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Roger Clarke's 'Theory of Authentication'

A Generic Theory of Authentication
to Support IS Practice and Research

Working Paper Version of 20 March 2023

Roger Clarke **

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2022-23

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This paper addresses a yawning gap in IS theory and practice. In the information systems (IS) discipline and profession, the concept of authentication is commonly limited in scope to the checking of assertions relating to identity. The effective conduct of organised activities depends on the authentication of many other categories of assertion. The paper presents a generic theory of authentication, which encompasses the wide range of relevant kinds of assertions, including those relating to facts, content, value and attributes, as well as the more commonly discussed assertions about identities and entities. The theory is based on a declared set of metatheoretic assumptions, with the purpose of establishing a workable framework for IS practitioners, and for researchers oriented to IS practice.


1. Introduction

Use of the term 'authentication' in contexts relevant to information systems (IS) practice and research is almost always limited to what is referred to here as '(id)entity authentication'. For example, in the large family of standards documents published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF 2022), a device, or a process running in a device, 'authenticates itself' to another device or process. This is commonly done by declaring an identifier and demonstrating that the device or process has access to a secret (such as a password) that only that device or process is expected to know. The US government standards document extends beyond artefacts to encompass human entities and their identities, defining authentication as "Verifying the identity of a user, process, or device, often as a prerequisite to allowing access to resources in an information system" (NIST 2006, p.6, emphasis added). Magnusson (2022) provides a straightforward, commercial explanation of the NIST notion, using the definition "the process of verifying a user or device before allowing access to a system or resources".

There are many contexts in which it is important to authenticate entities of various kinds (including humans, other living specimens such as livestock, artefacts and natural objects) and identities (including processes running within artefacts, and particular presentations or roles of humans and of artefacts). On the other hand, (id)entity is far from the only thing that needs to be authenticated (Clarke 2001, 2003). Hence, limiting the scope of the term has serious drawbacks. Examples of other things that need to be authenticated include statements of fact, claims of value, and declarations by an agent of its authority to act on behalf of a principal.

The proposition that authentication needs to be interpreted broadly is unusual in the IS literature, to the extent that few explicit sources can be readily identified. An inspection of the first 200 hits using a Google Scholar search on <authentication "information systems"> detected almost no uses other than in relation to identity authentication. One exception was a small number of articles on watermarking for image provenance authentication. Another was a single throwaway sentence in a mainstream IS journal: "Authentication can be used to verify either the content of the message, the origin of the message, or the identity of the user" (Altinkemer & Wang 2011, p.394). Other examples found in the AIS electronic Library (AISeL) were Mattke et al. (2019) and Thomas & Negash (2023) who refer to transaction and asset authentication in the context of blockchain implementations, and Lausen et al. (2020) who refer to the authentication of claims made by financial professionals in relation to their previous employment and licences held.

In the IS literature generally, even the common, narrow interpretation as '(id)entity authentication', while clearly within-scope, is not a particularly lively topic-area. For example, the string <authentication> is found in Title or Abstract in only 37 of over 17,000 refereed papers in the AIS electronic library (AISeL), with the positivist term <verification> used in a further 13. (All hits provided by the AISeL search-engine require inspection, because of generic uses, specific usages distinct from the present one, and an over-generous synonym-table, which treats 'authentic' and 'authenticity' as equivalents to 'authentication'). Searches across all of the Basket of 8 IS journals produced a count of 12 out of >10,000 articles with 'authentication' in Title or Abstract. Searches for at least a single occurrence of the term in full-text finds 324 in >10,000 Basket of 8 corpus, and 1,331 in the >17,000 entries in AISeL. On inspection, however, fewer than two dozen of them make a contribution to the work reported here. It is contended that the narrowness of the conventional conception gives rise to important deficiencies in IS practice, which IS researchers have failed to identify and address.

This paper's purpose is to express a general theory of authentication that encompasses not only (id)entity authentication but also the many other circumstances in which the reliability of claims is assessed. The theory is intended for use to support both IS practice and research. To achieve that end, the analysis applies a previously-published, pragmatic metatheoretic model, comprising a working set of assumptions in each of the areas of ontology, epistemology and axiology (Clarke 2021).

The paper commences by briefly presenting the underlying pragmatic metatheoretic model. It then discusses the abstract notion of 'authentication', placing it within that model, and defining it as a process that establishes a level of confidence in an assertion. A number of categories of assertion are then outlined, and descriptions provided of the processes and criteria appropriate to each category. The categories in which (id)entity plays a key role require article-length treatment, and hence this paper provides only a preliminary outline of them. Implications are drawn for IS practice and for IS research.

2. The Underlying Pragmatic Metatheoretic Model

In this work, an IS is treated as "a set of interacting artefacts and human activities that performs one or more functions involving the handling of data and information" (Clarke 1990), or "a system which assembles, stores, processes and delivers information ... a human activity (social) system which may or may not involve the use of computer systems" (Avison & Fitzgerald 2006, p. 23). Since the mid-20th century, information technology (IT) has become pervasive. A largely technical view of IS is legitimate in the case of highly-automated decision-and-action systems. For that large majority of IS that are of the nature of decision support systems, on the other hand, the interweaving of artefact with human activity means that neither a wholly technical nor a wholly social view can provide a sufficient basis for understanding.

