Six new authentication methods for Identityblog

Back in March 2006, when Information Cards were unknown and untested, it became obvious that the best way for me to understand the issues would be to put Information Cards onto Identityblog. 

I wrote the code in PHP, and a few people started trying out Information Cards.  Since I was being killed by spam at the time, I decided to try an experiment:  make it mandatory to use an Information Card to leave a comment.  It was worth a try.  More people might check out InfoCards.  And presto, my spam problems would go away.

So on March 18th 2006 I posted More hardy pioneers try out InfoCard, showing the first few people to give it all a whirl.

At first I thought my draconian “InfoCard-Only” approach would get a lot of peoples’ hackles up and only last a few weeks.  But over time more and more people seemed to be subscribing – probably because Identityblog was one of the few sites that actually used InfoCards in production.  And I never had spam again.

How many people joined using InfoCards?  Today I looked at my user list (see the screenshot below with PII fuzzed out).  The answer: 2958 people successfully subscribed and passed email verification.  There were then over 23,000 successful audited logins.  Not very many for a commercial site, but not bad for a technical blog.

Of course, as we all know, the powers at the large commercial sites have preferred the  ”NASCAR” approach of presenting a bunch of different buttons that redirect the user to, uh, something-or-other-that-can-be-phished, ahem, in spite of the privacy and security problems.  This part of the conversation will go on for some time, since these problems will become progressively more widespread as NASCAR gains popularity and the criminally inclined tune in to its potential as a gold mine… But that discussion is for another day. 

Meanwhile, I want to get my hands dirty and understand all the implications of the NASCAR-style approach.  So recently I subscribed to a nifty janrain service that offers a whole array of login methods.  I then integrated their stuff into Identityblog.  I promise, Scout's Honor, not to do man-in-the-middle-attacks or scrape your credentials, even though I probably could if I were so inclined.

From now on, when you need to authenticate at Identityblog, you will see a NASCAR-style login symbol.  See, for example, the LOG IN option at the top of this page. 

If you are not logged in and you want to leave a comment you will see :
 

Click on the string of icons and you get something like this:

 

Because many people continue to use my site to try out Information Cards, I've supplemented the janrain widget experience with the Pamelaware Information Card Option (it was pretty easy to make them coexist, and it leaves me with at least one unphishable alternative).  This will also benefit people who don't like the idea of linking their identifiers all over the web.  I expect it will help researchers and students too.

One warning:  Janrain's otherwise polished implementation doesn't work properly with Internet Explorer – it leaves a spurious “Cross Domain Receiver Page” lurking on your desktop.  [Update - this was apparently my problem: see here]  Once I figure out how to contact them (not evident), I'll ask janrain if and when they're going to fix this.  Anyway, the system works - just a bit messy because you have to manually close the stranded empty page.  The problem doesn't appear in Firefox. 

It has already been a riot looking into the new technology and working through the implications.  I'll talk about this as we go forward.

 

The Clay Feet of Giants?

Over at Craig Burton, the marketing guru who put Netware on the map and later formed the Burton Group with Jamie Lewis lets loose with a passionate fury that couldn't care less about who has deployed what:

It’s been a week since Microsoft announced that it was never going to release the next version of CardSpace. The laughable part of the announcement is the title “Beyond Windows CardSpace” which would leave you to believe that Microsoft has somehow come up with a better architecture.

In fact Microsoft announced its discontinued development of CardSpace with absolutely no alternative.

Just further evidence of just how irrelevant Microsoft has become.

The news that Microsoft had abandoned CardSpace development is not news to those of us who watch this space, Microsoft hasn’t done Jack with CardSpace for over two years.

It’s just that for some reason Microsoft PR decided to announce the matter. Probably so the U-Prove group could get more press.

Well, that's a bit harsh. Identity selectors like CardSpace only make sense in the context of the other components of the Identity Metasystem - and Microsoft has done a lot over the last two years to deliver those components to customers who are doing successful deployments on a massive scale all over the world.  I don't think that's irrelevant, Craig.

