Cherry-picking identity providers in the open eco-system

Recap from a story developing last week:

  • MSFT announced that it was accepting OpenIDs for the new HealthVault service, a cloud-based solution for managing health records. But not just any OpenID: only accounts issued by Trustbearer and Verisign are accepted. Both companies have two-factor authentication with portable hardware tokens.
  • The blog ConnectID objected to the restriction, claiming that it violates the spirit of “open” in OpenID. Why is the user not free to choose any identity he/she prefers to use?
  • MSFT’s identity architect fired back, joined by another blogger, both arguing that cherry-picking identity providers is fair game.

Underlying this exchange is a misunderstanding: agreement on protocols is necessary but not sufficient for identity federation. Accepting an identity issued by another company is a risk management decision– or under a broader perspective, it is a business decision. The mere fact that the aspiring ID provider has successfully implemented some protocol, is compliant with this other standard or runs the most popular software package for authentication is not enough.

Authentication is a security-critical function. Getting it wrong leaves any resource protected by that system vulnerable. And if something does break, it will always be the service provider’s problem downstream, even they are provably not at fault. Suppose that HealthVault accepted identities from Keys-Are-Us, a hypothetical incompetent OpenID provider operating out of a basement. This is an external dependency; when Keys-Are-Us makes an assertion about the identity of the user, HealthVault will accept that assertion on face value and provide access to controlled resources such as health records. This is essentially betting on the ability of this shady outfit to properly run an identity management system. If Keys-Are-Us experiences a security breach, and the health records accessed by unauthorized persons as a result, MSFT is still on the hook. Yes, in principle it was not their fault: Keys-Are-Us made the error. But try getting that message across to the media and blogosphere pouncing on the incident as another indication of everything that is wrong with the Internet. More importantly, by agreeing to accept identities from Keys-Are-Us, HealthVault is implicated in the risk management decision.

Case in point, HealthVault accepts Windows Live ID, the identity management service operated by MSFT. (Full disclosure: this blogger worked on WLID security in a former life.) Because both of these organizations roll up to the same corporate entity, HealthVault designers have visibility into and more importantly, influence over the risks of accepting these identities. Similarly the Verisign and Trustbearer systems are known quantities, and their reliance on hardware tokens makes it possible to gauge the security assurance level in a way that is not possible for random OpenID provider.


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