Key aspects of the necessary socio-technical system view are that organisations comprise people using technology, that each affects the other, and that effective design depends on integration of the two (Mumford 2006, Abbas and Michael 2022). Adopting the socio-technical view, "[t]he social and the technical should be apportioned comparable emphases" and treated as "as two mutually interacting components" (Sarker et al. 2019, pp.697, 698). Yet those authors' study of MISQ and ISR works concludes that "about 87% of the studies reviewed focused solely on instrumental outcomes" (p.704), by which the authors mean "higher productivity" for the benefit of the system sponsor (p.698), and that "by losing sight of humanistic goals, the IS discipline risks facilitating the creation of a dehumanized and dystopian society" (p.705).

A further commitment that I bring to this work is that IS research is concerned with advancing IS practice. However, this is even more unfashionable than the socio-technical view of IS: "while everyone pays lip service to the importance of applied research, when it comes time to publish it, the mainstream journals are generally unwilling participants ... Papers are routinely rejected from our journals because they fail to make a sufficient theoretical contribution" (Hirschheim 2019, pp.1349, 1351). The approach I have adopted, the model I have proposed, and the analyses based on that model, may therefore be relevant only to that sub-set of readers who subscribe to, or at least tolerate, both a socio-technical view of IS, and a practice orientation.

The analysis of authentication presented in this paper builds on previous work that proposed a pragmatic metatheoretic position and model to support IS practice and research (Clarke 2021). This section provides a recapitulation of key aspects of that work. The model is referred to as 'metatheoretic' (Myers 2018, Cuellar 2020), on the basis that it draws on relevant areas of philosophy in which IS practitioners and theorists alike make 'metatheoretic assumptions', often implicitly, and sometimes consciously. Where the assumptions are both conscious and intentional, a more appropriate term for them is 'metatheoretic commitments'.

The model is also 'pragmatic', as that term is used in philosophy, that is to say it is concerned with understanding and action, rather than merely with describing and representing. The author's intention is instrumentalist, in this case not economically motivated but to achieve change in the worldviews of IS practitioners and researchers, and hence changes in behaviour and in the management of data. So the model needs to speak to IS practitioners, and to those IS academics who intend the results of their research to do the same. Figure 1 supports the textual explanations in the following sub-sections with a visual depiction of the key elements of the model.

Figure 1: A Pragmatic Metatheoretical Model

2.1 Ontology

Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of existence. The approach adopted here is that a reality exists, outside of and independently of the human mind, where Phenomena exist - a position commonly referred to as 'realism'. (All terms used in a defined way in the Pragmatic Metatheoretic Model are capitalised, and the definitions are included in the supporting Glossary). Humans cannot directly know or capture those Phenomena. They can, however, sense and measure those Phenomena, can create data reflecting them, and can construct models of them - an assumption related to the ontological assumption referred to as 'idealism'.

The pragmatic meta-model adopted in this paper, and depicted in Figure 1 accordingly distinguishes a Real World from an Abstract World. The Real World comprises Things and Events, which have Properties. These can be sensed by humans and artefacts with varying reliability. Authentication is a process whereby that reliability can be assessed.

2.2 Epistemology

Two contrasting conceptions of knowledge exist. The proposition of one epistemological position, 'empiricism', is that knowledge is a body of facts and principles derived from sensory experience and accumulated by humankind over time, that is capable of being stored in the equivalent of a warehouse (Becker & Niehaves 2007, p.202). The other, 'apriorist' view is that knowledge is internal and personal, and the concept is not applicable outside the mind of an individual human. Within this school of thought, knowledge is the matrix of impressions within which an individual situates newly acquired information.

In order to cater for the two extremes of empiricism and apriorism, the term 'Knowledge' is usefully avoided, except when qualified by one of two adjectives:

A pragmatic metatheoretic approach must support practice and research not only in contexts that are simple, stable and uncontroversial, but also where there is no expressible, singular, uncontested 'truth'. The assumption adopted here is that both the empiricist and apriorist epistemological views are applicable, but in different circumstances.

Humans create Abstract Worlds. Some are imaginary, variously tenable and simply fantasy. Those of primary relevance here are empirical, in the sense of being intended to model relevant aspects of the Real World. In Figure 1, Abstract Worlds are depicted as being modelled at two levels. The Conceptual Model level reflects the modeller's perception of the Things, the Events and their Properties, providing a general idea of the Phenomena. The notion of an Entity at the Conceptual Model level corresponds to a category of Things, and Transaction to a category of Events.

In the dialect used by ontologists, the term 'universal' corresponds to a category, and 'particular' refers to an instance. For example, in biology, the notion 'species' (e.g. African Elephant) is a universal, and the notion 'specimen' is a particular. An example that is more commonly relevant to IS is the category cargo-containers, which is a universal or Entity, whereas a specific cargo-container is a particular or Entity-Instance. (The ideas and terms used in this paper, and articulated further below, are similar to, but not necessarily identical with, related ideas and terms in the well-developed and diverse sub-discipline of conceptual modelling).

