Thinking Outside the Bits

The dominant theme of data protection discussions is one of
preserving secrets. Much less attention gets paid to the problem of ensuring data’s availability—not
to mention verifiability—rather than limiting it. I spoke this month
with representatives of Surety about their technology for addressing all
four elements of affirmative data access management
: confidentiality,
authentication,
integrity
and nonrepudiation.

Surety describes its product as “trusted time-stamp service”—which is sort of like calling a Porsche Carrera “personal
transportation.” The company’s AbsoluteProof
service offers its own four-point list of key criteria for data
assurance that people will actually use: “independent, portable,
persistent and transparent.” The service is independent of the party
that has a stake in proving a data item’s attributes; the
authentication can travel with the data and be verified by the
recipient; the verification is durable, and the use of the technology
can be made invisible to the user.

For anyone who actually knows anything about encryption
technology and practice
, I hardly need to say anything more about
Surety’s ideas: The concept
isn’t nearly as hard to grasp as, say, string theory. In
crypto, the critical thing these days is less often the concept than
the implementation. As noted
in eWEEK.com’s widely viewed slide show, “The Dirty Dozen IT Embarrassments,” even something as simple
as correctly
seeding a random number generator
may be the difference between
potential and actual crypto strength.

That’s why I was struck, in particular, by one element of Surety’s
approach. The company periodically publishes a hash
value
, as plain old text
in a classified ad in The New York Times
, that reliably
demonstrates the integrity of its entire process. This is a rare
concrete example of the often vacuous phrase, “thinking outside the
box”—which brings to most people’s minds, I suspect, an image of
climbing out of a metaphorical box of confined perceptions, but which
most likely derives
from the famous puzzle of the nine dots
.

The paradox of most digital systems is that people try to use the
system, or a parallel system with shared failure modes, to monitor and
maintain function: a proposition that has a certain
hall-of-mirrors paradoxical feel
, and that leads to painful calculations of just how much safety is needed — and how much it’s worth to achieve that level of protection. Surety jumps
out of that self-referential
paradox by
using another medium, one with completely different failure
modes
, as an outside check on its process. Well done.

Also helping developers to avoid getting boxed in by data assurance
difficulties is PGP Corporation,
with its announcement
this month
of a massive portfolio of updates to its encryption
product line—with a general theme (it’s always wrong to generalize)
of making enterprise encryption more of a unified environment rather
than a cobbled-up collection of separate tools and doctrines. There’s
not much more that I can say that’s not addressed in my August
interview with PGP director of product management John Dasher
, but
there’s more
from PGP at its site
.

Tell me what kinds of assurance you wish you could get at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com

Check out eWEEK.com’s for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer’s Weblog.

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