XAuth: First Take

XAuth has had me fascinated since it was announced yesterday.  If you haven’t heard of it yet, I think Dare Obasanjo’s summary is one of the better descriptions, although his site seems to be having issues this morning.

What is XAuth?  It appears to be one service, running on one domain, that will maintain the login state of every user at (ideally) every consumer Identity Provider in the world, in real time.  A service users have to opt out of.  The goal is discovery of authenticated providers.

There are interesting nuances here. As far as I can tell, for the large providers who are already a fixture on the standard NASCAR page, adopting Xauth means that their logo can only be shown on fewer pages than they are today. This means that Google, Microsoft Live and Yahoo! are essentially volunteering to delist themselves from NASCAR pages when the user is not registered or not logged in.  Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter, who are not at this time involved in XAuth, will be there on every single NASCAR page, holding their spot, nice and predictable, day in and day out.  If you travel to Zoho, for example, and you are logged out of both Facebook and GMail, you will only see Facebook’s logo.   And since xauth.org is by design a single point of failure, any service disruption that threatens revenue for the relying party is likely to result in an abrupt re-adoption of a static NASCAR page.  So – what is it that these providers gain from such a dance?

They get to remove the user from the equation.  Relying Parties and Identity Providers get to finally discover each other all by themselves, they can talk right over everybody’s heads without prompting users.  In one sense, I completely get this!  Business runs so much smoother when the decisions get made en masse.  Asking the user is time-consuming, difficult, and frequently unappreciated.  And eventually you just have to solve the problem and get stuff done.

XAuth, if it succeeds, will be the antithesis of user-centric identity.   It is what happens when companies with businesses to run finally realize that asking users is a thankless, hopeless task that can only get in the way. We all know it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission – for better or worse, XAuth is that principle, taken to its logical conclusion.

Privacy vs. Profiling

This raised the hairs on the back of my neck:

How Visa Predicts Divorce

Imagine the scenario. You’re in a bad relationship. You want out. Suddenly, magically, targeted ads start showing up all around you — ads for lawyers, counsellors, mid-life-crisis objects of desire. Your credit card company has sold your profile, and everyone is excited to be the first to offer you those services you need – before even you know you need it. Score one for the semantic web.

We’re bringing it on ourselves. We are inputting our lives into systems whose success depends on monetizing trends, and we are absolute in our own consistency as subjects — after all, that’s how you get those loyalty points right? But is there a line? Recognizing and monetizing a home move? An affair? A divorce? Political affiliation? Terminal illness?

Perhaps it’s time to say welcome to our new profiling overlords… or maybe we should just go out and buy both premium birdseed AND cheap motor oil at Canadian Tire. Ha. That’ll learn ’em.

My Friend Steven

A few years ago, I met Steven Bender at the Burton Group Catalyst Conference in San Francisco.   Steven’s company, iMagic Software, had a product that did keyboard biometrics, and I was immediately fascinated.  I thought that their product had a ton of potential that wasn’t being recognized – everyone was pigeon-holing it as strong authentication, when in fact it could be used silently to track password sharing, something that I thought had far more potential.   If you aren’t familiar with that product space, the idea is that in addition to your password, data is transmitted about the rhythm in which you typed your password.  Your rhythm becomes another factor that can be used to detect impostors.

If you’ve met Steven, you’ll understand when I say he was larger than life.  He was persistent as hell, and he loved to tell stories.  Sometimes it was challenging to get a word in edgewise :)  When Steven was convinced of something, nothing in the world could stand in his way.  I grew to really respect both his cheerful approach and his scrappy determination.

He called me about a month ago about a project he was working on — a very ambitious project to collect a massive amount of impostor data for his favorite password, frodolives.  iMagic had created a facebook application with the hope of having a wide range of people type the same password, so that research could be done on how to better keep impostors out.     The plan was to incent people to enter the password by having them enter to win an iMagic t-shirt.  I told him honestly that he’d have a much better turnout if he instead donated to charity — that way people would be much more likely to enter the password multiple times, and he wouldn’t have to worry about delivering t-shirts after the fact.   I’m happy to say he took my advice.

Sadly, Steven won’t get to see the results of his experiment, he passed away March 5th.  I had a chance to see him just days earlier and I missed him – I’ll regret that forever. It’s hard to really comprehend that he’s gone; it still feels like some day he’ll simply call.

The iMagic facebook app can be found at http://apps.facebook.com/trustable_passwords.  Consider typing ‘frodolives’ a few times into it, if you have the time.

Commercial Phishing

Twitter broke a very interesting story this week about a hacker who bulk-harvested account details by installing backdoors in a popular torrent hosting solution.  Users registered for a valid service, and received value in return, but all the while, their details were being stolen.

This would be a pretty boring phish, except for the part where users re-use passwords and account names ALL THE TIME.  The current trend is upsell — harvest a low-value throwaway password at an insecure site and then see what high value matches can be made with the same username and password.

