Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On the Internet no-one knows you’re a dog

or so runs a 1993 cartoon from the New Yorker. Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the practicalities of knowing who people are on the Internet, about the scary abuses of identity information that some governments have engaged in recently, and about a very clever New Zealand proposal to offer a way to prove your identity on the Internet without the Big Brother overtones. Read on…

A: Ah yes, the dog. It’s an old New Yorker cartoon with a dog using a computer, and saying: On the Internet no-one knows you’re a dog. It’s really getting at the notion that we are anonymous on the Net and that people can’t tell much about you from a screen name or email address.

Q: Is that true?

A: No, not really. Clever or well-resourced people can tell a lot about you by looking at the traces you leave online. Never assume you can’t be traced across the Internet. It takes a lot of ingenuity and some luck to completely cover your traces. You can probably hide your identity from an average Internet user, but not from someone who really wants to find you and is prepared to invest resources in doing so. The police, for instance, can subpoena your Internet Service provider and they’ll give up your name and address straight away. If you are planning to do something nefarious – don’t. And if you do it anyway, stay away from the Internet.

As a bit of a digression, I’m amazed how information technology is being used as a tool of repression in societies we might have thought to epitomize freedom. There’s the US, with its “no-fly” list – a list of names, that if you are unfortunate enough to be called something resembling, you basically can’t get on a plane in the US. There are a lot of US citizens called David Nelson who can’t fly anywhere because that name is on the list. No-one will say why, and there appears to be no mechanism for reviewing the list – in fact the government denies the list exists!

And perhaps the most egregious example of a modern democracy slipping into elected dictatorship is my own native land, the United Kingdom. I’ve talked before about the extreme number of security cameras catching everyone many times a day. But even more alarming is the national ID card there which is supposed to be implemented sometime in the next couple of years. The boosters of the card – and there aren’t many, they are all part of the government, say that you won’t be required to carry it. Perhaps you never will, but the point of the project is not the ID card itself which is only the tip of the iceberg, but the really big database behind it. That has to be a database of everything government knows about everybody in the country. The opportunities of abuse of that are frightening, and it could all be done in secret. The scary thing to me is that this offers governments, or their employees, unprecedented levels of controls with absolutely no public accountability.

Q: Don’t you think that their concerns about terrorism justify this?

A: They used to the have the IRA bombing mainland Britain every other weekend. Before that they had the Luftwaffe arriving every night. Yes, it’s horrible to be in an environment where your physical security isn’t guaranteed, where terrible things happen to innocent people. But can we be certain that providing such sweeping and unaccountable powers to one sector of society will actually improve matters rather than make them worse? And are the British throwing away the liberty they fought for? As Benjamin Franklin said: He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security. That’s a lesson that both countries that Franklin lived in seem to have forgotten.

Q: They don’t seem to be very good at looking after people’s private data in the UK!

A: No, the government there recently lost CDs containing financial records for half the population. This is unbelievably incompetent. It’s just totally cavalier. These poor people had no choice to give the government this information and the government goes and treats it with contempt. Why on earth burn it to CDs in the first place? And if you absolutely have to, it should be treated as a secret and carried in a locked bag by a government courier. Not just stuck in an envelope and posted like a Christmas card! And the UK government is going to implement national ID cards!

Q: Could we become a society that needs ID cards here?

A: I don’t think so, not without a big change in outlook. Remember how a government in Australia fell a few years because of fears about an ID card – the so-called “Australia Card”? I just can’t see the average New Zealander seeing any justification for giving up that much freedom.

Q: Surely the government knows everything about us anyway: driving licence, tax records, property rates…

A: Ah, but there are lots of different bits of government and they don’t talk to each other

Q: That’s hardly news!

A: No, really – they aren’t allowed to share personal information. All departments that need to keep information about people have to collect their own, and they aren’t allowed to pass it other departments except under carefully-controlled data matching agreements. That’s part of the Privacy Act, and it’s a really strong safeguard against abuse of information by officials.

Q: But that means I have to keep telling the government the same thing over and over again.

A: Well, it pretty much does at the moment. The record of your name and address as a car owner is completely different from the record of your name and address as a taxpayer, and those two government departments can’t even use the same number to track you from one to the other. That’s good and bad – it gives us ordinary citizens a lot of protection, but it means that we have to keep identifying ourselves again and again to different parts of central and local government.

And that’s where a potential new service looks very interesting. The Department of Internal Affairs is consulting on something called the Identity Verification Service.

Q: They are going to have to do something about that name!

A: The name’s a bit drab, isn’t it? But they are at a consultation stage and I expect that by the time anything launches it’ll have a nicer name, I think it’s going to be “igovt”. Anyway, the IVS is a very cool idea. It’s a way of getting round the idea that we have to deal separately with every different part of government without building a big scary central database of everyone’s records.

Q: How does that work?

A: The notion is, that you should only have to prove who you are once. Now those of us who have a passport have already been through a fairly rigorous procedure with the Department of Internal Affairs to get that passport – you know, show them your birth certificate, get someone to sign your photo and so forth. It’s a bit of a palaver but we accept it as part of travel. The clever bit is, that under he IVS scheme, when you need to prove who you are to another government department – tax, say – on their website, you can tick a box that says I’m signed up for the IVS, the nyou get taken to the IVS website and sign on, and then tick I Agree to you telling the tax department who I am. Then you are taken back to the tax website, but it’s happy that it knows who you are so you can get on with arguing about your tax assessment or whatever it is you went there for.

So this cuts down the number of userids and passwords you need. You wind up with one way of logging on, but each government department has to ask your permission every time it wants to know anything about you.

Q: Is this only going to work if you have a passport?

A: Hopefully not – the IVS people are saying that there will be several government departments that can identify you and which you can use for all the others.

The Privacy Commissioner as been right through this and she’s happy wit the service. Right now, they are consulting on it, and I’d really encourage you to pull the consultation document – it’s an easy 7 page read – and tell them what you think. That closes on the 7th, a week tomorrow. I’ve put it in today’s links.

One last point: this thing is purely optional. No-one is getting made to signup for this. If you don’t want to, don’t do it.

Q: Sounds like a good idea – why just government departments? What about banks and so forth?

A: There are some hints in the document that they are thinking of letting the private sector use it as well.


The original 1993 cartoon, on the Internet no-one knows you’re a dog.

The tribulations of everyone called David Nelson

The UK’s Privacy Chernobyl

The consultation page for the Identity Verification Service.

posted by colin at 11:51 am  

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