New York Times badly confused on identity management

Goodbye Passwords is that rare misstep form the otherwise consistently solid Digital Domain section in the Sunday NYT: confused, misinformed and way off base. Among the several muddled arguments, four of them stand out:

1. Equating OpenID to passwords.

“OpenID offers, at best, a little convenience, and ignores the security vulnerability inherent in the process of typing a password into someone else’s Web site.”

Minor factual error: actually the password is not being typed into a random website. It is supposed to be provided only to the website where the identity was originally created, not the website where it is being used. But the general difficulty of determining whether one indeed starting at the authentic site instead of a fraudulent replace– especially when the user has been sent there by the “someone else’s Web site” in question leads to the standard critique of OpenID as increasing phishing risks.

Major factual error: OpenID is a federation standard, not a new user authentication approach. It does not mandate passwords or any other scheme for verifying identity. Open ID 2.0 specification is loud and clear on this point:

“Methods of identifying authorized end users and obtaining approval to return an OpenID Authentication assertion are beyond the scope of this specification.”

That means the identity provider can choose to use good old-fashioned passwords, smart-cards, biometrics or experimental approaches such as reading tea-leaves to authenticate the user; OpenID is silent on this. In fact one of the more hyped extensions to the protocol, added at the urging of MSFT which has been desperately trying to promote CardSpace, is a way for signaling to websites that the user authenticated with credentials resistant to phishing— Infocards in the original vision that carved out this niche case, but also more generally strong authentication mechanisms such as PKI capable smart-cards.

2. Narrow definition of single sign-on:

OpenID promotes “Single Sign-On”: with it, logging on to one OpenID Web site with one password will grant entrance during that session to all Web sites that accept OpenID credentials.

In the most general sense, single sign-on refers to one identity being valid for accessing multiple systems. This is in contrast to the current state of affairs on the web: most websites have their own notions of user identities, requiring users to create a new account. Each account is valid at exactly one website and not recognized anywhere else. Single sign-on (“federation” using the fashionable term) is about merging these disconnected islands of identity such that the scope of an identity can extend beyond that one site.

Quick peek at the Wikipedia entry would have hinted that SSO is not tied to passwords. So it comes as surprise that a Microsoft architect is quoted as criticizing SSO. Cardspace is an instance of single sign-on: the vision calls for one identity held by the user’s machine to be usable for logging into any number of websites. Inside the enterprise, Active Directory is single sign-on because it allows the same credentials to be used for accessing everything from logging into a workstation with the three-finger salute to accessing email or HR systems.

3. Misconception that “information card” is a generic term-of-art as it relates to identity management. Information card, or infocard to use the original name for the technology before it was rebranded into CardSpace, is a particular proposal that defines specific formats and protocols for identity management. Writing about “the information cards” makes about as much sense as writing about “the Facebooks” and “the Googles.” Each is a specific incarnation of a general concept: a social networking site, a search engine and an identity management protocol.

4. No hint of the history of strong authentication or alternatives. A reader may walk away from this article with the impression no realistic alternatives to passwords existed until Cardspace magically burst on the scene. Basic fact checking would have unearthed some not entirely obscure facts: there is a concept of digital certificates dating back to the 1970s, leveraging the same brew of “hard to break cryptography” whose virtues are extolled in the article. Since late 1990s, digital certificates have been standardized by X509, a stable and widely implemented supported format. It would be a small jump from there to realize that the SSL protocol universally used for securing communications online has provisions for users to verify their identity with digital certificates and that many large organizations, including the United States Department of Defense have been depending on this capability for years.

This is not to say that there are not good points in the article. OpenID is a major distraction and duplication of effort precisely because it is a mediocre reinvention of the wheel, ignoring all the investments made towards deploying PKI on the web compliments of SSL and muddying the waters one more time just when there was a fighting chance that the industry might converge on a standard (SAML, far from perfect as it may be) as the underlying format for identity assertions. But it is a non-sequitur to argue that OpenID is doomed because of its dependence on passwords and inherent problems with single sign-on.


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