Conflicting priorities on information security

EBSCO have just released a White Paper “from our partner, OpenAthens”, The Evolution of Authentication and the Importance of Information Security.

The focus is very much on the information security of EBSCO’s subscription content.  There is no mention of user privacy, despite the fact how individuals want their data to be used is often in conflict with how corporations want to use this information.

Rather like the Leave campaign’s messages that voting for Brexit would be all gains and no losses, ignoring the complexity of complex decisions creates blind spots and vulnerabilities in systems and societies.  I would like politicians and corporations to stop patronising us with simple, comforting, false solutions and engage bravely and intelligently with difficult decision-making.

Observe what happens if you click on “Download your copy for free today to continue reading”:

Please fill out the form to receive your free copy of The Evolution of Authentication and the Importance of Information Security. Fill out the form and immediately receive the white paper. The fields requested are: Name, Email, Organization Name, City, Phone. All fields except Phone are required.

je dis ça, je dis rien

See also: EBSCO EDS and Single-Sign On, and Consumer democracy? (reference to Adam Curtis’ film Bitter Lake, describing how politicians create oversimplified good vs evil stories rather than confronting the realities of a complex world).

EBSCO EDS and Single Sign-On

OpenAthens Single Sign-On (SSO) is a SAML-compliant Shibboleth-type authentication method used for University login to a wide range of electronic resources.

SSO works by mediating between an identity provider (e.g. a university, checking that the user’s account is current), and a service provider (e.g. a database, to which the user’s university has a current subscription).  Here’s a diagram of the data flow:

Authentication data flow. Image credit University of Florida.

Authentication data flow. Image credit University of Florida.

Critically, the identity provider and the service provider don’t communicate directly.  The user’s personal credentials are not transmitted to the service provider; just that their identity has been verified.

This means that when someone logs in to a database or journal platform, they are greeted by “Welcome, University of Sunderland user” or “You are logged in as University of Sunderland”, but the database or platform does not know anything further about their identity.

Why does this matter?  Service providers’ servers may be located anywhere in the world, often outside the EU.  The Data Protection Act 1998 controls how personal information is used by organisations, businesses or the government.  It requires that data controllers (organisations etc) handle personal data according to people’s data protection rights, and do not transfer it outside the European Economic Area without adequate protection.

Recently, EBSCO have started promoting the use of an enhanced version of SSO which means that a user will be authenticated into EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) and simultaneously logged in to their personal folders.  This will sound very appealing to many EDS customers, as currently the personal folders require the user to log in (again) with their EBSCOhost account (yet another userID and password to remember).  With the standard SSO setup, this would not be possible, so I started asking questions about what additional data exchange would be needed in order for the user to be individually identified.

Email from EBSCO:

Essentially the only requirement for setting up SSO is that your shibboleth releases a persistent unique ID. However we generally recommend releasing other attributes:

Which user data attributes must be included within the IdP-generated SAML assertion?

Only a unique user ID (e.g. employee ID, organization-specific email) is required to be sent in the SAML assertion. It is recommended that First Name, Last Name and Email also be sent to better support sharing and email from within the EBSCO user interface.

At the mention of persistent unique ID, I started to wonder about the data protection law implications.

I followed this up with a phone call, asking about compliance with data protection law.   It seems that this query hadn’t previously arisen in the UK, though it had in Scandinavia where they are more aware of the issues.  Safe Harbo(u)r was mentioned, but I pointed out that in 2015, the European Court of Justice declared invalid the Safe Harbor data-transfer agreement that had governed EU data flows across the Atlantic for some fifteen years.  I was directed to EBSCO’s White Paper about information security, but it didn’t mention anything about data protection.

In advance of last week’s EBSCO and OpenAthens webinar “Single Sign-On to a World of Knowledge“, I repeated my enquiry to OpenAthens and received the following:

All data that is given to OpenAthens is stored here in the UK. We provide the option of mapping attributes out to various publishers however this is controlled and decided by you. The default information that is sent to authenticate the user does not hold any data that identifies the user personally.

To me, “this is controlled and decided by you” sounds very much like ducking the question.

I appreciate that decisions on the release of personal data are ultimately the responsibility of the data controller, but I am concerned that neither EBSCO nor OpenAthens seem to acknowledge the legal and ethical difficulties that this presents to libraries having to make these decisions.  I believe that if they are advocating this enhanced use of SSO, they have a moral obligation to point out the data protection implications, even if they can’t advise libraries on these matters.

I would be grateful to hear from anyone who knows more about this – please leave me a comment.  Thanks for any wisdom you can offer!

Journey to Full Text Finder – arrival in the Celestial City

Following my presentation Journey to Full Text Finder: A Pilgrim’s Progress at the EDS conference in July, here’s an update on how I got on with the migration from the old EDS to the new Full Text Finder (FTF) version.  Thanks again to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) for the inspiration for the title of this post.

