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IAM Liaisons: Multiple Identities in the Days of Cloud & LARPing

I’m in the car listening to an NPR piece about LARPing while driving between meetings. Something they say catches my ear. It seems LARPers (is that even a word?) have an impulse to create immersive identities aside from their own because they want more degrees of freedom to experience the world. In case you’re in the dark about what LARPing is (like I was), it’s Live Action Role Playing – dressing up as characters and acting out stories in real world settings as opposed to scripted controlled settings. It’s clear how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applies here. You won’t find a lot of LARPing in war torn areas, or communities suffering from rampant poverty. But does a group of people having enough energy to spare in their identity establishment to want to spawn new identities to live with imply an Identity Hierarchy of Needs? Could it be that when you have enough security in the identity you need, you seek out ways to make the identity that you want more real than just going to the gym to get better abs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of my favorite conceptual frameworks.Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Diagram from Wikipedia Not only is it extremely powerful in its home context of psychology, not only is it useful in framing the psychological impacts of many things from other contexts (political, philosophical, economic), it’s also useful as a general skeleton for understanding other relationships. My marketing team recently applied it to Quest’s IAM portfolio. They framed our solutions as layers of technology that could get your house in order to achieve the far out goals of total governance and policy based access management, which they identified as Maslow’s highest order. But I’m thinking about this more in terms of pure, individual identity. Of course the technology tracks alongside that in many ways. The LARPing is what got me thinking, but the other parallels become immediately clear. How many people have multiple social networking accounts? A page for business tied to a Twitter account, a Facebook presence as a personal playground, and a LinkedIn page for a resume are standard fair for many folks in the high tech biz, and beyond. Again, it’s not likely that a blue collar factory worker would have all these identities to express themselves. Like Maslow’s original idea, there is a notion of needing the energy to spare and the right incentives to take the time. There is also an interesting socio-political dimension to this I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader.

The first question is clear: what would an identity hierarchy of needs look like? If one googles “hierarchy of needs” AND “Identity management”, there are a dizzying number of hits. So it’s not like this hasn’t been explored before. Some good ones come from Dave Shackleford who applies the hierarchy to security and R “Ray” Wang who applies it more widely to making choices about technology decisions. But these only treat IAM as an element of their whole. I want to apply it to identity by itself.

One thing I’ll borrow from Dave’s structure is the four categories he uses (from the bottom up): fundamental, important, enhancing, holistic. I won’t pretend I’m going to get this right at this point. I would love to get feedback on how to make this better. But I’ll take a stab at making this work. The assumptions here are that there is no identity without attributes. What does it mean to say “I am Jonathan” if it’s not to assert that this thing “I” has an attribute labeled “name” that is given the value “Jonathan”? And this is more than a technology thing. All notions of identity boil down to attributes and collections of attributes. The next layer deals with taking identities that are collections of attributes and giving them places in groupings. Call them roles, groups, social clubs, parishes, or whatever you like. Membership in collections help define us. The next two layers were harder to work out, at first. But then I realized it was about the turn inward. Much like Maslow’s higher level are where you work on your inner self, our identity hierarchy is about understanding and controlling our attributes and participation in collectives. First we need to realize what those are. Then we need to use this knowledge to gain the power to determine them.

Self determination is actually the perfect phrase to tie together all these thoughts. What was it about the LARPers that triggered all these thoughts? It was that they had decided to actively take control of their identities to the point of altering them, even bifurcating them. That may make it sound like I’m making them out to be the masters of the universe (and not just because some do dress up as He-Man characters). But just like some folks can live in a psychological state pretty high up on the Maslow hierarchy without putting in much effort to achieve the first few levels, the same can be true of folks in the identity hierarchy, I’d think. If you have your most important attributes defined for you by default, get assigned reasonable collectives to belong to, and even have a decent awareness of this without challenging it, then you may grow up to be the special kind of geek that likes to LARP. That pleasure derived from splitting your personality is likely something that’s largely implicit – you don’t need to understand it too deeply.

Who knew they were LARPing the whole time?