Beyond that, I think Craig should look more closely at what the U-Prove agent actually does (I'll help by putting up a video). As I said here, the U-Prove agent doesn't do what CardSpace did. And the problems CardSpace addressed DO remain tremendously important.  But while more tightly scoped, for the crucial scenario of sensitive claims that are privacy protected the U-Prove agent does go beyond CardSpace.  Further, protecting privacy within the Identity Metasystem will turn out, historically, to be absolutely relevant.  So let's not hit on U-Prove.

Instead, let's tune in to Craig's ”Little History” of the Identity Metasystem:

In early 2006, Kim Cameron rolled out the Laws of Identity in his blog. Over next few months as he rolled out each law, the impact of this powerful vision culminating in the release of the CardSpace architecture and Microsoft’s licensing policy rocked the identity community.

Two years earlier Microsoft was handed its head when it tried to shove the Passport identity initiative down our throats.

Kim Cameron turned around and proposed and delivered an Identity Metasystem—based on CardSpace—that has no peer. Thus the Identity Metasystem is the industry initiative to create open selector-based digital identity framework. CardSpace is Microsoft’s instantiation of that Metasystem. The Pamela Project, XMLDAP, Higgins Project, the Bandit Project, and openinfocard are all instantiations in various stages of single and multiple vendor versions of the Identity Metasystem.

Let me clear. The Identity Metasystem has no peer.

Anything less than a open identity selector system for claims-based digital identity is simply a step backwards from the Identity Metasystem.

Thus SAML, OpenID, OAuth, Facebook Connect and so on are useful, but are giant steps back in time and design when compared to the Identity Metasystem.

I agree that the Identity Metasystem is as important as Craig describes it, and that to reach its potential it MUST have user agents. I further agree that the identity selector is the key component for making the system user centric. But I also think adoption is, ah, essential… We need to work out a kink or two or three. This is a hard problem and what we've done so far hasn't worked.

Be this as it may, back at Craig's site he marches on in rare form, dissecting Vendor Speak as he goes.  Mustering more than a few thrusts and parries (I have elided the juicier ones), he concludes:

This means there is an opening for someone or some group with a bit of vision and leadership to take up the task…

But mark my words, we WILL have a selector-based identity layer for the Internet in the future. All Internet devices will have a selector or a selector proxy for digital identity purposes.

I'm glad to finally see this reference to actual adoption, and now am just waiting for more discussion about how we could actually evolve our proposals to get this to happen.

 

A “change in user behavior”

Farhang Kassaei is lead architect for platform and systems at eBay Inc and blogs at Software For All Seasons.  He makes a great point about one key factor that blocked CardSpace deployment:

Having worked on a authentication concept with MSFT for eBay sellers, I had mixed feelings about this [Microsoft's decision not to ship CardSpace 2.0 - Kim]. On one hand I was on the record not supporting the use of CardSpace for eBay sellers (or buyer). On the other hand I am concerned that technical community discounts the significance of Claim Based identity altogether and concludes that “FaceBook Conncet” is all we'll ever need.

There is a good reflection (from an insider's point of view) on Card Space here. (courtesy Gunnar Peterson)   My personal view (and the reason I didn't support the adoption of Card Space at eBay) though centers around the challenges of “Change of Behavior” required by Card Space.

Basically, CardSpace failed b/c it requied uses to change their behavior. See, the “User name and password” protocol (a simple challenge and response) IS a protocol, one where a human being (a normal user) is a participant in. It has taken about 20-30 years (depending on how you count) to train users what to do when they see a “login panel” , the “login panel” contract is so widely understood that despite all of its short coming is the most viable remote authentication protocol we have today. It is flawed, it is costly, it is not secure, but it is a widely understood by users on the other end of the protocol. CardSpace, despite all its advantages, was not understood, would (and did) make people confused, they did not know what to do when the CardSpace screen popped up … a technology whose adoption depends on change of a strongly learned behavior is unlikely to succeed (or at least I didn't think eBay sellers – not the early adopters of technology – would learn and accept it).