The abstract concept of Identity corresponds to a particular presentation of a Thing, as arises when it performs a particular role, that is to say, a pattern of behaviour adopted by an Entity. For example, the NIST (2006) definition of Authentication distinguishes a "device" (an Entity) from a "process" (an Identity). An Entity may adopt one Identity in respect of each Role, or may use the same Identity when performing multiple Roles. An Identity-Instance is a particular occurrence of an Identity. Within a corporation, over time, different human Entities adopt the Identity of CEO, whereas the Identity of Company Director is adopted by multiple human Entities at the same time, each of them being an Identity-Instance.

A Relationship is a linkage between two elements within the metatheoretic model, represented in Figure 1 using an arrow. Each element at the Conceptual Level has Attributes which contain Attribute-Values. For example, the Entity shipping-containers has Attributes such as colour, owner, type (with Attribute-Values such as refrigerated and half-height), and various kinds of status (e.g. dirty or clean; and empty or loaded). A Relationship has the Attribute of cardinality, reflecting how many of each of the elements it links can be involved, with the Attribute-Values that can be adopted typically being zero, one or many. Transactions give rise to changes in the Attribute-Values of (Id)Entities.

The other level, referred to here as the Data Model Level, enables the operationalisation of the relatively abstract ideas in the Conceptual Model level. This moves beyond a design framework to fit with data-modelling and data management techniques and tools, and to enable specific operations to be performed to support organised activity. Central to this level is the notion of Data. The term, used variously as a plural and as a generic noun, refers to a quantity, sign, character or symbol, or a collection of them, that is in a form accessible to a person and/or an artefact. A Data-Item is a storage-location in which a discrete Data-Item-Value can be represented. A value, in this context, is a somewhat generalised form of "a numerical measure of a physical quantity" (OED I 4). For example, Entity-Attributes of cargo-containers may be expressed at the Data Model level as Data-Items and Data-Item-Values of Colour = Orange, Owner = MSK (indicating Danish shipping-line Maersk), Type = Half-Height, Freight-Status = Empty. A collection of Data-Items all of which relate to a single (Id)Entity- or Transaction-Instance is referred to as a Record. A Data-Item or group of Data-Items that enables Record-Instances to be distinguished is referred to here as a Record-Key.

Real-World Data or Empirical Data is data that purports to represent some Property of a Real-World Phenomenon. That is contrasted with Synthetic Data, which is Data that bears no direct relationship to any real-world phenomenon, such as the output from a random-number generator, or data created as a means of testing the performance of software under varying conditions. A special case of Synthetic Data is data generated from Empirical Data by some perturbation or substitution process.

The term Information is used in many ways. Frequently, even in refereed sources, it is used without clarity as to its meaning, and often in a manner interchangeable with Data. The pragmatic model adopted in this paper uses the term Information specifically for a sub-set of Data: that Data that has value (Clarke 1992b, Weber 1997, p.59). Data has value in only very specific circumstances. Until it is in an appropriate context, Data is not Information, and once it ceases to be in such a context, Data ceases to be Information.

Assertions are putative expressions of knowledge about one of more elements of the metatheoretic model ("a positive statement; a declaration, averment" OED 5). The signifiers that make up Assertions may involve:

2.3 Axiology

Axiology is the branch of philosophy that deals with 'values', in the sense of "the relative worth, usefulness, or importance of a thing" (OED II 6a). The values dominant in many organisations are operational and financial. However, many contexts arise in which there is a pressing need to recognise broader economic interests, and values on other dimensions as well, particularly the social and the environmental.

At the outset of this paper, the position was declared that IS practice and research need to generally adopt a socio-technical system view. Organised activities depend on people, artefacts, and effective interactions among them. IS also affect people, including those participating in the system (conventionally called 'users') and some who are not participants in the system, but are affected by it (usefully referred to as 'usees' - (Berleur & Drumm 1991 p.388, Clarke 1992a, Fischer-Huebner & Lindskog 2001, Baumer 2015). Examples of usees include people with records in shared industry databases, such as those for police suspects, tenants and insurees; and the conversation-partners of people whose voice and/or electronic communications are subjected to surveillance. Because of the presence and significance of users and usees in IS, human values are prominent.

Several approaches exist to the question of how to determine what values to apply:

In respect of any particular IS, there are one or more system sponsors, and multiple stakeholder, all with differing value-sets (Freeman & Reed 1983). In simple contexts, the value-conflicts that arise may all be of an economic nature, particularly between the system-sponsor's operational and financial objectives and the financial interests of users. However, a range of factors can give rise to much greater complexity in the assessment of utility. Important examples are where:

This section has drawn on the pragmatic metatheory described in Clarke (2021) to identify aspects relevant to the generic notion of authentication.

3. Authentication in Theory

Authentication is a process applied to Assertions. This section proposes a working definition of this generic notion. It first outlines the elements evident in dictionary definitions. It then considers the concept within the context of the pragmatic metatheoretic model outlined in the previous section, and other sources of insight.

