SecureKey — The Interview

Andre Boysen is an Executive Vice President at SecureKey Technologies Inc., the Toronto-based technology company that is working with Canadian governments and business on next-generation identity management solutions.  With the backing of Intel, Telus and Visa (among others) SecureKey looks to make a big splash in the world of secure payments and online identity.

SecureKey Concierge is a credential broker solution that allows government web sites to use banking credentials.  With SecureKey Concierge, government sites can take advantage of existing banking credentials in a secure and privacy-protected way.

I had the chance to interview Andre last week.

Code Technology: Tell us a bit about what SecureKey Technologies is all about.

Andre Boysen: SecureKey is in the business of making online authentication easier, that’s basically what we are trying to do.  We got started helping banks to solve ‘card not present problems’ — this type of fraud went to zero with the introduction of chip cards and PINs.  But it still is an problem on the Internet – anyone finds your credit card number and billing address basically they can start ordering stuff.  It’s hard for the banks to figure out who’s real and who’s not.

We noticed that banks were moving to contact-less chips (based on near-field communications or NFC) in order to speed up things.  With NFC for quick purchases like papers and coffee, the customer just has to tap the card, no need to enter a PIN.

We saw the opportunity to use this technology to do payments on the Internet.  We have built an NFC reader and the concept is that you can have this reader on your computer, at home, and when you want to buy something on the Internet, instead of typing in a card number you just tap your card on the reader and pay that way.

One of our strategies is to get our technology embedded into all consumer electronics.  Intel is a significant investor in SecureKey and all the Ultrabooks coming out actually have our NFC reader built in.  And we are working to get it embedded in cell phones.

Code: So how does this technology lend itself to the direction you have taken with SecureKey Concierge?

Andre: So, yes, that’s a good question… Part of this is that we noticed that we are all drowning in user IDs and passwords.  And the problem for governments is that they know who I am on paper but they don’t know me in person, and when I show up on the Internet they have a hard time knowing it’s me.  The solution in the past is for the government to roll out their own credential — the current incarnation is called Access Key.  But (for higher-value transactions) that includes installing software on my computer and with all the support costs related to this, the government realized that serving me online is much more expensive that serving me in person…

The federal government’s idea was to delegate authentication.  An RFP was issued looking for proposals with 10,000,000 subscribers and at least three credential service providers.  SecureKey, partnering with three of the largest Canadian banks, was the only respondent.

Code: Why are the banks interested in this?

Andre: Their primary motivator is that they want to see identity move online. Banks want customer identities, today largely based on the provincial drivers license, to be verifiable.  With SecureKey’s model four key players will participate: federal government, provincial government, banks and telcos.  These four players have a critical role in the consumer’s life.  The federal government can set standards and leverage its buying power in a way that individual provinces can’t.  The provinces are the source of identity — birth certificates and the licenses we carry around in our wallets.  But the problem is that we don’t deal with the province very often; it’s rare that we have to talk with them and this makes it hard to authenticate online.

This is where the banks come in.  They have a very tight relationship with 98% of Canadians — they see their customers often and know them well.  By participating in SecureKey, the banks will get better digital identities, which will help them when accounts are opened.

To take this further, BC is launching new services card and drivers license with an NFC chip inside.  This is compatible with SecureKey technology and will make it easier to conduct secure transactions related to provincial programs.

What the telcos bring to this is something that Canadians always have in their pockets — their phones.  We are working to get phones and carrier networks working with the system as well.

Code: What is the typical use case SKC is looking to solve?

Andre: Any Canadian who wants quick and convenient access to any federal government service can use their bank account to gain that access.

Code: Can you confirm for us the high-level architecture? Is it primarily an identity broker service that sits between the IdP and relying party?

Andre: No, it is better described as a ‘credential’ broker service because there is no identity information passed. The government never gets the unique MBUN  (meaningless but unique number), only a service-specific number.  There is no information about the user passed to the government other than they are an authenticated bank user.  The government does its own enrolment and identity verification.

Code: Is SecureKey Concierge based on SAML?

Andre: The service is based on SAML 2.o and has support for older versions of SAML and Shibboleth.  OAuth and WS-Trust are planned.

Code: How can the service support an investigation?

Andre: It is important to point out that SKC has a privacy-enhanced design — triple blind.  No one participant has a complete picture of the transaction.

Each bank produces an anonymous MBUN for each customer. The banks will pass the MBUN to SKC during authentication. Our service will log any transactions completed in the session against the MBUN.  To preserve anonymity between services SKC will further anonymize the MBUN for each relying party service and SKC will pass a unique number called the Persistent Anonymous Identifier to each RP.

Event tracking is supported.  So let’s say CRA comes to us and says we have an event here and we need to do an investigation.  Keep in mind that the ‘handle’ we give to the RP is the Persistent Anonymous Identifier (PAI).  CRA can provide us with this number and we can provide the event logs that relate to that PAI.  If this isn’t sufficient, we can use the MBUN to go to the banks and get the details of the authentication event from them. Of course, it depends on how serious the issue is — if it is a judicial enquiry there will be more disclosure, but for other investigations we will keep the ‘privacy veil’ on.

For a compromised account, the bank is going to shut it down and the government won’t see that account again.  It is worth noting that banks have pretty sophisticated systems for detecting problems, so breaches are pretty rare events.

Code: Can you share with us the attributes that are passed between the bank and the government site? From my recent use of the service, I couldn’t tell if the bank asserted my name information.

Andre: Only PAI is passed. Name info is not passed. Note that each service (relying party) does own enrolment and may collect name.

We are all about consumer convenience, choice and privacy control. This service is very user-centric. Users are presented options to approve any information via on-screen prompts.  To facilitate this, SecureKey Concierge will have a set of templates to allow RPs to collect pre-determined ‘bundles’ of information.  The RP will use these templates to collect all the info consistently from a provincial card or bank record.

This broker concept becomes even more important as we move into sharing identity attributes.  We want to make sure we continue to support minimal disclosure.

Code: I’ve worked on citizen identity for a while now, and there is always the challenge of keeping up with their preferences and ‘life-changes’.  How does the SKC service manage changes to the citizen’s banking credentials? Let’s say I decide to switch banks, but want to keep my access to the Service Canada site in place. Is this possible?

Andre: Yes, a bank account change can be made via a the ‘Switch My Sign-In Partner’.  The process requires that you have control of both bank accounts in order to make the switch.

Code: The SecureKey Concierge two-factor solution looks to be a bit of a game changer for high-value and/or high-risk transactions.  Where do you see this technology being adopted in the online government-to-citizen space?

Andre: Enterprise authentication is something we can do. SecureKey is trying to make it easier for employees using their access badges. We see healthcare and government and finance are three verticals we are targeting, all with needs for strong authentication.

Code: How are things going? Has interest in SecureKey Concierge started to pick up? Have you seen interest in the service outside of the federal government, BC and Alberta?

Andre: We launched with the government of Canada in April, and have 15 agencies/departments online today.  Two bigger departments, HRDC and CRA, are set to launch this fall.  We expect that by the end of 2012 we’ll have the bulk of Canadian departments online with SecureKey Concierge.

As for other interest — there is nothing we can share just yet! But ‘wrapping up Canada’ (all remaining provinces) is the current goal.  We also want more credential service providers including partners from outside of the banking sector.

Code: Thanks for your time today Andre.

Andre: You’re welcome!

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