It also didn't help that a lot of browsers didn't support it (installing a plug-in does not count), and the fact that developers didn't know how to issue cards (or validate, update or revoke them).

Having said that, I did like the idea of decentralized identity provider and not having any one identity provider to be THE identity provider that everyone else had to rely on (putting user in control of their own identity). Compare this with a world where one identity provider (be it facebook or Google or twitter or anyone else) is the dominant identity provider because it is easy for RPs to embed a simple button  and for users to click on it.

Reading Farhang's post, here's what I find most interesting.  It was never that users decided they didn't want ”a change of behavior” around passwords.  Instead it was web properties like eBay (and a thousand others) who came to this conclusion.  Many of the people designing those properties worried that providing users the option of changing their behavior was too dangerous – especially since it was not essential… 

In the history of computing there have actually been plenty of cases where users DID change their behavior – even though at first only a few people could understand or use the new alternatives.  But those “early adopters” were able to try the new inventions on their own.  They didn't need anyone else to approve something or decide they would like it first.  Once convinced, they could show the new ideas to others.

When Visicalc appeared, I don't know how many people in IT would have bet that every accountant in the world would soon be throwing out his pencils and starting to use spreadsheets for things no one can even now believe are possible!  The same is true for a thousand other applications people came to love. 

But because authentication doesn't stand on its own, users never got the chance to start using Information Cards “just because they felt like it”.  They needed web sites to make the same bet they did by implementing Information Card support as an option.  

Web sites didn't want to bet.  They wanted to keep to “the matter at hand” and prevent their users from getting lost or distracted.  The result: a preemptive chill settled over the technology, and we never really got to see what users would make of it.

My conclusion:  regardless of what new features they support, user centric identity solutions need to be built so they work with as many existing web sites as possible.  They can't require buy-in from the all the big web sites in order to be useful. 

I think we should have included a way for Information Cards to support password-based sites.  It was possible.  I personally avoided it because I was worried it would be unreliable and not work at all sites.

Yet a lot of password managers do this, and Dick Hardt's SXIP system combined this approach with support for new protocols.  I think that aspect of his work was probably right.

 

From CardSpace to Verified Claims

Last week Microsoft announced the availability of Version 2 of the U-Prove Technology Preview.

What’s new about it?

The most important thing is that it offers a new, web-oriented user experience carefully tailored to helping people control the release of “verified claims” while protecting their privacy.  By verified claims I mean things that are said about them as flesh-and-blood people by entities that can speak, at least in certain contexts, with authority. By protecting privacy I mean keeping information released to the minimum necessary, and ensuring that the authority making the claims – for example a government – is not able to track and profile the way your information is used.

The system takes a number of the good ideas from CardSpace but is also informed by what CardSpace didn’t do well. It doesn’t require the installation of new components on your computer. It works on all the major browsers and phones. It roams between devices. Sites don't have to worry about users “getting a card” before the system will work. And it allows claims providers and relying parties to shape and brand their users’ experiences while still providing a consistent interface for claims approval.

In other words, it represents a big step forward for protecting privacy using high value credentials to release claims.

A focused approach

When it comes to verified claims, the “U-Prove Agent” goes beyond CardSpace.  One way it does this is by being highly focused and integrated into a specific type of identity experience. I’ll be posting a video soon that will help you get a concrete sense of why this works.

That focus represents a change from what we tried to do with CardSpace.   One of the key goals of CardSpace was to provide a “generalized solution” – an alternative to the “patchwork quilt” of what I called “identity kludges” that characterize peoples’ experience of identity on the Internet.

