

Nobody ever really teaches us properly. It’s common to use your dog’s name as a password, or your birthdate, or something equally easy to remember and crack. It’s also common to use the same password or set of passwords on many different sites and services, which is how our fictitious Friday night was ruined.

This is extremely important to get right. Here are the rules for protecting yourself using passwords:

  1. Never use the same password for more than one site.
  2. Pick a long, strong password with uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, without any dictionary words.

That’s basically it. Seems simple enough in theory, but how do you keep track of all those passwords? You’d probably have 50 of them!

Don’t worry, there are tools that make this super easy.

1Password

This is one of my favorite tools for staying secure.

1Password is a tool for keeping track of your accounts and generating new passwords. It works with your browser and remembers any password you enter, and makes it really easy to fill in passwords you’ve already entered.

When you’re creating a new account or changing passwords, it’ll help you by generating strong, secure, nearly uncrackable passwords. For example, here’s one it just made for me: wXXgVzb8Zp(zwmjG7zBGkg=iT.

It’s available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, and Android. It’s free for iPhone, iPad, and Android, and costs only $35 for Mac and Windows (which is a bargain for what you’re getting).

Let me show you how it works.

I’m about to log into an account on Facebook.

Instead of typing my login and password, I just click that little keyhole icon next to the address bar, which will pop up any 1Password entries I have for Facebook.

Once I click “Facebook,” it’ll fill in my username and password and log me in. It’s just that simple.

When you’re signing up for a new account, use the Password Generator, like so:

Once you create the account, 1Password will remember the password for later. Look at that thing. Nobody’s cracking that!

This all works for any site, and even works on your iPad/iPhone:

1Password is great for more than passwords. It can keep secure notes, information on your credit cards or bank accounts, or really anything else you have that you want available but locked away.

In order to access your stuff in 1Password, you only need to remember a single password of your choosing. Make sure this is a strong one, and that you don’t forget it! Write it down if you have to.

Buy 1Password and use it. Look, $35 is nothing compared to the potential fallout of being involved in the next several major security breaches.

LastPass

LastPass is an alternative to 1Password, and is great if you’re an Android user. Usage is pretty similar to 1Password.

I don’t personally have a lot of experience with LastPass, but a lot of people love it. You can learn more about it on their site.

Pen-and-paper password journal

I’m sure you’ve been told before that it’s a bad idea to write down your passwords, am I right? Afterall, if you write them down, then gee, anyone can get them!

That’s not entirely true. The fact is, you’re more at risk reusing one or two weak passwords on the Internet than keeping dozens of strong passwords written down on paper in your home.

Let’s be clear, this is not the best option, and if you’re going to do this, keep it secret, keep it safe. Still, it’s better than not having strong passwords. If at all possible, use 1Password or LastPass, but if you absolutely must, write them own on a dedicated journal that you can keep safe somewhere. Don’t lose it, and always use it for every password.

Two-Factor Authentication: Second line of defense

You’re now using stronger passwords, and you have friendly tools to help manage them. Good job! The next step is making sure that only you can log into your most important websites.

Many sites and services (Google, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote, Bank of America, Chase, and many others) offer an extra security layer called “two-factor authentication.” This is a fancy term for “We’ll only log you in if you enter a code we’ll send to your phone.” When enabled, these services will require something you know (your login/password), and something you have (your phone).

Let’s take Google, for example. You can set things up so that after entering your username and your brand-new secure password, Google will send you a text message with a 6-digit code. Once you receive the text (which only takes a second), you’ll enter it on the site, and you’ll be logged in.

Now why would you do that? To prove that you are the one logging in, and not someone who’s figured out your password. The cell network’s going to make sure that text is only going to your phone, and you’re going to prove it’s you logging in. (Some services will require that you use a specialized app, or a hardware device that fits on your keychain, but most will work with text messages.)

Imagine someone did get a hold of your password, and tried logging in. You’re still going to get that text, but that person will not. He/she won’t be able to log in as you. You’re safe! It’s also going to be a dead giveaway that your password was compromised. You’ll want to change it right away.

Basically, this is both your gated community and your alarm system.

This is pretty easy to set up at most places. Here are some guides:

You can find more at twofactorauth.org. Just click the icon under “Docs” for any service you use that’s green.

I’ll be honest with you, this will feel unfamiliar at first, and you might be tempted not to do it. Trust me, though, this is worth turning on for as many services as possible. You’ll be glad you did next time one of these companies announces a security breach.

Identifying and ensuring secure websites

Let me briefly explain how the Internet works.

When you connect to a website, the browser will usually try to access it first over the “HTTP protocol.” This is the language that browsers and web servers speak. This communication is in plain text, which means anybody that listens in can read what’s being posted. This is sort of like handing a piece of paper to someone, and having them pass it along to the next person, and so on, until it reaches its final destination.

That’s very bad if you’re sending anything confidential. Passwords, for instance. It’s important that you learn to identify when you’re on a secure website.

You know the address/search bar on your browser? Look to the left. If you see http://, or you don’t see anything but an icon and a domain name, you’re on an insecure website.

However, if you see https://, or a lock icon, or a green banner, you’re good! This is using HTTPS, an encrypted connection, meaning that nobody in-between can listen in. That’s more like writing your letter in gibberish that only you and the final recipient understand.

For comparison, these are secure:

This is not:

Always look for these before filling out any forms. If it’s not showing a green banner or lock, you don’t want to give the site any sensitive information.

If you see a green banner, it’ll show the name of the company or organization. This is showing that the encrypted channel and website have been verified by a “certificate authority,” an entity that issues certificates for these encrypted channels. It means they’ve checked that, for instance, ally.com is owned by Ally, and not by someone pretending to be Ally.

If you click the banner or the lock icon, you’re going to see some more information about the connection. Most of this will be highly technical, but you should see some blurbs about who verified the authenticity of the site, and some information on the organization owning the site.

Most websites these days are moving to encrypted HTTPS connections, and most will automatically redirect all requests from HTTP to HTTPS. This is good, but you can go a step further and have your browser always start out using the HTTPS connection whenever possible. This takes almost no effort, and is worth doing.

This is done with a browser extension called HTTPS Everywhere.

If you’re running Chrome as your browser, simply install it from the Chrome store.

If you’re running Firefox, install it from the Firefox add-on store.

Did you do it? Great, you’re done! You’re now a little bit safer on the Internet!

Putting it all together

I threw a lot of information at you, but hopefully you’ve learned a lot and will put it into practice.

So let’s summarize. If you follow the above, you’ll:

  • Be at less risk for identity and financial theft the next time there’s a major security breach, since your passwords won’t be shared.
  • Be alerted when someone tries to log in as you on any service with two-factor authentication enabled.
  • Have passwords strong enough to be unguessable and nearly uncrackable, for all sites and services you use.
  • Know how to identify secure websites, so you don’t leak passwords or other private information to anyone who’s listening in.
  • Automatically connect to the most secure version of a website whenever possible.

Not bad for a little bit of work. Hopefully by now, you realize that this does matter, because you, I, and everyone else really is a target, simply because we’re all part of something large enough to be a target.

So pass this around. Tell your friends about what you’ve learned. Educate your kids. Stay safe on the Internet.