Guess My Weight

If your credit card PIN number can be guessed in fifteen steps, according to Cambridge Computer Lab’s Ross Anderson, then that’s not much better odds than a game of ‘Hangman’ and simply reinforces the legitimate concern that we cannot hope to build a knowledge economy on 1980’s ‘crypto-technology’.

Ross Anderson

Only last week, I met with Andrew McLauchlan, the Executive Chairman of Identrus and his CTO, Clay Epstein and naturally, the subject of transactional integrity, what this means in practise and how it can best be achieved in a rapidly expanding on-line environment, was the focus of our conversation.

My own concern is that identity fraud is rife, impacting commerce and Governments alike. Credit card fraud alone is costing the issuing banks £700 million a year and where the ‘Official’ government figure for fraud is £2 Billion a year, it’s possibly much more than this. Government attempted to tackle the costly problem of identity fraud through the Post Office Pathway (PFI) project, which collapsed and cost the taxpayer upwards of £800million and three years later all we are still struggling with Smartcards and expensive PKI solutions.

This year the banks are due to start shipping EMV2 smart-cards to their retail banking customers. From a financial perspective, speaking as a customer of both the Halifax and Barclays Bank and the owner of a Visa card, it would be useful if the banks not only offered a truly secure authentication solution, a two factor device like a Quizid card but one which could be recognised between issuing authorities. Sensibly, the banks have been working on an ‘off-line’ authentication solution for the EMV2 cards but with one limitation, in that these cards can only authenticate (off line) to the issuer and nobody else. In other words, a one-to-many solution rather than the potentially more useful many-to-many requirement that I believe society is searching for. After all, I’m sure that like me, you would rather carry one card, authenticated by one bank, which, rather like a LINK ATM machine, authenticates you for the purpose of a transaction with any organisation that might be cross-certified with your bank, which might even be HM Government. There’s a thought!

Given real concerns over both personal and national security, we need to be able to carry some form of identification that can cross-authenticate any other form of documentation we might be carrying and without holding the kind of personal information that sends shivers down the spines of the civil rights lobby. Could this be a form of Smart Card or two-factor device which is capable of authentication by a trusted source and what could be more trusted than the bank?

In the search for an elegant solution to a large and expensive social and technological problem, I doubt there are any easy answers but what I do know is that we can’t continue putting our trust in security that doesn’t work. After all, at this rate the ‘Guess the PIN’ secret is going to be out in time for Xmas as a children’s game, regardless of the High Court granting Citibank an order to prevent the Cambridge research falling into the public domain.

Time I think for the banks to work together on finding a solution to the PIN problem in the interests of the customer rather than work independently in the pursuit of profit.


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