I must admit to being very selfish at this year’s EIC. Instead of going to the sessions that would likely have been most useful to Quest, I went to those that spoke most strongly to my own curiosities. The first thing I did was explore how vendors, users, and analysts feel about standards. It seems like it’s a chicken and egg subject – still. Users wait for vendors to adopt standards. Vendors wait for users and analysts to put force behind them. And in the mean time, only obvious success (SAML) and obvious need (XACML) seem to get standards investment and attention. The most interesting moment of this leg of the journey was when @OASISopen‘s Dr. Laurent Liscia asked from the keynote stage how many people in the audience were vendors to “make sure we’re not talking to ourselves.” Apparently we weren’t, but it was an interesting glimpse into how the whole notion is perceived even by those most dedicated to that cause of standards.
I also went to an absolutely fascinating deep dive into EU privacy and data protection law, which was hosted by Dr. Jörg Hladjk of Hunton & Williams LLP. Perhaps the most interesting thing I walked away with was a new sense of how fragile these protections really are. I think people in the US tend to think about these laws as being very intimidating and forceful. But that likely comes from the vastly complicated contract, audit, and procedure (paperwork) that is needed to deal with the laws. However, two shocking things became clear over the course of the day. First, any reasonable legal basis can be used as a basis to get at the data. A person can sign away all the protection in a single stroke – as anyone who agreed to the terms to get an iPhone in the EU has done in some part. And, because the framework is so much more comprehensive, things like a EULA, which is routinely cast aside in US cases since it’s seen as so flimsy, is much more forceful in the EU since the user is deemed to be so much better informed and protected by the framework. Second, there are cases where protections in the US are stronger than in the EU. A good example is when it comes to breech notification, where a data steward is forced to notify you of some event that may have compromised your PII. It seems that between NSTIC, efforts at the state level (like California’s new proposed “social media” law), and other things in the works, the US may actually come out ahead of the game in a practical sense within the decade.
The last lesson was a pleasant surprise: nearly all identity minded people are closet philosophers. Anyone reading this is likely to know my undergraduate (and only) degree is in philosophy, and perhaps also that I still indulge that impulse heavily as often as I can. Dr. Emilio Mordini, CEO of the Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship (CSSC), gave a keynote on the nature of secrets that was a HUGE hit. Not to say everyone agreed with all his views. In fact, @NishantK and @ggebel both took shots at his ideas from the same keynote stage later. The idea that drew the most criticism was Dr. Mordini’s very unpopular conclusion that one shouldn’t worry about securing data, but rather tracking data. He feels it’s less important to worry about keeping a secret than keeping track of who knows the secret. All of this flows from his central thesis that all secrets are Pulcinella secrets – not really secrets but rather, like a secret in a small town, something everyone knows but no one says so long as the parties involved have the power to motivate everyone to not say it in the town square. Tim Cole goes into all the details of the Pulcinella story on his own blog. The truth of all of it is left as an exercise for the reader. But the thing that made me happy was the abstract conversations in the hallways and bars for the rest of the conference as everyone digested the deeply interesting issues that were raised and what they meant in our shared context of identity, access, privacy, and technology.
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.
I’m not sure why, but the theme for me at EIC10 was policy. It wasn’t that the sessions or discussions were intent on going there. If anything, it was quite the opposite. I sat in on one of the “pre-conference” sessions that was titled “Moving beyond the Perimeter: Identity & Access Management for a Networked World“. That was what set the tone. I went in expecting a lot of discussion about how organization could, should and have been able to overcome the tricky policy barriers to open themselves up and manage access. The reality was that we spent a lot of the time discussing how to get over the challenges of making IAM work inside the perimeter so they can start thinking about the outside. For those that had some established outside presence for identities accessing other resources or accessing their own (and it was only a few), they were set back on their heels by my questions about policy and challenges to explain the legal implications of those access points. Later on, in a session titled “It has been Quiet around Federation. Is this a good Sign or a bad one?“, asked what challenges were faced by your organization when trying to federate, I answered that we (Quest) had faced numerous legal challenges to getting federation done. Each time has been a meeting with lawyers and lawyers meeting with lawyers and so on. The shocked looks from the general audience didn’t quite drown out the few nodding heads that clearly knew exactly what I meant. It shouldn’t surprise me that technology outstrips policy and that technologists don’t see the policy lagging behind until it’s too late, but somehow it always does.
Of course, technology is still my preoccupation so I was equally into the technology of policy that seemed to pervade EIC10. XACML was everywhere. Or maybe it only seemed that way because I attended so many of Felix Gaehtgens‘s sessions. However, there were a few stark contrasts that struck me. First, there were no fewer than 5 vendors on the floor offering XACML based or compliant solutions for externalized authorization. Despite that, I didn’t see one keynote mention it, nor customer story talk about having that be built into their architecture. Even the big vendors, when directly questioned about it, immediately submersed it into an acronym soup of SAML, claims, and other federated related stuff. It seems like many are now using “federated” interchangeably with “externalized”, which is sensible on some level but seems to lose some of the important distinctions between the two (e.g. trust is explicit with federation and implicit with externalization). By far my favorite externalized authorization moment was in a panel titled “How to make your Software Security Architecture Future-Proof” when Felix asked Kim Cameron, who had just made his interstellar announcement, the following: “if the application has to have internal logic to handle claims, then the authorization has not been externalized, right?” Kim made no real answer. But I think Felix said what a lot of people were thinking. Claims are the bees knees, but WIF still embeds all the authorization logic right in the application itself.
This will be the last on the conference. It was a real blast and I got to meet some of the folks who have haunted my mind via twitter for a long time in person. Good stuff.
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.
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…
About the Identity Sander
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