December 3, 2020

NRC Report on Authentication Technology and Privacy

The authoritative National Research Council has issued an important new report entitled “Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy.” Like all NRC reports, this is an in-depth document reflecting the consensus of an impressive panel of experts.

Often people think of authorization (that is, ensuring that only authorized people get access to a resource) is antithetical to privacy, but this need not be true. One of the report’s findings is this:

Authorization does not always require individual authentication or identification, but mosts existing authorization systems perform one of these functions anyway. Similarly, a requirement for authentication does not always imply that accountability is needed, but many authentication systems generate and store information as though it were.

There are many ways to use authentication in designing systems, and a careful design can reduce the privacy cost that must be paid to achieve a given level of security. There is not a single “knob” that we can turn to trade off security against privacy, but a complex landscape in which we can hope to get more of both, if we choose wisely.