3.1 Definition

The richest dictionary source records a wide range of interpretations of the verb to authenticate, and of the object of the action or process of authentication (OED 1, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5, 6). The interpretations can be summarised as follows:

to { validate, approve, prove, confirm, establish as genuine/authentic, verify }

{ something/anything, a statement, an account, truth, existence, a reputed fact, a document, an artefact, an artwork, a user identity, a process identity }

IS practice and research has narrower scope than a dictionary needs to encompass. There are, however, considerable variations in the contexts that need to be addressed. This paper's aim is to establish a metatheoretic foundation for Authentication in IS practice and research. A fundamental assumption of this work, that a socio-technical view of IS is essential, has the corollary that it is untenable to assume that each, or any, assertion can be resolved by reference to a singular, accessible truth. It could be feasible to do so if the more extreme forms of positivism are adopted; but design science research, interpretivism and critical theory research are highly unlikely to be able to accommodate an uncompromising assumption of the existence of accessible truth. That leads to a preference to avoid language that implies truth, such as 'verification' or 'validation'. Instead, there is a need for fuzziness, or at least degrees of likelihood or reliability, quite possibly contingent on various factors. The following is accordingly proposed as an operational definition:

Authentication is a process that establishes a degree of confidence in the reliability of an Assertion.

3.2 Theoretical Contexts in which Assertions Can Be Made

A taxonomy of Assertion-types was proposed above, depending on the level of the pragmatic metatheoretic model of the elements involved in the assertion. Applying the pragmatic metatheoretic model, there are three contexts on which an assertion may be made.

(1) At the Real-World Level

Assertions are expressed in terms of Things that are postulated to exist, and Events that are postulated to occur, and that have impacts on the Properties of Things. Hence 'A delivery of Things called stock-items was received by a category of Things called customers' or 'There are no relevant Things (stock-items) in the Thing (a storage-bin) that is allocated to that particular category of stock-items'. This level is best conceived as an external point-of-reference, rather than as part, of an IS.

(2) At the Abstract, Informational Level

Some Assertions are expressed in terms of (Id)Entities and Transactions and their Attributes. For example, 'A Transaction has occurred evidencing the delivery of a particular stock-item, thereby affecting the stock-count Attribute of that Entity-Instance'. Other Assertions are expressed in terms of the Data Model level, such as 'A Transaction-Record gives rise to changes in (Id)Entity-Records'.

At this level, reasoning can be applied to Assertions in order to infer further Assertions. Classical logic, such as the propositional calculus, only supports conclusions of right or wrong / true or false. Many-valued and fuzzy logics, on the other hand, recognise that propositions can have degrees of truth (Gottwald 2001). For example, three-valued logics permit an intermediate value, such as undefined or not proven, and another form of logic may recognise both no information and conflicting information.

Some logics support qualitative data that makes nominal and imprecise distinctions between categories. Some other logics are appropriate to data on an ordinal scale (e.g. unborn, young, old, dead), and yet others require discrete quantitative values on an ordinal scale (such as the non-linear Richter scale for intensity of earthquakes), or on an interval scale (with equal distances between consecutive values, cf. Celsius for temperature). A ratio scale has the further requirements of a natural zero (cf. Kelvin for temperature, Stevens 1946). Powerful inferencing tools are applicable to data on ratio scales. In order to justify applying those tools, assumptions-of-convenience are sometimes made about the data, e.g. that ordinal Likert data is on an interval scale, or that a zero can be contrived at one end of a spectrum of interval or even ordinal data.

Assertions and inferences from them are of value to decision-making. On the other hand, the Authentication of Assertions in the Abstract World can provide only limited assistance in assuring reliability, because it implicitly assumes that the Assertions and inferences are representative of the Real World. No logics of any kind can do anything to test the relationship between Data and the Real World, or to enable assessment of the degree of confidence in the reliability of Assertions.

(3) Across the Real-World and Abstract Levels

In Figure 1, double-headed arrows represent Relationships, interactions or mappings between Real-World and Abstract World elements. Assertions can be made that straddle the two Worlds. For example, 'A physical stock-count of Things in a particular storage-bin identified a mis-match between that count and the relevant Data-Item-Value'. This presents supporting evidence for the reliability or otherwise of an assertion of stock-holding counts (and, by inference, stock-holding values).

The reliability of these kinds of assertions is critical to the effectiveness of an IS, because without that reliability the IS lacks connection with, and relevance to, the Real World.

4. Authentication in Practice

The previous section declared foundational theory about the Authentication of Assertions. This section further articulates those basic ideas, to enable its practical application.

4.1 Authentication Processes

Assertions at the Abstract, Informational Level can be subjected to evaluation. One form this can take is a check of compliance with the rules of logic, to detect whether a flaw exists in the chain of argument. Another is checks of the language used, to ensure that no misunderstandings have arisen from ambiguous language. More valuably, Assertions that straddle the Real World and the Abstract World can be authenticated. Data-Item-Values can be compared with available observations of the Real World, purpose-designed observation and measurement can be conducted, and checks can be devised to ensure that the observations are of sufficient quality.