Of course, if this all feels too geeky to apply to regular folks, I can turn to what may be the oldest form of this identity splitting. The “liaisons” in the title came from a notion that maybe folks carrying out complicated affairs of the heart were trying to bifurcate their own identities in a bid to push self determination before there was any better outlet. No excuse for serial adultery, but it gives a new prism through which to view the characters in Dangerous Liaisons, perhaps. How many times in novels does the main motivation for these affairs come down to a desire for drama, romance, or a cure for bourgeois boredom? How many times on The People’s Court? The point is that just like people who have climbed to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy may not have done so using morally good means and may not use their perch to better the world, people who are experimenting in self determination to the point of maintaining multiple identities in their lives may not be doing it for the most upstanding of reasons, either.

And how does this all relate back to the technology of IAM? Maybe it doesn’t very concretely. I’d be OK with that. It may if you consider that there are many people out there trying to hand their users self determination through IAM self service without first having a grip on what attributes make up an identity. How can you expect them to determine their fate if they have no idea what their basic makeup is? We expect users to take the reigns of managing their access rights, certifying the rights of others, and performing complicated IAM tasks. But if they ask “Why is this person in this group?” we have no good answers. Then we’re surprised at the result. So maybe this applies very well. Finally, what does this have to do with the cloud? Clearly, cloud means more identities. Many times they are created by the business seeking agility and doing things with almost no touch by IT. If the cloud providers give them a better sense of identity than you do, then that’s where they will feel more able to determine their own fate.  Some may say “But that’s not fair. That cloud provider only needs to deal with a small bit of that person’s identity and so it’s easier for them!” Life is not fair. But if you establish a strong sense of what an identity is and how it belongs in collectives, gave users ways to understand that, and then enabled them to control it, you would be far ahead of any cloud provider. But it all starts with simply understanding how to ask the right questions.

I expect (and hope) to raise more questions with all of this than to answer them. This is all a very volatile bed of thoughts at the moment. I’m hoping others may have things to say to help me figure this all out. As always, I expect I’ll learn the most by talking to people about it.

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Apple’s iCloud IAM Challenges – Does Match Need ABAC?

September 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I swear this is not just a hit grab. I know that’s what I think every time I see someone write about Apple. But the other day I was clearing off files from the family computer where we store all the music and videos and such because the disk space is getting tight. I’ve been holding off upgrading or getting more storage thinking that iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, or even the rumored gDrive may save me the trouble. So the research began. Most of it focused on features that are tangent to IAM. But Apple’s proposed “iTunes Match” got me thinking about how they would work out the kinks from an access standpoint in many use cases. If you don’t feel like reading about it, the sketch of what it will be is you have iTunes run a “match” on all the music you have you did *not* get from Apple and it will then allow you to have access to the copies Apple already has of those tracks on their servers at their high quality bit rate via iCould instead of having to upload them.

What will iTunes Match use to track your access to tracks?

iTunes Match fiddled with by me.

All the string matching levels of h3ll this old perl hacker thought of immediately aside, it became clear that they were going to use the existence of the file in your library as a token to access a copy of the same song in theirs. Now, my intent is to use this as a backup as well as a convenience. So maybe I’m not their prime focus. But a number of access questions became clear to me. What happens if I lose the local copy of a matched song? If I had it at one time does that establish a token or set some attribute on their end that ensures I can get it again? Since they have likely got a higher quality copy, do I have to pay them a difference? I had to do that with all the older songs I got from iTunes for the MP3 DRM free versions, why not this? Of course, if the lost local copy means that I can no longer have access to the iCloud copy, then this cannot act as a backup. So that would kill it for me.

But these problems have bigger weight for Apple than users not choosing them for backup features. There is a legal elephant in the room. How can Apple be sure they are not getting the music industry to grant access to high quality, completely legit copies of tracks in exchange for the presence of tracks that were illegally downloaded? In an industry supported by people paying for software, I’m always shocked at how lonely I am when I say my entire music collection is legal – or, at least, as legal as it is to rip songs from CDs for about 40% of the bulk of it. It’s one thing for a cloud provider to say “here’s a disk, upload what you like. And over here in this legal clean room is a music player that could, if you want, play music that may be on your drive.” But Apple is drawing a direct connection between having a track and granting permissions to a completely different track. Then pile on a use case where some joker who has the worst collection of quadruple compressed tracks downloaded from Napster when he was 12 and pours coffee on his hard drive the day after iTunes Match gave him access to 256 Kbps version of all his favorite tunes.

