Avenger Penguin

Trust vs. Identity

Read more posts on Security

As stated in the previous article about the difference between authentication and authorisation, it is important to understand the different aspects of security in order to control access to resources in as secure and as user-friendly a way as possible. However, the step of authentication itself — the act of ascertaining who a person is — comprises the two components of identity and trust.

Authenticating an Identity

To return to the preceding article’s example of credit card purchases in a shop, the authentication step is where the retailer confirms your PIN or signature before handing the transaction over to the bank for authorisation.

The card has the owner’s name printed across it, so the goal of the authentication step is to prove that the person handing over the card is indeed the owner. There are several possible approaches to proving someone’s identity, but we will look at the hand-written signature approach for now.

Assuming for a moment that signature forgery isn’t an issue, the theory is that only the card’s true owner could replicate the signature on the back of the card. Thus the owner proves his or her identity by reproducing said signature in front of the merchant.

Every time the card owner signs a receipt, we know that he or she is the very same person that signed the back of the card in the first place. More generally, identity is proving that a person matches the person retained on record, e.g. that a user logging into the bank is the account holder for the account they are trying to access.

Lack of Trust

There is however an Achilles’ heel to this process. Comparing signatures works on the assumption that the signature on the back of the card is actually that of the card owner. If someone forgets to sign their card, a thief can easily sign it with their own signature that they can reproduce perfectly. Then any retailer will see that the signatures match and that identity has been confirmed.

This is not an issue with the identification process, but an indication of where trust has failed. Trust is an indication of whether the identity has any validity in the first place. Interestingly, trust is not always necessary in some applications, so it is worth understanding the difference. Any security system that requires both identity and trust should address each separately when analysing its strength.

Trust on the Web

If we look at the example of a general website with a registration and login process, we can see identity and trust act differently in the Internet realm.

Many websites ask users to sign up using an email address and a password of their choosing. Once registration is complete, their email address becomes their identity for coming back to the website at a later date. Every time the user logs in with that email and password, we can be happy it’s likely to be the same person that first registered with those details.

However, there are many ways this identity still lacks trust:

  1. we do not know that is actually their email address;
  2. we do not know this is a real person (it could be an automated process setting up accounts en masse); and
  3. we do not know other information such as their full name is accurate.

This is not necessarily a problem. If the website only deals with storing and protecting a user profile, then the only concern is that the person logging in is the same person that registered. This is a case where we only care about identity and many websites merely require a username and password just to record user activities against a profile. They do not have a need for further information.

Some websites may require the that email address is valid at least for the purposes of contacting or notifying the user. In these cases, some trust is now required and most Internet users are already familiar with having to confirm their email address by clicking a link that is emailed to them after registration.

Other websites might confirm that a mobile number is valid by sending a code by SMS or even that a postal address is accurate by sending a code in the post (Google Adsense does this). When dealing with some UK government online services, one may have to enter a passport number. This is providing trust by cross-referencing the user-entered details with that of another database.

Trusting Signatures

To come back to the credit card purchase, banks attempt to introduce trust by sending out new cards as securely as possible and then encouraging customers to sign them immediately on arrival. They generally also send new PINs separately. It is fair to assume most customers do not want to be defrauded, so there is some trust in the owner being the only one able to sign for a purchase or know the PIN.

Digital signatures can work on the web by having a mathematical key or certificate attached to a file or email. The arithmetic involved can prove that the signature attached matches exactly the key or certificate you have recorded against that person or website’s name, but we are still faced with the original problem of proving legitimacy the first time you encounter that key or certificate.

If I store my bank’s certificate, I can use it to compare against the certificate presented on future visits so that if looks different one day, then it could well be criminals masquerading as my bank. This — just as with comparing card signatures — falls foul to the the potential illegitimacy of the original certificate.