On the whole, everything went smoothly, and I would particularly like to thank Seoud, Abid, and Adam at EBSCO for their help throughout the process. I have written this summary to help other people know what to expect from the process, and in particular the cascade effects on data checking and linking for which it is essential to set time set aside.

Side by side

Our migration to EBSCO Discovery Service Full Text Finder began with a visit from Seoud.  He talked me through the steps, and we agreed the timings.  We also discussed running the old and new EDS alongside each other, to allow students completing their courses in July and August to continue using the old version, while having the new version available for testing and experimentation before the beginning of the new academic year in September.

I asked a colleague in IT to create a redirect URL for EDS FTF which I then used wherever required, and this saved time later in updating URLs individually.

Data migration and checking

Following the data migration, our Periodicals Librarian spent time checking that our subscriptions in EDS FTF matched the old system, focusing on a few known trouble spots e.g. where we have single title subscriptions rather than a whole package. In some cases, a journal which existed from e.g. 1997-present but for which we only have access from 2015-present had been enabled for the full run, and not the years to which we have access.  This was particularly frustrating for titles for which our subscription is administered through EBSCONET, as EBSCO clearly have correct information in their system about our entitlements, but it was not being migrated or applied accurately.  Although this happened only for a small number of titles, there did not appear to be any pattern to predict which would be affected, and so all had to be checked.

Admin interfaces

Our test EDS FTF was up and running in June.  The old EDS was controlled through two admin interfaces – EBSCOadmin to control EDS itself, and A-to-Z Admin to control journals and databases A-to-Z lists.  The areas of overlap (and not) of the two admin mechanisms were sometimes unclear to me. The new EDS FTF is administered via EBSCOadmin, and it is great to have just one admin interface to drive this system.  As we had old and new EDS running simultaneously for a period, any changes would have needed to have been made to each system separately.  I decided that from the launch of new EDS FTF, any changes would only be made to the new EDS, and this did not cause any problems.

ebscoadmin

Databases A-Z

The new EDS FTF has access to journal titles via the Publications link, but it has no Databases A-Z feature.  I have been told by EBSCO that they did not include this feature, because only librarians wanted it, not students (and also perhaps because there is less demand for it in EBSCO’s primary market, the USA).  However, there are some essential databases which are not indexed by EDS (such as Westlaw) and our users must have a route to access these.  EBSCO have an A-Z solution which can be added to your EDS FTF but you have to request it, and it is basic (just a list of links, like in the old days…).  It also has its own admin interface.

a-z

Linking

Permalinks created in the old EDS are different from permalinks in the new EDS FTF.  EBSCO have redirects in place, but “there is no timescale of how long these will be in place”.  It is therefore necessary to create new permalinks anywhere these are used, such as reading lists.  We also had links to journal titles using a linking template that worked with the old journals A-to-Z, and these had to be re-created based on the new “Publications” journal-finding tool in EDS FTF.  This was more urgent, as no redirects would be in place for the old journals A-to-Z.  This can add considerably to the workload of staff who maintain reading lists.

permalink

Google Scholar

If your library is set up for “Library links” to allow your users to use the library’s link resolver with Google Scholar, your settings will need to be updated to reflect the new resolver within EDS FTF.  EBSCO told me that this update would be included in the migration.  When I contacted EBSCO for confirmation, they confirmed that our resolver in Scholar had been updated to Full Text Finder, but that it could take 1-2 weeks for the changes to take effect, suggesting that my enquiry had prompted a change in the settings rather than this happening without my intervention.

scholar

Journey to Full Text Finder: A Pilgrim’s Progress

I gave this presentation at the recent EDS Conference in London.  EDS stands for EBSCO Discovery Service, a resource discovery interface which allows users to explore a whole library collection from a single search page, rather than multiple catalogues.

Image credits: all British Library public domain unless otherwise stated (images linked to source)

Journey to Full Text Finder: A Pilgrim's Progress (with apologies to John Bunyan)

A pilgrim with staff

I based my presentation on the idea of the migration from the old A-to-Z admin to the new FTF (Full Text Finder) admin as a pilgrim’s journey.

Here are three definitions of a pilgrimage (source: Oxford Dictionaries).   My experience of migrating to FTF has something in common with all three dimensions!

pilgrimage /ˈpɪlɡrɪmɪdʒ/ 1 A pilgrim’s journey; 1.1 A journey to a place of particular interest or significance; 1.2 (chiefly literary) Life viewed as a journey

Let’s consider the origin of the word “pilgrim”… It first appeared in Middle English from the Provençal pelegrin, from Latin peregrinus meaning ‘foreign’, from peregre ‘abroad’, from per– ‘through’ + ager ‘field’… Which brings us neatly back to a familiar aspect of EDS: field [codes].