If this were a corporate client I was talking to, I’d be talking about the right workflow and access certification to jump these hurdles. Can you picture the iTunes dialog box telling you that your music request is being approved? That would be very popular with end users…

Fake iTunes dialog box stating RIAA has been contacted

OBVIOUSLY Fake iTunes Dialog Box (please don't sue me)

Policy Translation – The Art of Access Control Transcends RBAC, ABAC, etc.

After some holidays, lots of internal meetings, and some insane travel schedules, things are settling back down this week just in time for me to head to TEC. So I can get back to spending time with Quest’s customers, partners, and having great discussions with people. In the last week, I had three excellent conversations, one with a panel of folks moderated by Martin Kuppinger from Kuppinger & Cole set up by ETM [link to podcast site], another with Don Jones and an audience of folks asking questions set up by redmondmag.com [link to webcast], and the third just today with Randy Franklin Smith [link to webinar site]. All these discussions revolved around managing identity (of course); they focused on the business’s view of IAM, wrapping proper security controls around Active Directory, and controlling privileged user access, respectively. Even though the subjects seemed quite far apart, a common question emerged: how do you translate the policy the business has in mind (or the auditor has in mind) into something actionable which can be enforced through a technical control? Put another way, the problem is how to take wishes expressed in business terms and make the come true with technology. To me, this is the central question in the IAM world. We have many ways to enforce controls, many ways to create compound rules, many ways to record and manage policies. But the jump from a policy to a rule is the tricky bit.

Let’s take an example and see what we can do with it. Everyone in the US and many around the world know SOX, and most that know it are familiar with section 404. There is a great wikipedia article about SOX section 404 if you want to brush up. Section 404 makes the statement that it is “the responsibility of management for establishing and maintaining an adequate internal control structure and procedures for financial reporting.” While this makes sense, it’s hardly actionable. And businesses in the US have relied on many layers of committees and associations to distill this. What is that process? It’s lawyers and similarly minded folks figuring out what executives can be charged for if they don’t do things correctly in the face of vague statements like the one above. So they come up with less and less vague statements until they have something they feel is actionable. Of course, what they feel is actionable and what some specific IT department sees as actionable may be quite different.

From the filtering at the high levels of the interbusiness activities you get a statement like “Understand the flow of transactions, including IT aspects, sufficient enough to identify points at which a misstatement could arise,” which comes from the work done by the SEC and POCAB to interpret SOX section 404. That approaches something IT can dig into, but it’s hardly actionable as is. But now a business can take that, bring it inside the organization, and have their executive management and IT work out what it means to them. Of course, there are scads of consultancies, vendors, and others who would love to assist there. Your results may vary when it comes to those folks, or your own folks, being able to make these statements more or less actionable. With this specific statement about the “flow” of data and not allowing “misstatement” to arise, there is general agreement that having IT staff with administrative powers that could, in theory, alter financial data is a risk that needs to have a control. And from that general agreement has risen an entire market for privileged access management products that allow you to restrict people who need administrative rights to do operational tasks in IT infrastructure from using those rights to somehow change data that would be used in any kind of financial reporting (or use that access to do any number of other things covered by other sections of SOX or other regulations like PCI, etc.).

What should be apparent is that things like RBAC, ABAC, and rules based approaches to access control are all simple and straightforward when compared to taking policy and making it actionable. Putting an RBAC system into place is taking action. But, as anyone who has been through an RBAC roll out will tell you, the hardest bit is figuring out the roles. And figuring out the roles is all about interpreting policies. So what is the answer for all those folks on these webcasts who wanted to know how to master this art? The short answer is like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. The medium length answer is to find a consultancy and a vendor that you trust and that have had the right amount of practice and make them do it for you. The long answer is to follow the path I took above trying to explain the question. You need to analyze the requirements, break them down, and keep doing that until you start getting statements that look slightly actionable. Of course, that takes a huge amount of resources, as evidenced by all the money that’s been spent on SOX alone in the US (that same wikipedia article quotes one study that says the cost may have been 1.7 trillion USD). And the final trick is to take your actions and breakdowns back to the top, your auditor or CISO or whomever started the chain, and validate them. That’s a step that gets skipped all too often. And then you see million dollar projects fail with one stroke of an auditor’s pen.

ghosts of the interscaler directory at #cat10; let’s do it!

