I’m gearing up to go to the NSTIC convened steering group meeting in Chicago next week. Naturally, my inner nerd has me reviewing the founding documents, re-reading the NSTIC docs, and combing through the by laws that have been proposed (all fo which can be found here). I am also recalling all the conversations where NSTIC has come up. One trend emerges. Many people say they think the NSTIC identity provider responsibilities are too much risk for anyone to take on. With identity breaches so common now that only targets with star power make the news, there does seem to be some logic to that. If your firm was in the business of supplying government approved identities and you got hacked then you are in even hotter water, right?
The more it rolls around in my head, the more I think the answer is: not really. Let’s think about the types of organization that would get into this line of work. One that is often cited is a mobile phone provider. Another is a website with many members. One thing these two classes of organization – and most others I hear mentioned – have in common is that they are already taking on the risk of managing and owning identities for people. They already have the burden of the consequences in the case of a breach. Would having the government seal of approval make that any less or more risky? It’s hard to say at this stage, but I’m guessing not. It could lessen the impact in one sense because some of the “blame” would rub off on the certifying entity. “Yes, we got hacked – but we were totally up to the obviously flawed standard!” If people are using those credentials in many more places since NSTIC’s ID Ecosystem ushers in this era of interoperability (cue acoustic guitar playing kumbaya), then you could say the responsibility does increase because each breach is more damage. But the flipside of that is there will be more people watching, and part of what this should do is put in place better mechanisms for users to respond to that sort of thing. I hope this will not rely on users having to see some news about the breach and change a password as we see today.
This reminds me of conversations I have with clients and prospects about single sign on in the enterprise. An analogy, in the form of a question, a co-worker came up with is a good conversation piece: would you rather have a house with many poorly locked doors or one really strongly locked door? I like it because it does capture the spirit of the issues. Getting in one of the poorly locked doors may actually get you access to one of the more secure areas of the house behind one of the better locked doors because once you’re through one you may be able to more easily move around from the inside of the house. Some argue that with many doors there’s more work for the attacker. But the problem is that also means it’s more work for the user. They may end up just leaving all the doors unlocked rather than having to carry around that heavy keychain with all those keys and remember which is which. If they had only one door, they may even be willing to carry around two keys for that one door. And the user understands better that they are risking everything by not locking that one door versus having to train them that one of the ten doors they have to deal with is more important than the others. All of this is meant to say: having lots of passwords is really just a form of security through obscurity, and the one who you end up forcing to deal with that obscurity is the user. And we’ve seen how well they choose to deal with it. So it seems to me that less is more in this case. Less doors will mean more security. Mostly because the users will be more likely to participate.
There was an excellent article at Dark Reading the other day about data leaks focusing on insider threats. It did all the right things by pointing out “insiders have access to critical company information, and there are dozens of ways for them to steal it” and “these attacks can have significant impact” even though “insider threats represent only a fraction of all attacks–just 4%, according to Verizon’s 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report.” The article goes on to discuss how you can use gateways, DLP for at rest and in flight data, behavioral anomaly detection, and a few other technologies in a “layered approach using security controls at the network, host, and human levels.” I agree with every word.
Yet, there is one aspect of the controls that somehow escapes mention – letting a potentially powerful ally in this fight off the hook from any action. There is not one mention of proactive controls inside the applications and platforms that can be placed there by IAM. A great deal of insider access is inappropriate. Either it’s been accrued over time or granted as part of a lazy “make them look like that other person” approach to managing entitlements. And app-dev teams build their own version of security into each and every little application they pump out. They repeat mistakes, build silos, and fail to consume common data or correctly reflect corporate policies. If these problems with entitlement management and policy enforcement could be fixed at the application level, the threats any insider could pose would be proactively reduced by cutting off access to data they might try to steal in the first place. It’s even possible to design a system where the behavioral anomaly detection systems could be consulted before even handing data over to a user when some thresholds are breached during a transaction – in essence, catching the potential thief red handed.
Why do they get let off the hook? Because it’s easier to build walls, post guards, and gather intelligence than it is to climb right inside of the applications and business processes to fix the root causes. It’s easier to move the levers you have direct control over in IT rather than sit with the business and have the value conversation to make them change things in the business. It’s cheaper now to do the perimeter changes, regardless of the payoff – or costs – later. Again, this is not to indict the content of the article. It was absolutely correct about how people can and very likely will choose to address these threats. But I think every knows there are other ways that don’t get discussed as much because they are harder. In his XKCD comic entitled “The General Problem,” Randall Munroe says it best: “I find that when someone’s taking time to do something right in the present, they’re a perfectionist with no ability to prioritize, whereas when someone took time to do something right in the past, they’re a master artisan of great foresight.” I think what we need right now are some master artisans who are willing to take the heat today for better security tomorrow.
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.
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…
I’m always in catch up mode with my reading. I finally got to Ian Glazer’s “Access Certification and Entitlement Management” on a plane to California. If you are in the market for access certification, trying to understand how to construct and approach to managing entitlements or just want to understand the moving parts of access in any reasonably complex organization, then this is a must read. What got me thinking most was the tone of the paper. Essentially it boils down to the good advice to make sure you define boundaries for tasks well and get the people from the business who should own the information to become the owners by the end of the process. Ian also encourages you to use whatever resources you can, even if they make strange bedfellows. It reminded me very much (and I’m going to mix analyst firms here so forgive me) of Earl Perkin’s thoughts about making the auditor your friend and making sure you “care, but not too much”, which he communicated at the Gartner IAM Summit last week (and blogged about previously as well).
All this got me thinking about the actual content of such IT to business communication regarding access certification. And, since I was trapped on a 6+ hour flight with a power outlet but no internet, I came up with this small, tongue in cheek video. I know the terms will feel like nails on a chalkboard to some since they are not exact. But I really tried to exercise that “it’s more important that they get the right ideas and not the exact right terminology” notion as best I could.