In fact I still believe as much as ever that a “generalized solution” would be nice to have. I would even go so far as to say that a generalized solution is inevitable – at some point in time.

But the current chaos is so vast – and peoples’ thinking about it so fractured – that the only prudent practical approach is to carve the problem into smaller pieces. If we can make progress in some of the pieces we can tie that progress together. The U-Prove Agent for exchange of verified claims is a good example of this, making it possible to offer services that would otherwise be impossible because of privacy problems.

What about CardSpace?

Because of its focus, the U-Prove agent isn’t capable of doing everything that CardSpace attempted to do using Information Cards.

It doesn’t address the problem of helping users manage ALL their identities while keeping them separate. It doesn’t address the user problems of password fatigue, phishing and pervasive “secret questions” when logging into consumer web sites.  It doesn’t solve the famous “home realm discovery problem” when using federation. And perhaps most frustrating when it comes to using devices like phones, it doesn’t give the user a simple way to pick their identities from a set of visual representations (icons or cards).

These issues are all more pressing today than they were in 2006 when CardSpace was first proposed. Yet one thing is clear: in five years of intensive work and great cross-industry collaboration with other innovators working on Apple and Linux computers and phones, we weren’t able to get Information Cards onto the radar of the big web properties users depend on.

Those properties had other priorities. My friend Mike Jones put it well at Self-Issued:

“In my extensive experience talking with potential adopters, while many/most thought that CardSpace was a good idea, because they didn’t see it solving a top-5 pain point that they were facing at that moment or providing immediate compelling value, they never actually allocated resources to do the adoption at their site.”

Regardless of why this was the case, it explains why last week Microsoft also announced that it will not be shipping CardSpace 2.0.

In my personal view, we all certainly need to keep working on the problems Information Cards address, and many of the concepts and technologies used in Information Cards should be retained and evolved. I think the U-Prove team has done a good job at that, and provides an example of how we can move forward to solve specific problems. Now the question is how to do so with the other aspects of user-centric identity.

Over the next while I’m going to do a series of posts that explore some of these issues further – drawing some lessons from what we’ve learned over the last few years.  Most of all, it is important to remember what great progress we’ve made as an industry around the Identity Metasystem, federation technology, and claims-based computing. The CardSpace identity selector dealt with the hardest and most forward-looking problems of the Metasystem:  the privacy, security and usability problems that will emerge as federated identity becomes a key component of the Internet.  It also challenged industry with an approach that was truly user centric.

It's no surprise that it is hardest to get consensus on forward-looking technologies!  But meanwhile,  the very success of the Identity Metasystem as a whole will cause all the issues we’ve been working on with Information Cards to return larger than life.

 

National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace

Friday saw what I think is a historic post by Howard Schmidt on The Whitehouse Blog:

“Today, I am pleased to announce the latest step in moving our Nation forward in securing our cyberspace with the release of the draft National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC).  This first draft of NSTIC was developed in collaboration with key government agencies, business leaders and privacy advocates. What has emerged is a blueprint to reduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities and improve online privacy protections through the use of trusted digital identities. ”

I say the current draft is historic because of the grasp of identity issues it achieves

At the core of the document is a recognition that we need a solution supporting privacy-enhancing technologies and built by harnessing a user-centric Identity Ecosystem offering citizens and private enterprise plenty of choice.  

Finally we have before us a proposal that can move society forward in  protecting individual privacy and simultaneously create a secure and trustworthy infrastructure with enough protections to be resistant to insider attacks.  

Further, the work appears to have support from multiple government agencies – the Department of Homeland Security was a key partner in its creation. 

Here are the guiding principles (beginning page 8):

  • Identity solutions will be secure and resilient
  • Identity solutions will be interoperable
  • Identity solutions will be privacy enhancing and voluntary for the public
  • Identity solutions will be cost-effective and easy to use

Let's start with the final “s” on the word “solutions” – a major achievement.  The authors understand society needs a spectrum of approaches suitable for different use cases but fitting within a common interoperable framework – what I and others have called an identity metasystem. 