There were a lot of points at Catalyst 2010 where Kim Cameron’s Interscaler, Federated Directory and Identity Schema came up in my mind, though went unmentioned by the speakers. I know I wasn’t alone, either. It was there like a ghost in every discussion. When Anil John spoke about Background Attribute Exchange (BAE), one of the first questions was about how to ensure schemas would be in sync. When Nishant Kaushik spoke about federated provisioning, again questions had everyone talking about how directories would be able to rely on attributes being “exchangeable” across domains. And when the folks from GM gave their talk the second or third question was about how they decided what attributes would be included in their avatar identities and which would not.

How does this move forward? I get dizzy when I look at all the standards bodies around identity. I’ve got a lot of energy to offer around this and don’t know where to push it. It’s not about a product or a vendor. I’d like to see this be an industry thing that everyone can benefit from.

SAML vs XACML for ABAC & AuthZ

March 9, 2010 2 comments

My esteemed fellow Quester Jackson Shaw just blogged about SAML being used for ABAC. I also heard a lot of talk about this at RSA last week in side conversations. I thought I may talk about it a bit; now Jackson’s given me the opportunity. It seems that using SAML to cure the ails of other less mature MLs is all the rage. I’ve also been watching Jeff Bohren‘s posts about SPML and SAML. In that case SPML is set against SAML + LDAP. I think it’s all related.

SAML is taking off. There are a lot of platforms and vendors supporting it, architects and developers are adopting it and it seems to have a mature set of features that are making all of them happy. But then you look to the next set of issues, provisioning (specifically just in time provisioning) and authorization, and you find much less satisfying results. So people have the old “if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” short circuit and start asking why not use the thing everyone likes, SAML, for those problems, too? The saml.xml.org site gives a clear explanation of how SAML can be applied to ABAC:

SAML is being applied in a number of different ways, one of which is Attribute-based authorization. The attribute-based authorization model has one web site communicating identity information about a subject to another web site in support of some transaction. However, the identity information may be some characteristic of the subject (such as a person’s role in a B2B scenario) rather than, or in addition to, information about when and how the person was authenticated.

Like every hammer brought to bear on a screw, it falls short a bit. If all you need to do is pass attributes into the application, then SAML will help for sure. But if you’re looking for a way express and store policy about the content of those attributes and what the resultant set of decisions should be based on the expression of those policies, then you’re out of luck. That, and more, is precisely what XACML is; as wikipedia nicely states: “XACML … is a declarative access control policy language implemented in XML and a processing model, describing how to interpret the policies.” To really solve the authorization problem, that’s what you need. And you especially need it if you want to solve the even larger issues around having common policy applied across many applications all sharing a common policy set, policy storage and management and policy delivery.

Of course, much of this may be semantics around the idea of ABAC. Ant Allen in his report “Adaptive Access Control Emerges” defines access control this way:

Access control traditionally combines two related, but distinct, functions:

  • Authentication – The real-time process of confirming a user’s claimed identity with a specified, or understood, level of confidence.
  • Authorization – The real-time process of deciding whether a user can interact with a particular resource in a particular way and enforcing that decision

Though I typically hear people discuss this as if authentication was one thing and access control is used as a synonym for authorization. If people use Ant’s definition, then SAML already handles all of the authentication part and can play in the authorization part as well by supplying attributes. But if access control is being used as a synonym for authorization, then SAML has less to offer since it only supplies the attributes and leaves the application to do the heavy lifting.

