Expert Opinion


Beyond PKI: Authentication for the IOT

Apart from global geo politics, headline news today seems to be full of reports of massive data breached and personal data losses, with C level executives trooping out of the door or taking ‘early retirement’.

Governments are not letting these companies off lightly and are conducting enquiries at multiple levels including investigations into political meddling. What all these breaches have in common is the compromise of authentication credentials which allow the bad actors access.

I have addressed social engineering aspects of fraud previously (BEC/Phishing) so perhaps it is time to look at weaknesses in technology. Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) forms the bedrock of security technology validation in computer security. Despite PKI’s popularity as a security solution, attacks are seemingly accomplished with ease throughout computer networks.

The amount of data traversing the internet both public and private has vastly increased since the advent of PKI developed as standard through the ITU as primarily PKI X.509, in 1995 from pioneering work by Whit Diffie to authenticate digital signatures. This was to engender trust in electronic transactions. 

The very concept of ‘e-commerce’ did not really exist in the vernacular and for the majority of the planet the Internet was just an academic or government computer network with virtually zero pubic access. The legal system was still not in place to recognise digital signatures back then, but has since caught up in most jurisdictions. 

To put this into a historical perspective. In 1992 there was about 100GB of data created a day, by 2002, just seven years after the launch of the first commercial browser, 100GB was being created every second. By 2014 this had grown to 28,875 GB/sec and by 2018 it is estimated to be 50,000 GB/sec. A lot of this will be mobile with over 2.2 million apps now available, which is increasing by 1,600 a day. This is the backbone of the Internet of Things.

The first consumer transaction on eBay was in September 1995 in France by its founder Pierre Omidayer, which grew to 1.8 billion items during 2005. Today this has reached levels that exceed many physical retail outfits; Alibaba sold over $25bn on 'Singles Day' 2017, compared to $17.78 billion in 2016. To put it simply PKI was never designed to address hyperscale transactions at this level, no wonder we have the security issues we are observing, so what is next?

A blockchain is a distributed public ledger; a database of transactions such that there is a set of pre-defined rules as to how the ledger gets appended, achieved by distributed consensus of participants in the system, using a technology is available that is both highly secure and will scale.

Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) uses blockchain for the next level of security above PKI. This combines the identity of all in any given chain of authentications - such as in the supply chain – where you, your customers, logistics, finance and other data. This may be authenticated and is accessible only by the parties by creating a tamper proof electronic trail that permits audit and if required, regulatory oversight.

KSI was developed by Guardtime Inc, a global blockchain cybersecurity company originating in Estonia, which is now deployed in government and defence. Being complimentary to PKI which addresses privacy, KSI addresses data integrity. Privacy is not achieved until you have integrity. However PKI was not designed for the exponential technology boom we have to today, as such it is vulnerable in the cloud era as uses physical keys. Also PKI will not be able to withstand the quantum era of computing we are now entering so new privacy solutions are required in a decade or so. Fortunately KSI also addresses quantum proof security as KSI has no physical keys.

The KSI Signature is a piece of meta-data which enables three key properties of data to be verified. This could be an email, a Word document, PDF, photo, etc. any kind of data may be protected. With KSI, history cannot be rewritten. KSI provides keyless signatures to deliver proof of signing authority, signing time and data integrity. Verification is based solely on mathematics as formal security proof and does not rely on a trusted third party or the security of cryptographic keys.

According to Guardtime that deploys the KSI security solution, forensically, KSI signatures are based on mathematical proofs and keyless cryptographic functions approved by the EU and the US National Institute of Standards (NIST). These proofs and functions will withstand exploitation, even with advances in quantum computing meaning that assets signed by KSI will have proof information retained over the lifetime of the asset. The forensic evidence of the signatures that makes legal indemnification issues easy to resolve; highlighting who, what, where, and when a digital asset was touched, modified, created, or transmitted.

To paraphrase a technology visionary; one more thing, KSI scales to billions of transactions.

© October 2017 APP Ltd.

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