The report embraces the need for anonymous access as well as that for strong identification.  It stands firmly in favor of minimal disclosure.  The authors call out the requirement that solutions be privacy enhancing and voluntary for the public, rather than attempting to ram something bureaucratic down peoples’ throats.  And they are fully cognisant of the practicality and usability requirements for the initiative to be successful.  A few years ago I would not have believed this kind of progress would be possible.

Nor is the report just a theoretical treatment devoid of concrete proposals.  The section on “Commitment to Action” includes:

  • Designate a federal agency to lead the public/private sector efforts to advance the vision
  • Develop a shared, comprehensive public/private sector implementation plan
  • Accelerate the expansion of government services, pilots and policies that align with the identity ecosystem
  • Work to implement enhanced privacy protections
  • Coordinate the development and refinement of risk management and interoperability standards
  • Address liability concerns of service providers and individuals
  • Perform outreach and awareness across all stakeholders
  • Continue collaborating in international efforts
  • Identify other means to drive adoption

Readers should dive into the report – it is in a draft stage and “Public ideas and recommendations to further refine this Strategy are encouraged.“  

A number of people and organizations in the identity world have participated in getting this right, working closely with policy thinkers and those leading this initiative in government.  I don't hesitate to say that congratulations are due all round for getting this effort off to such a good start.

We can expect suggestions to be made strengthening various aspects of the report – mainly in terms of making it more internally consistent.  

For example, the report contains good vignettes about minimal disclosure and the use of claims to gain access to resources.  Yet it also retains the traditional notion that authentication is dependent on identification.  What is meant by identification?  Many will assume it means “unique identification” in the old-fashioned sense of associating someone with an identifier.  That doesn't jive with the notion of minimal disclosure present throughout the report.  Why? For many purposes association with an identifier is over-identification or unhelpful, and a simple proof of some set of claims would suffice to control access.  

But these refinements can be made fairly easily.  The real challenge will be to actually live up to the guiding principles as we move from high level statements to a widely deployed system – making it truly secure, resilient and privacy enhancing.  These are guiding principles we can use to measure our success and help select between alternatives.

 

My Twitterank is 101.54

In case you need mind-stretching with regard to credulity, try out this piece from Sprout Marketing:

Madness erupted on Twitter last night, as the latest cool “app,” Twitterank, was suddenly accused of being a simple password swiping scheme. Over the past 48 hours, thousands of people were Tweeting the same message:

my Twitterank is 101.54!

Each one of those thousands of users freely gave out their username and password to the site. In exchange, the site uses some complicated algorithm (or not, maybe it's entirely random) and out pops a rating.

Then around 3 p.m. or so, Mountain Time, PANIC broke out.

This is how e-riots start...

Within minutes, similar messages were everywhere. This is the online equivalent of an angry, confused mob [FOLLOW the incredible link - Kim] . ZDnet jumped in, along with dozens of other legitimate news sources.

News is breaking out this morning that it really isn't a scam at all. Regardless, I think there are a couple lessons here.

1. Twitter people need to be a lot more careful about their passwords. A lot of them use the same passwords across multiple sites. If the Twitterank person wanted, he could be posting to your blog while ordering expensive popcorn with your credit card.

2. How trustworthy is your brand? Do people have confidence in coming to your site that if they share personal information, it'll be protected? It took eBay and Amazon years to get to this point; they were the pioneers. There are tons of sites that do e-commerce now, thanks to Amazon.

Then you look at the Twitterank site; does it instill confidence? Kind of reminds me of an old Yahoo! Geocities page. Sure, he did it late one night for kicks, and he SAYS he won't take your password…

Apparently this was good enough for tons of people. But I bet they're rethinking that today.