Slide3

How to prepare for a pilgrimage? Here is St Luke with an ancient laptop 😉

St Luke

To prepare for your pilgrimage, begin with a period of study and reflection, and seek answers to the following questions:

  • What (place you’re aiming for) – destination
  • How (plan) – break down into stages
  • When (particular times) – milestones
  • Where [else] (repercussions) – knock-on effects of the change e.g. linking, user guides, library staff training and expectations, academic staff
  • Who (people) – corral your team: self, colleagues, EBSCO – and keep in touch with them
  • Why (purpose) – improvements to self/system (and because we have to…)

Remember ‘what’ and ‘why’ to guide you when other plans need to change.

Now we have a beautiful plan mapped out!

John Bunyan, The Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City (Wikimedia Commons)

What could possibly go wrong?  Unfortunately, the Slough of Despond is also on the map…

Slide8

Testing times – and again, preparation is key.

Slide9

Prepare – parley with your fellow pilgrims. Speak to people at this conference, at any networking opportunity, use the EDS Partners maillist. People are generally more generous at sharing rather than reporting.  Andrew Preater recently wrote about this in the context UX (user experience) work, suggesting reasons such as time, money, culture, competitive edge, external validity, fear of criticism or lack of confidence in the work.  I think all these are true in the discovery environment, and I learn much more from a face-to-face conversation than I could from searching for text-based information on the web.

Contingency – build in extra time, and then some more, and keep your real deadlines private (EBSCO are probably doing this too).

Murphy’s Law decrees that tasks won’t be finished early — especially when you need them to be. Some things will go wrong and take longer.  You just don’t know which ones…

Get involved – learn as much as you can, and watch everything that is going on in the migration project.

Let go – be clear about what you can’t control. Let EBSCO be responsible for their bit.

Have we now reached the Enchanted Ground?

Slide10

It’s the end of one journey, and the beginning of the next chapter, as the migration of data is complete and the phase of testing begins.

  • Checking… everything: databases (screenshot of comparing old/new EDS), authentication… and all this takes time
  • Updating guides
  • Updating staff
  • Update linking, and monitor integration with reading list software (which is itself being upgraded in August)
  • New single search box
  • …At same time as launch of new library website

But there are some positives:

  • At least we will only have 1 authentication system!  From 1st August, we are only using Single Sign-On (no more Classic Athens)
  • Good opportunity to review branding
  • Useful to have site visit from EBSCO

Effect on other areas of library work e.g. serials management, acquisitions decisions – no specific effect of FTF yet, but interoperability of subject content with discovery interface from same/similar vendor is becoming very important.

Alain bringing the Grail

Have we now found the Holy Grail of better search and discovery?  For me, “better” means a closer match between expectations and reality.

I normally present about projects I’ve worked on in the past, and the distance between the event and the present helps me to remember and comment on it calmly.  This time, the move to FTF is still in progress, and I am surrounded by the intense pressure on me to have everything working perfectly. I need to remind myself that I will do everything as well and as fast as I can, but I can’t be responsible for the things beyond my control.

I also find it helpful to remember the broader context around this Holy Grail of library discovery.  Even if the FTF migration all goes to plan, it’s not going to solve all our problems. I sometimes feel that librarians put too much faith in some mystical, expensive technology to transform our students into graduates, our academics into researchers, and our investment in content into KPIs and targets met. So I will leave you with some thoughts on this alchemy…

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller

Do we prefer a simple but wrong answer to one that is complex but right?

In the first boom of the book-printing industry in Venice in the 1500s, some thought that more books would bring more learning. But… most people were illiterate.

In the sphere of learning, academia, and information literacy, we believe that more teaching, greater volume of published works, and more complicated discovery technology will bring more learning, more satisfied users, better feedback. But… learning to read and think for yourself is difficult.

What is the limiting factor? Is it tools, or human skills?  If the core of a problem is “humans”, the solution won’t be found elsewhere.

When looking for solutions, we must be be sure to define an appropriate problem.

Black Books season 1, episode 1 “Cooking the Books” (Channel 4)

Thank you to EBSCO staff Seoud, Adam, and Abid, with whom I have been working closely on this project.

For the audience, please take a moment now to note 3 ideas you’ve had during the course of this talk, 3 people you’d like to meet, and 3 questions you’d like to ask – and let’s see if during the course of this conference, we can connect you with people who can help you on your pilgrimage.

Pilgrim’s Path, Holy Island of Lindisfarne (photo by me) – the end of St Cuthbert’s Way long-distance hiking route

Update: find out how I got on in Journey to Full Text Finder – arrival in the Celestial City