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.
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. 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.
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.
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 was recently at a nice little conference in NYC and one of the speakers was Adam Swidler of Google (Adam’s bio via the conference host’s site). Adam spoke about cloud services and covered the topic very broadly. one of the points he addressed, which was in tune with the topic of the day, was security. a comment he made about standards stuck with me. he said that we can’t hold the cloud to different standards than we would our own infrastructure. to set the standards for what we have today, he referenced well covered stats about loss of data via laptops and USB sticks, soft internal security and other well known risks in IT today. The point was then made that holding the cloud to a better standard than that was not fair.
i’m not sure i can agree. shouldn’t we expect that someone who is claiming that they can manage huge volumes of data in a multi tenant model is going to have better security than the statistically average IT shop? we should and do expect companies like banks and credit card providers to have better security for specifically these reasons. if Google and other cloud providers hope to have the business of banks and other high risk data carrying entities in aggregate, doesn’t that hold them up to a stronger standard? i found myself thinking this was a dodge. but maybe i’m wrong. what do you think?