The average person has no way of evaluating the extent to which their passwords are in danger, especially when presented with two related sites that perform redirection or ask for entry of passwords. 

The only safe solution for the broad spectrum of computer users is one in which they cannot give away their secrets.  In other words:  Information Cards (the advantage being they don't necessarily require hardware) or Smart Cards.   Can there be a better teacher than reality?

[Via Vu - Thanks]

Protecting the Internet through minimal disclosure

Here's an email I received from John through my I-name account:

I would have left a comment on the appropriate entry in your blog, but you've locked it down and so I can't :(

I have a quick question about InfoCards that I've been unable to find a clear answer to (no doubt due to my own lack of comprehension of the mountains of talk on this topic — although I'm not ignorant, I've been a software engineer for 25+ years, with a heavy focus on networking and cryptography), which is all the more pertinent with EquiFax's recent announcement of their own “card”.

The problem is one of trust. None of the corporations in the ICF are ones that I consider trustworthy — and EquiFax perhaps least of all. So my question is — in a world where it's not possible to trust identity providers, how does the InfoCard scheme mitigate my risk in dealing with them? Specifically, the risk that my data will be misused by the providers?

This is the single, biggest issue I have when it comes to the entire field of identity management, and my fear is that if these technologies actually do become implemented in a widespread way, they will become mandatory — much like they are to be able to comment on your blog — and people like me will end up being excluded from participating in the social cyberspace. I am already excluded from shopping at stores such as Safeway because I do not trust them enough to get an affinity card and am unwill to pay the outrageous markup they require if you don't.

So, you can see how InfoCard (and similar schemes) terrify me. Even more than phishers. Please explain why I should not fear!

Thank you for your time.

There's a lot compressed into this note, and I'm not sure I can respond to all of it in one go.  Before getting to the substantive points, I want to make it clear that the only reason identityblog.com requires people who leave a comment to use an Information Card is to give them a feeling for one of the technologies I'm writing about.  To quote Don Quixote: “The proof of the pudding is the eating.”  But now on to the main attraction. 

It is obvious, and your reference to the members of the ICF illustrates this, that every individual and organization ultimately decides who or what to trust for any given reason.  Wanting to change this would be a non-starter.

It is also obvious that in our society, if someone offers a service, it is their right to establish the terms under which they do so (even requiring identification of various sorts).

Yet to achieve balance with the rights of others, the legal systems of most countries also recognize the need to limit this right.  One example would be in making it illegal to violate basic human rights (for example, offering a service in a way that is discriminatory with respect to gender, race, etc). 

Information Cards don't change anything in this equation.  They replicate what happens today in the physical world.  The identity selector is no different than a wallet.  The Information Cards are the same as the cards you carry in your wallet.  The act of presenting them is no different than the act of presenting a credit card or photo id.  The decision of a merchant to require some form of identification is unchanged in the proposed model.

But is it necessary to convey identity in the digital world?

Increasing population and density in the digital world has led to the embodiment of greater material value there – a tendency that will only become stronger.  This has attracted more criminal activity and if cyberspace is denied any protective structure, this activity will become disproportionately more pronounced as time goes on.  If everything remains as it is, I don't find it very hard to foresee an Internet vulnerable enough to become almost useless.

Many people have come or are coming to the conclusion that these dynamics make it necessary to be able to determine who we are dealing with in the digital realm.  I'm one of them.

However, many also jump to the conclusion that if reliable identification is necessary for protection in some contexts, it is necessary in all contexts.  I do not follow that reasoning. 

Some != All

If the “some == all” thinking predominates, one is left with a future where people need to identify themselves to log onto the Internet, and their identity is automatically made available everywhere they go:  ubiquitous identity in all contexts.

I think the threats to the Internet and to society are sufficiently strong that in the absence of an alternate vision and understanding of the relevant pitfalls, this notion of a singular “tracking key” is likely to be widely mandated.