4.2 Evidence to Support Authentication Strength

Authentication is defined in this paper as a process that establishes a degree of confidence in the reliability of an Assertion. What degree of confidence is desirable, and what degree is achieved, vary widely, depending on the circumstances. This sub-section considers the nature of Evidence by means of dictionary definitions and the perspectives of courts of law and law enforcement investigators.

The term Evidence is used here to mean Data that assists in determining the level of confidence in an Assertion's reliability. This is closely related to OED III, 6: "Grounds for belief; facts or observations adduced in support of a conclusion or statement; the available body of information indicating whether an opinion or proposition is true or valid". An individual item of Evidence is usefully referred to as an Authenticator. This broader use has yet to find its way into the OED, which indicates a strong form (a human guarantor) and recognises IT usage only in respect of the Authentication of users. A common form of Authenticator is a Document, by which is meant content of any form and expressed in any medium, often text but possibly tables, diagrams, images, video or sound. Content on paper, or its electronic equivalent, continues to be a primary form.

Some Authenticators carry the imprimatur of an authority, such as a registrar or notary. These are usefully referred to as a Credential ("any document used as a proof of identity or qualifications", OED B2). Common examples of Credentials for human Identities are Documents issued by an organisation that has (or, in many cases, is merely assumed to have) undertaken some form of Authentication prior to issuing it, such as a birth certificate, certificate of naturalisation, marriage certificate, passport, driver's licence (and, in some jurisdictions, non-driver's 'licence'), employer-issued building security card, credit card, club membership card, statutory declaration, affidavit, or letter of introduction.

The term Token refers to a recording medium on which useful data is stored. Tokens are usefully applied to the storage of machine-readable copies of (Id)Entifiers. Examples include identity cards (especially photo-id), turnaround documents, tickets issued to Natural Persons required to wait in a queue, machine-readable visual images (such as bar-codes or QR-codes) and machine-readable data-storage (such as a magnetic-stripe, solid-state memory, or transmission from an RFID-tag). Tokens may also contain Authenticators generally, and Credentials in particular, typically using smartcards and 'dongles' designed for use in conjunction with computing devices. Security features are necessary, in order to provide confidence in the validity of the Token and its contents, such as hidden graphic features to guard against forged Tokens, and cryptographic features to guard against manipulation of the content. If a particular Entity is intended to be a Token's exclusive user, measures may also be needed to reliably associate the Token with that Entity.

Where the subject of the Assertion is a passive natural object, animal or artefact, the Authentication process is limited to checking the elements of the Assertion against Evidence that is already held, or is acquired from, or accessed at, some other source that is considered to be both reliable and independent of any party that stands to gain from masquerade or misinformation. On the other hand, humans, organisations (through their human agents) and artefacts capable of action, can be active participants in the Authentication process, in particular in a 'challenge-response' sequence. This involves a request to the relevant party for an Authenticator, and an answer or action in response. Examples of Authenticators relevant to each of the important categories of Assertion are provided in the following section.

In legal proceedings, distinctions are drawn among testimony, documentary evidence, and physical evidence. The term probative means "having the quality or function of proving or demonstrating; affording proof or evidence; demonstrative, evidential" or "to make an assertion likelier ... to be correct" (OED 2a). In the law of evidence, "'probative value' is defined to mean the extent to which the evidence could rationally affect the assessment of the probability of the existence of a fact in issue" (ALRC 2010, 12.21). At law, a court is required to treat some kinds of Assertion as rebuttable presumptions, to be treated as being reliable unless and until case-specific evidence is presented that demonstrates otherwise. This makes clear on which party the onus of proof lies. In civil jurisdictions, the standard of proof is 'preponderance of the evidence' or 'preponderance of the probabilities', whereas in criminal jurisdictions the threshold of proof is generally 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.

The law also recognises that economic constraints apply to evidence-collection and authentication processes: "a decision is better if it is less likely to be erroneous, in light of the actual (but unknown) outcome of the decision that would be known if there were perfect information. The quality of the decision takes into account the magnitude of consumer harm from making the erroneous decision in addition to the probability of doing so. Decision theory similarly can be used to rationally decide how much information to gather. It does so by balancing the costs and benefits of additional imperfect information in terms of making better decisions" (Salop 2017, pp.12-13).

The legal perspective on evidentiary value in evaluating Assertions is conditioned by the context: The court's decision on the reliability of an Assertion is a binding determination. This is significantly different from the context of investigations by a law enforcement agency. An investigator seeks patterns or relationships in data, which at best will point firmly towards the resolution of a case, but which will desirably at least close off an unproductive line of enquiry and even lead the investigator towards more promising lines. A degree of protection against spurious results is desirable, but the disincentives have to do with resource efficiency rather than a wrong result in a civil process or a criminal trial. Linked with this looser form of evidentiary standard is the concept of confirmation bias, which describes the tendency to take notice of evidence that supports a hypothesis rather than that which conflicts with it, and the even more problematic tendency to actively look for evidence that will support rather than refute a currently favoured proposition (Nickerson 1998).

