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Data Privacy Day: IBM launches Identity Mixer, an anonymous credential system

IBM Research celebrates Data Privacy Day by launching Identity Mixer, a new privacy technology that provides privacy-preserving user authentication.

privacy info protect ts
Credit: Thinkstock

Happy Data Privacy Day!

It’s your data, but it seems like every time you turn around there’s a new data breach; when a company given the responsibility for securing your private data is hacked, what else does it know about you, have on you, besides the required data it asked for? Do they have your date of birth, home address, phone number, credit card number and security code? What if, when you sign in, you could selectively reveal only what is required and no more? What if you could use anonymity technology to authenticate for security but do so anonymously to protect your privacy?

Researchers from IBM Research Zurich have come up with an Identity Mixer anonymous credential system… and “anonymous credentials are a key ingredient to protect one’s privacy in an electronic world.”

In an email, IBM Research Zurich snagged my attention by saying Identity Mixer's “cryptographic code acts as an agent knowing all of your secrets, while revealing as little as possible. If you need to prove that you are from a country to e-vote instead of typing in your address, it will simply respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If you need to prove that you are at least 21 to rent a car, it will say that you are between 25-100 years old. The technology also works similarly for credit card transactions. The result, you prove who you are without revealing anything that can be stolen.”

Identity Mixer could be used for online services, web-based subscriptions, e-commerce, healthcare provider portals, voting, car-to-car communications, public transport ticketing systems, and more. It solves the Catch-22 paradox of proving who you are without providing other sensitive personal information. Instead of transmitting a user’s credentials, Identity Mixer can be used to convince a verifier that your attributes satisfy specific properties without leaking other unnecessary personal information. In other words, it allows the user to reveal only select pieces of personal information to third parties.

A privately listed video explains that after you’ve revealed your identity by signing up on a site, the Identity Mixer can be used to allow the user to access that service later in private. Researching diseases via a healthcare portal was one example given. Identity Mixer could be used in several scenarios, such as polling and web-based subscriptions, e-commerce, or even in a digital wallet that contains credentials certified by a trusted third party. IBM said it’s important to note that "the issuer of the credentials has no knowledge of how and when they are being used."

Digital wallet using IBM Identity Mixer

Regarding e-commerce, if a site that stores credit card transactions is hacked, the hacker gets the credit card number and security code. But Identity Mixer can all other information from the transaction except the site's verification that the credit card is valid. So if the e-commerce site is hacked, the stored information, showing only the card's validity and not its number or cardholder information, is useless to attackers.

It uses a cryptographic algorithm to encrypt the certified identity attributes of a user, such as their age, nationality, address and credit card number in a way that allows the user to reveal only selected pieces to third parties. Identity Mixer uses a cryptographic technique called zero-knowledge proofs, something that cryptographer and Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green described as “one of the most powerful tools cryptographers have ever devised.”

“Identity Mixer incorporates more than a decade of research to bring the concept of minimal disclosure of identity-related data to reality, and now it is ready to use for both computers and mobile device transactions,” said Dr. Jan Camenisch, cryptographer and co-inventor of Identity Mixer at IBM Research.

"We wanted individuals to have control over what they reveal about themselves,” said Dr. Anna Lysyanskaya, a co-inventor of Identity Mixer, who is currently a professor of computer science at Brown University. "With Identity Mixer now in the cloud, developers have a very strong cryptographic tool that makes privacy practical; it is a piece of software that you can incorporate into any identity management service enabling the service to verify that an individual is an authorized user without revealing any other personal information."

But you don’t have to take their word for it, as the source code for Identity Mixer cryptographic library is available to the public.

“Identity Mixer enables users to choose precisely which data to share, and with whom”, said Christina Peters, IBM’s Chief Privacy Officer. “Now web service providers can improve their risk profile and enhance trust with customers, and it’s all in the cloud making it easy for developers to program. Identity Mixer is an example of why legislation around data privacy across the globe should enable - not stifle - innovation. It demonstrates that innovation leads to better data privacy: privacy that is more secure for the consumer with tools that are more accessible and easier to implement for the provider.”

In a nutshell, IBM Identity Mixer can “enable strong authentication and privacy at the same time.” According to the pitch, it can provide:

Privacy for end-users: Authenticate to service providers without disclosing your social network profile or any of your personal data. Without Identity Mixer, every time you press a "Login with ..." button, you allow your social network provider to track you and to reveal your profile to a service provider. Once you reveal it - you lose control over it.

Security and Compliance for Service Providers: Rest assured that your access restrictions are fully satisfied, but there is no clients' personal data that needs to be protected or treated according to complex legal regulations. Without Identity Mixer, every time the customers' personal data is collected, it needs to be properly secured and managed.

Nightmare for Identity Thieves: There is no customers' personal data stored on the Service Provider side. What does not exist, cannot be stolen. Without Identity Mixer, after collecting customers' personal data, Service Providers face the risk of the data breach.

What does Identity Mixer do? The “cryptographic protocol suite for privacy-preserving authentication and transfer of certified attributes” was described as a superior solution because “issuers do not have to be involved during authentication, but at the same time, users can selectively disclose only those attributes that are required by the verifier and can do so without being linkable across their transactions.”

IBM Identity Mixer IBM Zurich

Both the German Red Cross and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, will test the privacy technology in a two-year pilot project called Authentication and Authorization for Entrusted Unions (AU2EU).

IBM’s new platform-as-a-service (PaaS) – IBM Bluemix – is available to developers. Starting in the spring, “BlueMix subscribers will be able to experiment with Identity Mixer within their own applications and web services. Using simple pull down menus, developers can choose the types of data that they wish to secure and BlueMix will provide the code, which can then be embedded in their services.”

You can try out a demo, learn more, or watch the video below about using Identity Mixer to prove little Alice is old enough and has a subscription to an online streaming movie service.

It sounds promising. Happy International Data Privacy Day!

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