This is as dangerous to the fabric and traditions of our society as the threats it attempts to counter.  It is a complete departure from the way things work in the physical world.

For example, we don't need to present identification to walk down the street in the physical world.  We don't walk around with our names or religions stenciled on our backs.  We show ID when we go to a bank or government office and want to get into our resources.  We don't show it when we buy a book.  We show a credit card when we make a purchase.  My goal is to get to the same point in the digital world.

Information Cards were intended to deliver an alternate vision from that of a singular, ubiquitous identity.

New vision

This new vision is of identity scoped to context, in which there is minimal disclosure of specific attributes necessary to a transaction.  I've discussed all of this here

In this vision, many contexts require ZERO disclosure.  That means NO release of identity.  In other words, what is released needs to be “proportionate” to specific requirements (I quote the Europeans).  It is worth noting that in many countries these requirements are embodied in law and enforced.

Conclusions

So I encourage my reader to see Information Cards in the context of the possible alternate futures of identity on the Internet.  I urge him to take seriously the probability that deteriorating conditions on the internet will lead to draconian identity schemes counter to western democratic traditions.

Contrast this dystopia to what is achievable through Information Cards, and the very power of the idea that identity is contextual.  This itself can be the basis of many legal and social protections not otherwise possible. 

It may very well be that legislation will be required to ensure identity providers treat our information with sufficient care, providing individuals with adequate control and respecting the requirements of minimal disclosure.  I hope our blogosphere discussion can advance to the point where we talk more concretely about the kind of policy framework required to accompany the technology we are building. 

But the very basis of all these protections, and of the very possibility of providing protections in the first place, depends on gaining commitment to minimal disclosure and contextual identity as a fundamental alternative to far more nefarious alternatives – be they pirate-dominated chaos or draconian over-identification.  I hope we'll reach a point where no one thinks about these matters absent the specter of such alternatives.

Finally, in terms of the technology itself, we need to move towards the cryptographic systems developed by David Chaum, Stefan Brands and Jan Camenisch (zero knowledge proofs).    Information Cards are an indispensible component required to make this possible.  I'll also be discussing progress in this area more as we go forward.

 

Leaving a comment

Since one of my goals is to introduce people to Information Cards – and because I used to get mountains of spam comments and worse (!) - I require people to either write to me or use an Information Card when leaving comments on my blog. 

(This blog is hosted for me by Joyent, and it runs on open source software (WordPress, PHP, MySQL, Apache, OpenSolaris).  For Information Card support, it uses Pamelaware, an open-source project offering an Information Card plugin for WordPress and other popular programs.)

Information Cards use an “identity selector”.  Vista has the CardSpace V1 selector built right in.   (If you  don't use Vista please continue here.   Also, if you are wondering about our new beta of Windows CardSpace Geneva – V2 if you want – I'll deal with that in a separate post.)

How you register at my site

1. Click the Information Card logo or the “LOG IN” option in the upper right hand corner of the blog.  (Clicking the logo saves you the step where you can learn about Information Cards).

 

2. If you clicked the logo, go to step 3.  If you have clicked “LOG IN”, you will see this page and can explore the ‘Learn More’ and other tabs.  When ready, click on the Information Card logo to proceed.

 

3. CardSpace will start (it may be a bit slow the first time it loads).  It will verify my site's certificate, and present it t you so you can decide whether or not to proceed.  Click “Yes, choose a card to send”.

 

4.  If you are trying CardSpace for the first time, you don't have a “Managed” card yet.  So just create a “Personal Card” that serves a bit like a username / password – except it can't be phished and protects your privacy by automatically using a different key at every site. 

 

5. You'll be asked to create a Personal card.  Name it with something you'll recognize, and I recommend you put a picture on it (the picture will never be sent).  The name and picture prevent many attacks since if someone tries to fool you with a CardSpace “look-alike”, they won't know what your Cards look like and you will immediately notice your cards aren't present! 