4.3 Authentication Quality Management

A range of risk factors impinge on the quality of Authentication processes. Of especial importance is the need to achieve an appropriate balance between the harm arising from false positives, which are Assertions that are wrongly accepted; and false negatives, which are Assertions that are wrongly rejected. Sources of poor quality include accidental mistakes, and intentional mistakes which generate intentionally false positives, e.g. masquerade or 'spoofing' or intentionally false negatives, e.g. avoidance, undermining or subversion of (Id)Entification. Where quality shortfalls occur, additional considerations come into play, including the following:

Quality is a substantially greater challenge where other parties are motivated to contrive false positives or false negatives. Safeguards are needed to limit the extent to which such parties may succeed in having Assertions wrongly accepted or wrongly rejected, in order to gain advantages for themselves or others. The level of assurance of an Authentication mechanism depends on the extent of safeguards against abuse, and hence on whether an Assertion can be effectively repudiated by the relevant actor. It is conventional to distinguish multiple quality-levels of Authentication, such as unauthenticated, weakly authenticated, moderately authenticated and strongly authenticated. Organisations generally adopt risk management approaches, which accept lower levels of assurance in return for processes that are less expensive, more practical, easier to implement and use, and less intrusive (Altinkemer & Wang 2011).

5. Categories of Assertion

The analysis to date has considered the generic concept of Authentication of a generic notion of Assertions. In practice, there are many kinds of Assertions, and a theory to support IS practice and research needs to be sufficiently articulated to encompass them and to reflect their differences. This section provides a preview, identifies key categories, and describes them in sufficient detail to enable the theory to be applied, and to demonstrate its effectiveness and usefulness, in a variety of contexts.

5.1 A Preview

The recitation of categories in the following sub-section is necessarily somewhat laborious. This preview uses the archetypal cartoon in Figure 2, which captured the mood at the dawn of the cyberspace era.

Figure 2: A Dog's (Id)Entities

Steiner P., The New Yorker, 5 July 1993

Several elements relevant to this paper can be discerned in the cartoon:

The cartoonist denies that the cartoon was intended to convey any deep insights. Despite that, it encapsulates the ideas that the Internet user has only a limited amount of information available, and needs to be cautious about assumptions they make. In particular situations, there are various things worth authenticating before reliance is placed on those assumptions. Examples include where confidences are uttered to the conversation-partner, credit card details are provided to them, a file is opened or a hyperlink clicked on, and information is replayed onwards, such as investment tips and rumours about celebrities.

Examples of Assertions that would benefit some kind of checking or confirmation include:

The following sub-sections provide less informal treatment of these ideas.

5.2 Fact Assertions

The fundamental category is an Assertion of fact. A common example is of the following form:

A Real World Thing is reliably represented by an Abstract World Entity-Instance-Attribute-Value or an Entity-Record-Data-Item-Value
'This customer qualifies for a discount'
'The number of Widgets Class A that we have in stock is 37, as recorded in the Current-Stock-Count Data-Item in the stock file'

The function of Authentication is to establish a degree of confidence in the reliability of an Assertion. An Assertion might be authenticated entirely at the Real-World level, e.g. 'This customer qualifies for a discount' might be regarded as legitimate simply because the customer's face is recognised by the employee at the checkout. Alternatively, it may be checked at the Abstract-World level, entirely within an IS, because the customer logs in online and their profile has the loyalty-program indicator set, enabling the Assertion to be authenticated automatically.

It was noted earlier that the most critical kinds of Assertions are those that map between Real-World and Abstract-World elements. An Assertion such as 'We have 37 of that item in stock' may be accepted at face-value (because the inventory IS is regarded as reliable), or (particularly if the stock-item in question is subject to pilfering or breakages) the bin-contents may be checked for at least rough equivalence with the number recorded in the stock-file. In the case of 'This customer qualifies for a discount', instead of Real-World recognition, or fully-automated checking, Data or a Credential might be sought, from the customer or elsewhere, to provide adequate assurance that the claim is justifiable.

All Assertions involve the provision of Data, and its quality is at issue when Assertions are evaluated. In relation to well-structured data, a framework for assessing quality is presented in Clarke (2016, pp.77-80). It draws on a range of sources, importantly Huh et al. (1990), Wang & Strong (1996), Mueller & Freytag (2003) and Piprani & Ernst (2008). Each of the first group of 7 data quality factors can be assessed at the time of data acquisition and subsequently, whereas those in the second group of 6 information quality factors can only be judged at the time of use.

Many fact Assertions are unstructured, comprising relatively vague textual data. For example, reference is occasionally made in the IS literature to "email authentication", which appears to involve, at least in part, a question of the reliability of message-content. Complex patterns arise, as evidenced by the prevalence of propaganda, misinformation, rumour-mongering, 'false news', 'alternative facts', 'fact checkers' and 'explainers'. Meanwhile, the scope for both varied interpretations and abuse of image, video and audio has exploded in the digital era.