Identity Theft via phishing used to be a consumer identity problem, but Cloud services and extranets have changed that.  There is now a new game in town:  commercial phishing.  If your enterprise users are uninformed enough to use their work email and a standard, muscle-memory-password at a site like a torrent site, attackers now have a growing list of possible commercial candidates for that account.  Of course there is always the chance that the worst case scenario will happen and an attacker will harvest your entire Enterprise Directory.   You may say, my company is obscure, what use would hacking my company be?   Well, if you use outlook web access,  and your AD password is phished, and your accountant uses his/her work email address for password recovery on your corporate banking site, there is a path for an attacker to get at your organization’s money from the internet.

I think it’s hysterical that a company will spend all sorts of money for education of their workforce around physical safety and nothing on account safety.  Why is there not a brightly colored data safety reminder on  every floor, something to idly inspect while you’re waiting for the elevator?  As much as you scoff at the idea, the very prosaic advice that this fire poster offers DOES help in muscle-memory situations.  The strategy of setting out simple rules and making them highly visible does work.

Not only does a sign like this not exist for account safety, I don’t even think that there is agreed-upon text to go on it.  No wonder we’re in the state we’re in.

Oracle Waveset

Acquisitions!  Can’t live with ’em, can’t wait until they stop holding up progress.   At least now we have new fodder for speculation.

What’s great about the Snoracle merger finalizing:  already I’ve seen more blogs from more people in “the know” who are reaching out than I can recall ever seeing from the Identity team at Oracle.   Nishant has always been the sole Oracle blogger in my acquaintance, but a few other voices are being heard – if you aren’t listening, you should be!  I am really excited about the idea that this merger could herald a cultural shift at Oracle towards more transparency.

The dust has settled on the initial announcements, and the big surprise is that OIM (previously Thor) has been chosen as the strategic provisioning product.  I can see all sorts of technical reasons why this might be the case – I imagine that the original Thor product had already been heavily retooled for integration into the fusion middleware suite.  Any other strategic considerations (size of existing customer base, ease of expansion, etc) really don’t have as much weight as those of us on the outside had been assigning for a simple reason:  the Waveset customer base is captive. There is no competitor right on the heels of either OIM or Waveset, no hungry beast to prey on dissatisfaction or fear around assimilation costs or adapter growth/expansion for Waveset.  As such, Oracle can play it cool by supporting Waveset long enough to appease nervous customers, cherrypick the functionality that is missing from OIM, and eventually find a migration path once the dust has settled.

So then, we have the following communities:  1) Existing OIM customers, who are relieved I’m sure. 2) Existing Waveset customers, who are probably unimpressed, but who will hopefully be well supported and given a migration path. 3) New customers, who are in the worst position, having had their choices narrowed. Will prospective customers keep asking for “Oracle Waveset” (the re-rebranded name of Sun Identity Manager)?  Or will memories fade fast?  There is a hole now – will another product fortuitously step in, for example Forefront Identity Manager 2009 2010?

I also wonder what kind of pressure SaaS will put on applications that traditionally are provisioning hard cases.  If you are an software vendor competing against SaaS services, and that SaaS service offers a provisioning API that allows for a 10-minute integration into an automated Enterprise infrastructure, wouldn’t you be worried? Will bricks & mortar software companies feel compelled to compete?   I hope and pray that this will be the case – and frankly I can’t figure out why on earth any software vendor would prefer to have a provisioning tool bypass its core logic and reach into the backend database to twiddle bits.

The access front is interesting, if not surprising.  Given that OpenSSO was opensourced, I don’t think anyone really felt it was likely to replace OAM, but in this case there is a migration path that sees customers stay with the pre-Oracle codebase and maintain the code themselves (I hear there are integrators out there already offering up a new neck to choke with respect to codebase management and support).  Oracle has said that there are a few things that they will adopt from OpenSSO, but I imagine that the opensourcyness of OpenSSO might be a barrier there, most engineers I know are loathe to mix license types in a product.

No matter what happens, at least it’s now able to happen openly.  As Green Day sings:  “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end“.  The world marches on, but I’ll always remember the long hours I spent in the Sparc 1 and Sparc 2 labs at university; on Sparc 5’s and 20’s at the beginning of my career; and the time spent on the ever-renamed directory that started at Netscape, went to iPlanet, then SunOne, then suffered from all sorts of horrible marketing mangling around “Java” and “Enterprise”.  The pre-marketing-mangled Sun brands will always make me smile; they were representative of a bright shiny world that I felt awed to be a part of.

Brace Yourself

I believe that what Apple releases next week will herald the end of broad adoption of general computing devices.   The introduction of their tablet will begin in earnest a trend towards tightly integrated, tightly controlled sealed-hardware computer devices that allow the majority of the population to accomplish the most popular computing tasks without doing anything more than visiting the app store.  Not as your “mobile” computing solution by the way — as your only computing solution.

Why wouldn’t the world move in this direction?  Why shouldn’t your computer be as easy to use as your smartphone? Why fiddle with drivers and desktops and operating systems if all you ever do is surf the web and send email to your grandchildren?  Even if you want more than the basics, why go through long and complicated application installs when you can just click a button?

