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.
No one knows how to make a big proclamation in the identity world like Kim Cameron. His keynote at #eic10, the Kuppinger Cole European Identity Conference for 2010, was no disappointment. Kim reviewed his ideas for the “Federated Interscaler Directory”, which was often misquoted as saying “Interstellar”. The basic idea was to “extend” the current ubiquitous Active Directory platform to hold a more flexible framework for relationship expression, policy enforcement and other elements that directories of today are missing. While adding all that, this new directory platform should also scale, in the sense that it could administer millions of identities, as well as support advanced features like federation, token translation and other things that are clearly becoming part of next gen identity.
On it’s surface, that all sounds nice. But it also sounds dangerous to me. One other theme at #eic10 throughout many talks, and something Kim even said during his, was that we shouldn’t want identity systems to be monolithic (he said so in reference to the ability to federate with other IdP’s outside the directory itself). But the system Kim described and the picture he used to illustrate it looked pretty monolithic to me. A lot of what he described is possible today already with a loose federation of platforms from many vendors and open source projects. You can enforce all the policy you need with a XACML authorization engine and properly tooled interfaces and proxies for applications and providers. You can manipulate schemas and the objects they serve up as needed with virtual directories. If Microsoft were to make AD into one big solution for all that, then the biggest differentiator would be having its monolithic status versus the loose coupling of many other components. I tend to be a fan of loose couplings, but I’ll keep the jury out until I see more from Kim.
One thing that I really liked was Kim’s call for everyone to work together on a common identity schema. It’s not the first time he’s done so. At PDC he made a great presentation that described the same idea in much greater detail [link to the PPTX Powerpoint file from PDC]. A project of this kind, if well done, could solve many, many interoperability and operational challenges in the identity world. So much time is spent now negotiating, either in research or in calls at run time, to figure out what attributes and properties of an identity are available. If there were a completely standard schema and a means to publish it easily, then that goes away.
I’ll have more thoughts from the conference later. For now I’m going to put on my space suit and leave the Microsoft ship and hope Kim hasn’t locked the bay doors when I get back.
…with tag team partners STS for SAML and the VDS (Virtual Directory Server) for LDAP?
So I’ve taken Jackson‘s advice and have been reading Microsoft’s “Guide to Claims-Based Identity and Access Control”. While most of it has been things I’ve heard before, the formulation of the ideas the way Microsoft wants to present them to their favorite audience, developers, is very interesting.
The thing that caught my eye and inspired a whole lot of conversation, lightbulbs for me and this post was a quote very early on:
“ADFS has a rule engine that makes it easy to extract LDAP attributes from the user’s record in Active Directory and its cousin, Lightweight Directory Services. ADFS also allows you to add rules that include arbitrary SQL statements so that you can extract user data out of your own custom SQL database. You can extend ADFS to add other stores. This is useful because, in many companies, a user’s identity is often fragmented. ADFS hides this fragmentation. Your claims-based applications won’t break if you decide to move data around between stores.” (from page 6)
Described like this, the STS sounds a heck of a lot like a VDS. So I asked many of the Quest big brains what they thought of the quote and what the quote made me think. I was quickly told that this was silly since the models for an STS and VDS are so different. Some of their points were:
- STS is a push model where users show up at the applications with claims ready and VDS is a pull model where the application needs to go get the information
- The VDS approach is about applications using data from multiple sources without modifying the application while the ADFS + WIF approach is about teaching the application to consume claims natively by modifying it
- The STS and SAML approaches wraps the claims, the identity data, into the authentication operation while the VDS approach simply exposes a service for the application to use through the applications operations.
Somewhere in the midst of this discussion, a big gear clicked into place. I saw something I bet many, many have seen before – but it was new to me. Microsoft and Oracle were really going head to head in identity for applications. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that Microsoft and Oracle would compete. But that does seem to be what’s happening. You see, the VDS had always been in this spot on my mental whiteboard between the applications and the multiple sources of identity data as an abstraction layer. The STS was somewhere on that mental whiteboard, but it wasn’t there. Now I’d been clearly shown that it could be moved in front of the VDS, or even be moved to replace the VDS. Of course, much depends on the use cases. The STS can’t really do everything the VDS does and vice versa. But I think it’s fair to say that Oracle is betting on people like me who see with an application architect’s eye and try to make the current generation of revenue generating applications do their work better and faster. Microsoft is betting on it’s excellent developer community and credibility to propel the next generation of all applications into a claims based, STS dependent world.
That battle would seem to pit SAML and LDAP against each other, each with one of the largest tech giants in it’s corner. In reality, I doubt it will be anything so dramatic. But before this conversation, I didn’t even see the potential for that battle. It’s amazing how many latent hostilities to some approaches seem clear to me now. I don’t even think some of the people who were hostile realized why. But there are deep mechanisms at work in the respective communities involved that are forming opinions that will likely solidify into “Linux vs Windows Server” style opinion wars soon enough. Here I thought all this good will about interoperability in identity could last forever. Silly me.