Fact Assertions are not a primary focus of IS research. However, Georgea et al. (2021) consider "originator authenticity" in the context of unmasking fake news. The relevant aspect within their study is the process of mitigation by "resistors", who "identify deceit and disinformation" (p.1080). The authors provide no clues on what Authenticators to use to test the authenticity of either messagers or messages, but cite Duffy et al. (2020) and Torres et al. (2018). Ziolkowski et al. (2020) and Zhang et al. (2021) are concerned with the Authentication of documentary claims, by means of distributed mirroring using blockchains.

5.3 Content Integrity Assertions

In some circumstances, a material risk may exist that a message containing an Assertion has been garbled or subjected to interference. For example, word-of-mouth messages are subject to the 'Chinese whispers' phenomenon, whereby small changes in the wording arise at each step in the communication chain, resulting in a materially different interpretation of the Assertion from what the originator intended. Messages over wired and wireless telecommunications infrastructures also involve risk of accidental corruption and of content compromise resulting in falsification. Risks arise not only with the transmission of email and other message-forms, but also downloads of documents, images, video-files, transactions and software.

A common technique used for authentication is the computation of a hash of the message on despatch and on arrival, and a check that the hashes are the same (NIST 2015). A simplistic form of hash is a count of the number of characters in the message, and a less simplistic one is conversion of every character to a unique number, and summation of all of the numbers. A more complex, mechanism for content integrity authentication for software utilises encryption (Sander 2021). Similarly, a content integrity authentication scheme for transactions uses encryption coupled with multiple, independent storage locations (Dai & Vasarhelyi 2017).

5.4 Liquid-Asset Value Assertions

Commerce, whether electronic, mobile or entirely physical, depends on the reliable transfer of value to the seller, most commonly of money ("Any generally accepted medium of exchange which enables a society to trade goods without the need for barter", OED 1; "Means of payment considered as representing value or purchasing power", OED 2a). Hendershott et al. (2021) remark that "financial services are fundamentally about authenticating identity and value [and] ..." (p.1).

Examples of Value Authentication for liquid assets include:

5.5 Non-Liquid-Asset Value Assertions

Commerce depends on confidence by each transacting party in the value being transferred by the other. The previous section addressed Value Authentication where the value is being transferred in the form of money. That encompassed transactions in which money is traded for a non-monetary tradable item, and money traded for money, in particular currency-conversion transactions. This section addresses the remaining categories, viz. a non-monetary tradable item traded for money, and barter transactions. Examples of tradable items include consumer durables, livestock, artworks, motor vehicles and 'collectibles', but also invisibles such as shares, loan agreements, and insurance.

The Value Assertion is that the tradable item has economic value, or has Properties that underpin economic value. Examples of Authenticators applicable to Assertions relating to such tradable items include tickets for entry to entertainment venues (Huang et al. 2014), warranty cards for consumer durables, valuation reports in relation to real estate, inspectors' reports on livestock and breeding stock (Clarke & Jenkins 1993), and pedigree certificates for pets. Chua et al. (2007) focus on Assertion unreliability as a basis for fraud in Internet auction spaces. The authors identify Non-Liquid-Asset Value Authentication in the context of establishing "whether a stamp [that is being traded is] authentic or fake" (p.771). Trading in shares and other invisibles may be heavily dependent on the reputation of the other party, and the existence of effective regulatory protections and recourse.

In the case of valuable artworks, Authenticators may be sought that purport to document the work's origins, nature, provenance (in particular, chain of ownership), and current ownership. The extent to which such metadata generates confidence in reliability of an Assertion of the artwork's authenticity depends on the credibility of the Authenticator. Evidence that makes the Authenticator appear to be a Credential from a highly-reputed intermediary (such as letterhead, a physical signature, a company seal, or a digital signature) is likely to generate far more confidence than a verbal assurance or a poor-quality, uncertified photocopy. A mainstream example of strong evidence is an unbroken series of contracts relating to transfers between successive owners. Blockchain infrastructure is well-structured to model the common-law jurisdiction notion of an authoritative chain of ownership of, for example, real estate property (Karamitsos et al. 2018).

In a great deal of conventional commerce, Value Authentication is a primary means whereby trust is achieved, with little dependence on the (Id)Entity of the other party. In B2C / consumer eCommerce, on the other hand, an aberration has arisen: During the early decades of Internet-facilitated commerce, the primary, practical payment mechanism was through the transmission of credit card details, which carry an Identifier of the cardholder.

Payment mechanisms that do not have an Identifier associated with them have been conceived, designed, prototyped, implemented, and trialled, but have not yet been widely adopted. One reason for slow adoption of nymous value-transfer is the opposition of tax collection agencies, which rely on the ability to associate the arrival of funds that represent taxable income with the (Id)Entity that received them. There is scope for techniques that deliver pseudonymous value-transfer, with the protections against (Id)Entification readily surmountable by the relevant tax agency, but not by other organisations and individuals. Chaumian eCash operated in this manner during the period 1995-98 (Chaum 1985, 1992). More recently, digital currencies have been implemented that are contentious because they are more resistant to visibility to taxation agencies.