Any computer file can be encrypted or certified by a digital key or certificate. As digital keys and certificates can themselves be represented as files, that means they can also sign other keys and certificates. With this, many people can provide “trust networks” by agreeing to sign the key of anyone they have met in real life. This means you just need one key or certificate you are happy is legitimate and you can trust any other ones signed by it. It then follows that you can trust the ones signed by those as well and thus you end up with a full web or chain of trust.

This is analogous to getting witnesses to sign a contract to confirm that the signatory is indeed the right person. For the analogy to be complete though, one would also have further witnesses signing to confirm the signatures of the first witnesses are accurate as well. This chain would continue until a signature is reached that is personally recognised by the contract’s author.

A similar approach is used for websites such as those of banks where they have security certificates signed by one of a select number of trustworthy certificate authorities. Most computer systems will automatically trust the certificates of such known, legitimate authorities and thus indirectly trust all certificates vouched for by them. The security behind certificates used, web browsers and secure websites will be discussed in fuller detail in a future article.


OpenID is standardised protocol that allows web users to have a single ID (from any OpenID provider) that they can use across several websites. It addresses the difficulties of having to maintain identities across multiple websites so long as a site is willing to accept an OpenID identity as a valid login.

This provides a secure identity in that people will know that your profile on one website is linked to that on any other website you use. It makes it very difficult for someone to impersonate your identity at any point.

However, it still does not provide trust (nor was it designed to do so) and there is no way, for example, to say anything about the identity is accurate, e.g. real name, company, email address.

Again, websites can still implement a registration process for OpenID users not to provide them with a new identity, but to verify any further details required. This allows the usual tactics of email verification, etc. as discussed earlier. Another approach to asserting the validity of users is to build a trust network on top of the OpenID system.

SAML, Shibboleth and the UK Federation

Another protocol by which people can use a single identity across multiple websites is SAML. The best-known implementation of SAML is Shibboleth, which is available both as an identity provider or a service provider. The former allows one to set up a system that provides identities, i.e. usernames, for people and the latter enables your website to accept identities from the former.

For example, a university may wish to set up an identity provider to give all the students some ID along the lines of user123@example.ac.uk or http://example.ac.uk/user123 where “user123” is their username within the institution. Then any service wishing to allow access to students can implement itself as a service provider allowing users to log in with their university ID.

This is certainly advantageous in that the service can automatically enable access to all students from this example university without having to ask each to register one by one and verify they are legitimate students. Many students and former students may recognise this is as similar to how Athens works in some universities.

So, not only does a Shibboleth service provider know that user123@example.ac.uk is vouched for by the university, but there is also trust that user123 is a real student — it is fair to assume this university isn’t giving out user accounts to people outside the institution. This effects some trust because the service is able to know something about this user and have confidence it is accurate.

If a user attempts to log in with user456@somewhereelse.com, the service can reject them until whoever owns somewhereelse.com wants to pay for its users to have access too. In this way, this service builds up a trust network by listing institutions whose members may have access.

However, it is somewhat cumbersome if hundreds of different services have to maintain manually a list of known educational institutions in the UK. To make this simpler, many universities, colleges and companies providing online resources thereto have become members of the UK Federation. This federation is effectively a directory of known bodies and their details so it becomes possible to configure a service simply to accept any identity within the group knowing that they belong to a legitimate and accountable institution.

The UK Federation can be seen as a trust network that attempts to build upon the identification framework provided by SAML.

Whom to Trust

In essence, trust is inherited and passed on just as much in the security world as in social interactions. Ultimately, it is necessary to find a starting point that can be assumed trustworthy and then you can trust anything it vouches for, just as one trusts business contacts recommended by already trustworthy people.

As such, thumbprint identification is only useful if your thumbprint database is accurate, passports are only good if you trust the government that issued them and photo IDs in general only work if you trust their resistance to forgery.

For any secure setup — whether web-based or in the physical world — it is essential not only to verify the effectiveness of your identification process, but also to ascertain the trustworthiness of the information you are storing and using for identification in the first place.