This is the future, and those of us in industries like identity management had better stop and pause right now, because per-application passwords have no place in the world of the app store.  They are difficult to type on a touchscreen, and inconvenient in exactly the way that the new push-button paradigm seeks to overcome.   This could be the best thing — or the worst thing to happen to those of us working on protocols which replace password storage.

There is no doubt that passwords *will* be hidden from the user from now on.  In the same way that nobody types a telephone number into their phone anymore (they just use Contacts),  nobody will type a username or a password.  Heck, they won’t even type the URL of the service.  Details will be hidden, the pain taken away.  We have a small window in time to affect the way in which that happens, before users forget what it was like to have to figure out which user name went with which password and which site.

Don’t believe me?  If you have an iPhone, you should try PageOnce‘s Personal Assistant app.  I reviewed PageOnce ages ago:  it aggregates accounts of all kinds, giving a consolidated dashboard and allowing you to login without typing your password.  I panned the service: not only do you have to give your passwords away, but you have to go out of your way to pageonce for that very first account login – why do that when you can go directly to the website and log in?   On a general purpose computing device, the service has no use to me.  On the iPhone however?   Pure solid gold.  Clicking that little “Personal Assistant” icon is always easier than typing in a URL for the original website.  Not only do I never have to remember credentials, I am essentially given a menu of my accounts, and I’m one click away from transacting.

But, you say – it’s just mobile.   What really matters is the desktop.  I say you’re wrong.   I say that the ubiquity of the smartphone is coming to a desktop near you, courtesy of Apple Computers Inc.  I say that we had better *start* our strategy thinking about what happens when a user has an expectation that authentication should be no more complicated than making a phone call on a smartphone.

If we don’t make it that easy, somebody else will do it.  Of that you can rest assured.

OpenID Bound

I’m really happy to report that today I join the board of directors of the OpenID Foundation, representing Ping Identity.  This is a big decision for us! It reflects not only our strategic conclusion that OpenID is a critical part of the ecosystem that will evolve in this new decade, but also our tactical roadmap, driven by our customers and their use cases.

From a personal perspective, I am excited to be able to more closely work with all the smart folks that I’ve been rubbing shoulders with for years and years at IIW, and to literally have time allocated in my week to focus both on OpenID technology and community tasks.  I believe 2010 will see renewal and acceleration in both consumer identity and enterprise identity: having a small part in that growth will be fascinating.

Check out the Ping Identity Press Release here.

“Kick Me” for Cloud

Patrick just posted to the Ping CTO blog some of our combined thoughts about what a  terrible idea it is to synchronize Enterprise passwords to the cloud:  Grounding Enterprise Passwords.Kick Me, Please

The ctotalk blog post is much more detailed so make sure to read it, but let me sum up in somewhat stronger terms:  Giving away the shared secret that (for better or worse) is often the key to your internal windows domain and to anything linked into that domain is a really stupid idea.   It is the IT equivalent of putting a “Kick Me” sign on your organization’s back.   It means that no matter how stringent your own security regime is, you are only as secure as the weakest of the partners you synchronize to. Most partners are loyal and upstanding, employ good people and protect your passwords better than you do, but even then,  if/when you get hacked,  who are you going to point fingers at?

I believe Enterprises should be educating their employees NEVER to set or use an Enterprise password outside of the Enterprise.  I also believe that a cloud service is nuts to actually accept passwords synchronized from their customers.  Of course it goes without saying that the better choice is to eliminate external passwords altogether, but if you can’t do that, at least try to keep users from typing the same set of credentials into every web form that comes their way, while protecting your partners from even the implication that they might sell your password list.

New Gig!

I am so tardy in writing this, tsk tsk…

I am now officially a Senior Technical Architect at Ping Identity.   All of you who know the Ping folks know that this will be an exhilarating ride.  I work for Patrick Harding in the Office of the CTO, and I can honestly say that this is one crazy learning curve!

Ping Identity

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ping Identity, they do Internet Identity Security – SSO and token transformation using SAML, WS-Trust, WS-Federation, and whatever else is necessary to get the job done.  They also do federated provisioning, which of course is one of my passions. It’s a fun time to join; the current interest (dare I say mania?) around cloud computing is starting to resolve into common-sense questions around potential risk to the Enterprise caused by mis-management of cloud resources – and at least in my mind, I see these questions changing the adoption patterns for technologies like SAML from a early adopters and massive organizations to everyone’s organizations.  I’m also very excited to see what the addition of consumer identity protocols like OpenID and oAuth will do to adoption patterns.

From the employment front, it has been fascinating to have insight into the inner workings of a product company – I have always been on the customer side before this, and the change in perception is fascinating.  I think it must change some of what I write here – but change is good, I think.   The biggest challenge will be finding the time to write —  keeping up with these Ping folks is hard work, they are aggressive and agile, and they are focused, holy cow are they focused.  Er, we are focused.  I am we!  Woohoo!!!

Ok.  Gotta run.  Life at Ping is a sprint, and I’m loving the adrenaline high :)