Privacy and social login

Is it possible to enhance privacy with social login?

The likelihood that any Australian Government is going to create an online identity credential now seems distant with the National Trusted Identities Framework (NTIF) almost forgotten. How quickly the Internet forgets, but maybe that’s a good thing if you’re Mario Costeja González.

But the need that the NTIF sought to fill has not gone away. Governments are trying to work out how to service their citizen/customer/users at lower cost. The Internet offers one possibility, but in taking their services online, government agencies expose themselves and us to different threats and potentially higher risk. However, it seems inevitable that government agencies will follow financial institutions in offering higher value transactions online. In the end, the economic argument is likely to drive government agency migration online with more high trust services. Recent federal and state/territory budget announcements are only likely to spur this movement.

There are a number of threats that need to be mitigated before a government agency could potentially provide its services online. Probably the key issue is for the agency to be sure that a user requesting access to a site is who they say they are. Currently issuing the customer with a username and password mostly does this, but the model is beginning to fail. The problem is that most people don’t interact with government agencies on a regular basis and yet information sensitivity and computer capabilities require users to adopt increasingly complex and non-sensical passwords.

It's all getting a bit hard
It’s all getting a bit hard

This in turn makes the passwords more difficult to remember even as they are harder to crack. It also means that password resets are much demanded. Yet at the same time, customers are expected to change their passwords regularly, not to write them down or repeat them for other online services.

It seems clear that these password requirements largely force customers to break their user agreements and either, write their passwords down, or worse re-use them for other services/websites.

It also puts government agencies in a bind. They want to provide online access to their services because it could be cheaper to operate than bricks and mortar outlets (if they didn’t have to reset too many passwords), but they also do not want to be embarrassed by privacy and security breaches.

Social Login providers

One option is the use of a social login to help secure online authentication. This could enhance user information security and minimise privacy breaches. Social login, also known as social sign-in, is a form of simple sign-on (to web resources) using existing membership of a social networking service such as Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter or Google+ to sign into a third party website in lieu of creating a new login account specifically for that website or service. Social login is designed to simplify logins for end users as well as provide more and more reliable demographic information to website owners. Social login can be used as a mechanism for both identity authentication and user authorisation.

Google website authentication

Social login is being adopted by private sector organisations for a number of reasons including: Rapid registration; Verified email contacts; and Customer stickiness. However social login also offers three major benefits for government agencies.

–       Currency of contact data. Contact data such as email tend to be kept up to date by the user.

–       Passwords are less easily forgotten because they are regularly used. At the same time, the social login passwords are not transmitted from the user to the agency website.

–       Security. Agencies can leverage security technologies implemented by the social networks that they might never be able to replicate themselves. Because of their resources, social networks such as Google and Facebook are able to detect and patch zero day exploits quickly.

So what are the privacy risks?

A user, when accepting the convenience of a social login, can share a significant amount of their information between a third party website (such as a government agency) and the social network. The social site is informed of every social login performed by the user. Often, it is worth considering whether users understand exactly what they are sharing and whether they are giving informed consent to share. However this risk can be mitigated with the creation of clear and detailed login screens, which explain what the users are sharing.

As an example, the following information is returned when a Facebook user agrees to share their ‘Basic Profile’. Other than the email, the information is not verified and may not be present. However, several organisations claim that the quality of the data returned is in general very good because social network users feel social pressure from their friends to be accurate.

Address Birthday Verified Email
Display Name Family Name Formatted Name
Gender Given Name Homepage
Preferred Username Profile Photo Time Zone

At the same time, it is not necessary for the third party website to collect all the information if it is not required.

Another issue surrounds current sensitivities with the USA NSA’s indiscriminate hoovering of online data. It is important to note that because all the large social networking sites are based in the USA, they are subject to USA’s laws and customs related to security and privacy. Under that regime, Australians are given significantly fewer protections than USA citizens or residents. Effectively, the social networking site itself provides the main protection for reputational reasons. However, readers may be aware that there have been recent moves in the USA to change this approach for what the US charmingly calls ‘aliens’ like Australians and give the same protections for all users irrespective of citizenship.

Can we get the benefits of social login and have citizen privacy as well?

With careful design it seems possible that social login could enhance privacy for users at the same time as providing benefits to government agencies. Considering the social login as an adjunct to agency authentication rather than the whole process could be an answer. If customers nominate their social login at the same time as they were enrolled into a government service, they could later use their social login as the first stage of an authentication process. This would provide an outer layer of defence against hacking. The user could then login to the agency itself using a separate authentication process.

The advantages of this model, beyond defence in depth, are that the user logs into the agency with their authenticated social login username, but does not gain access to sensitive information without providing an agency specific authentication. The social network also does not receive any sensitive information beyond the fact that a user logged in at a website. The use of government portals can be used to obfuscate which agency a user is accessing. At the same time, with consent, contact information from the social login site could be compared with that held by the agency and presented to users so that they can choose to update the information held on them by the agency.

At both the state and federal level, government agencies are starting to actively consider social login. Provided that governments are also prepared to carefully design the user interaction so that the social networks don’t get any more personal information than the user/citizen is prepared to share – by turning off analytics and sharing social network authentication gateways across groups of government agencies, it can provide benefit to users and government alike.

In the longer term, government will be able to verify citizens online when they wish to enrol themselves for services. The possibility arises to use the Document Verification Service (DVS) combined with social history to connect an entity to an identity, but that may be a discussion for another time.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Alex

This article originally appeared under the title “Can social login be privacy enhancing” in the May 2014 edition of Privacy Unbound, the journal of the International association of privacy professionals (IAPP) Australia New Zealand chapter and can be found here at this link iappANZ_MayJournal

Direct link to the IAPP:  https://www.privacyassociation.org/

IAPP ANZ http://www.iappanz.org/