Under any definition of authorization, I think it’s safe to say that SAML will only be able to make a significant contribution after some heavy modification to include a lot of the XACML elements or through the emergence of some other cooperative standard that laps XACML and is very “SAML friendly”. Neither one of those is on any horizon I see. And any extension of SAML to be more XACMLish will only bring all the practical challenges that XACML adoption faces (application refactoring, policy definition, inter-application cooperation, etc.). And wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of using your nice hammer to make the handle 20 feet long and the head 50 pounds heavier?

RBAC and ABAC and Roles, oh my.

November 3, 2009 13 comments

So I missed the Kuppinger Cole webinar with Felix Gaehtgens on ABAC, but I read the materials and the Q&A was really good. What it got me thinking was that there may not be enough good stuff in the world explaining the basic differences between RBAC and ABAC and why one may be better than the other. So here’s my take on it.

First, let’s set up what RBAC is. RBAC stands for Role Based Access Control. The idea is that instead of granting individuals access to assets the access is granted to a role. Individuals are then associated with the role and thereby gain access to the assets. Like with so many things, there is a decent wikipedia article on RBAC, but it fails to capture some of the basic flaws I see. If you were to draw a picture of RBAC, it may look like this:

From left to right in the above diagram, you have the asset to which access is being granted. Then there is some form of a rule which is controlling access to that asset. If the asset were a file, then the permissions in the filesystem for that file would be the rule. Then you have the roles. The roles can have users associated in a number of ways. Attributes can determine the user being associated. Rules can also be used to determine role association. And a user can also simply be declared to have a role explicitly. Last you have the users and all their attributes. If the users were in AD, then the attributes would be all the attributes of the user object. In this RBAC model, the assumption is that controlling and maintaining access is easier since there doesn’t have to be a direct relationship maintained for every user. The roles act as an abstraction layer. When assets were all files and the rules that governed access to them were very simple, that made sense. Now assets are much more than files on disk, there is almost always a middle application tier involved, and the rules are very robust.

In this newer, application ruled world, there are many issues with RBAC. First, asset owners must be aware of role details in order to make their choices about what roles get access. To grant access to the wrong roles means granting access to the wrong user. So all the logic for the granting of the role must be understood by the asset owner and that means almost no advantage in terms of spreading out load for maintenance – everybody must understand everything. Second, there are now two layers of abstraction, rules and roles. This results in some very complex interactions which make it hard to get a grasp of just how access is being granted, and that is very bad come audit time. Third, access is now dependent on role maintenance. If there is a group maintaining the roles with a complex and locked down change control procedure and a nimble application group which needs a lot of changes, you end up with process timing mismatches that can cost real money. And last but far from least, new use cases for assets means new roles. Because the rules can only result in a pass or fail for roles, if there is a need to have a different access scenario there will be a need for a new role to match it. And that means role proliferation and more maintenance.

For those reasons and more, I believe ABAC is becoming more popular. ABAC is Attribute Based Access Control. It’s picture is much more simple:

Right away, it’s clear ABAC is cleaner. It eliminates the man in the middle and puts the users right in touch with the assets. The abstraction layer RBAC provides has become overhead in the face of the new ways the assets can govern themselves. The rules assets can use via their applications are more than enough to give flexibility to the asset owners. And since the users are likely to have a good set of attributes to draw on for evaluating their claim to access, there is no reason to add the other layer of roles to mitigate. The rules can simply evaluate attributes and be quite abstracted from the actual users. And since it’s much more likely that attribute stores are well maintained since they are linked to HR and other time and legally sensitive business drivers, there is much less likely to be issues with asset owners outpacing the maintenance of their source of access control information.

Of course, roles are not simply going away. The role of roles is changing. The new picture is really more like this:

The roles are not directly involved with access control rules – except perhaps that they may show up as an attribute of the user and be used in the rules evaluations. But the roles are very useful in the administration of massive sets of users. They are also very useful in the attestation, auditing and other security and identity processes around entitlement management. Maybe it’s time to think of RBEC, Role Based Entitlement Control. The idea being that entitlements, the security view of business rules for access, are governed and audited via roles. But we can keep the OLTP side of access control, the effective controls, in an ABAC form.

That’s a lot of typing. Hope someone finds it useful…

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