5.6 Property Assertions

The word 'property' is used here not in the sense of ownership, but rather in relation to a feature of a Real-World Thing. A Property Assertion is of the form:

A Real World Thing has a Property that is appropriately represented by an Entity-Instance-Attribute-Value and/or an Entity-Record-Data-Item-Value.

Job-applicants make Property Assertions in relation to their qualifications, experience and previous employment. Their claims of having a particular qualification can be tested against a testamur or by look-up of an educational institution's database. To guard against masquerade, the association between the person and the qualification-evidence may also need to be tested. An Assertion that a person is a tradesman (and hence qualifies for a trade discount at a retail outlet) may be authenticated by evidence of a trade qualification or a company letterhead.

If the Real-World Thing is a gem, its claimed weight in carats can be tested by independent measurement. Alternatively, some kind of Credential may be inspected, such as a jeweller's valuation. A party that accepts a Credential as being sufficient Evidence is referred to as a Relying Party. A Relying Party may have recourse against the issuer of the Credential, under consumer protection or contract law

5.7 Assertions Involving (Id)Entity

It was noted at the beginning of this paper that assertions that involve an Entity or Identity are the sole focus of almost all discussions of Authentication in both IS practice and research. These categories are complex to describe and to understand, and challenging to implement effectively. In the case of human Entities, they are also inevitably invasive of personal space. Because of those characteristics, it is highly advantageous to all concerned for Authentication activities to focus on other kinds of Assertions if they are capable of satisfying the need.

However, many circumstances exist in which Assertions involving (Id)Entity do require Authentication. The primary category is:

An Assertion that a particular Thing in the Real World is appropriately associated with a particular (Id)Entity-Instance at the Conceptual Level of an Abstract World, and/or with one or more particular (Id)Entity-Records at the Data Level

This is performed by demonstrating a reliable match between a Property of the Thing and an Attribute-Value of the (Id)Entity-Instance and/or a Data-Item-Value of an (Id)Entity-Record-Key. The complexities are such that this is the topic of two separate full-length papers on (Id)Entities and (Id)Entification (Clarke 2022) and their Authentication (Clarke 2023).

Other categories involving Id(Entity) include:

Many circumstances exist in which the Credential identifies the person. However, IS designs are feasible in which this is not necessary. Such designs generally involve a Credential that is reliably associated with the (Id)Entity presenting it. For example, a challenge for information can be sufficient to establish that a person qualifies for entry to secure premises, without even knowing their (Id)Entity, let alone authenticating it. A simple example of long standing is that a night-guard, rather than asking 'who goes there?', issues a challenge that requires a specific counter-sign or password (DA 1971).

Even where the process of Property Authentication involves the provision of an (Id)Entifier, there may be no need to record anything more than the fact that Authentication was performed. In this way, the Transaction-Record is not identified. One example of this is the inspection of so-called 'photo-id' and the birthdate displayed on it, without recording the (Id)Entifier displayed on the card. In general, it is technically feasible for IS to be designed to authenticate each party's eligibility to conduct a Transaction (e.g. is a member of an appropriate category, or has a particular Property) without disclosing the party's (Id)Entity. An argument for use of this technique in health contexts is in Randell (2007). An important example of a technique expressly designed for this purpose is U-Prove digital certificates, which authenticate an (Id)Entity's Attributes without disclosing any (Id)Entifiers (Brands 2000).

6. Implications and Conclusions

This paper has presented a generic theory of Authentication to support IS practice and practice-oriented research. It reflects a pragmatic metatheoretic model comprising assumptions about the Real World, and a two-layer view of the Abstract World. It defines Authentication as a process whereby a level of confidence is achieved in an Assertion. It provides a framework for the design of processes, with exemplars of its application, and articulates that framework by identifying and describing categories of Assertions that are relevant to IS design.

The generic theory of Authentication is relevant to IS practice, uses terms familiar to practitioners, is understandable by practitioners, and can provide guidance in design and refinement of business processes that perform Authentication. Among its important implications for practice is the focus on Assertions that are relevant to the need, whose reliability can provide the necessary assurance, and that can be the subject of practical, effective, efficient and inexpensive Authentication processes. It encompasses the Authentication of Assertions of (Id)Entity, but recognises the challenges, expense and intrusiveness inherent in that undertaking, and encourages IS designers to pause and consider whether other categories of Assertion are a more appropriate focus.

The theory has multiple implications for research. It outlines a large domain in which theory has been lacking. It identifies many sub-domains in which articulation of the theory is needed, which can contribute to more efficient and effective designs by IS practitioners. It invites the development of contingency theories that define the circumstances under which each of the various categories of assertion needs to be prioritised for consideration by designers. In doing so, it draws the attention of academics away from the humdrum 'normal science' of filling gaps in abstruse theories dealing in constructs that are meaningless to IS practitioners, managers and executives, and that contribute little or nothing to humankind.

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This paper builds on a long series of publications on the topic of authentication, including Clarke (1994, 2003, 2009).

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor associated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation in UNSW Law, and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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