Use an email address that you control - you will have to respond to a confirmation email.  Then click SAVE.

 

 

6.  Now you'll see your saved card, and click SEND.

 

7.  The information from your card will be used to log in to my site, but I'll notice you haven't been here before and send you an email that you must click on to complete registration (I want some way to prevent spammers from bothering me).

 

8.  The email I send looks like the one below.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  this email might be “eaten” by your spam protection software (!) , so don't overlook your spam folder to find it.  (On Hotmail, it doesn't ever get delivered – haven't sorted that out yet.  It doesn't seem to like my little mail server.)  

9.  When you click the embedded link you'll be taken back to my blog as a verification step.  Click on the Information Card logo to log in.

 

10.  CardSpace will come up, and will recognize my site.  Just click send.

 

11.  Et voila…

Press “Go to Blog” and you can leave your comment.

In the future, logging in will just be a two-step process.  Click on the CardSpace logo, click on your personal card, and you will be logged in.  No password to remember.

 

The Emperor's new clothes

The UK's Register has been running a a series of articles by John Leyden  (here, here and here) about Verified By Visa. (VByV)  Verified By Visa uses the same kind of “site redirection” I've written about many times with respect to OpenID and other password-based federation technologies – but in this case it is a banking password that can be stolen.

The phishing scenario is simple enough.  If you happen onto an “evil” site and are tricked into purchasing something, it can “misdirect” your browser to a counterfeit VByV signon page.  As John explains, you have little chance, as a user, of knowing you are being duped, but once you enter your password it is available to the evil site for both instant use an future reuse.  Those familiar with this site will understand that this is yet another example of an attack that cannot be made against Information Card users.

Beyond focussing attention on the phishing problems inherent in “site redirection” approaches, John argues that the system – though claiming to be more secure – is actually just as vulnerable as non-VByV mechanisms.  He then argues – and I have know knowledge as to whether this is the case - that the false claims about increased security are being used to reject complaints by end-users about irregularities and fraudulent purchases made in their name.  If that were true, it would be scandalous.

Friends, this is a case of “The Writing on the Wall”.  I think people in the industry should see John's work as a sign of what's to come.   He is the guy in the fable who is shouting out that ”the Emperor has no clothes!”  And he's doing it cogently to the wide readership of the Register.

If I were an advisor to the emperor at this point I would insist on two things: 

  1. admit the vulnerability of all systems based on “site redirection”; and
  2. start getting into phishing-resistant technologies like Information Cards while one's modesty can still be protected.

John makes his points without the stench of jargon.  In spite of this, North American readers will require a dictionary to follow what he's saying (I did).  I'm talking here about a dictionary of British idioms (thanks to my friend Richard Turner for boosting my vocabulary on this one) :

punter n guy. A punter is usually a customer of some sort (the word originally meant someone who was placing bets at a racecourse)…

To see a bit of what mainstream press worldwide will be writing about as the paucity of redirection technology for long-tail scenarios is concerned, I do suggest looking first hand at these articles.  One small taste:

Both Verified by Visa (VbyV) and MasterCard's equivalent SecureCode service are marketed as offering extra security checks to online purchases. Importantly, the schemes also transfer liability for bogus transactions away from merchants who use the system back towards banks (and perhaps ordinary e-commerce punters).

Online shoppers who buy goods and service with participating retailers are asked to submit a VbyV or SecureCode password to authorise transactions. These additional checks are typically submitted via a website affiliated to a card-issuing bank but with no obvious connection to a user's bank.

Punters aren't informed up front that a merchant has signed up to Verified by Visa. Sites used to authenticate a VbyV or SecureCode password routinely deliver a dialogue box using a pop-up window or inline frame, making it difficult to detect whether or not a site is genuine.

The appearance of phishing attacks hunting for Verified by Visa passwords are among the reasons some punters are wary of the technology.

Once obtained by fraudsters, either by direct phishing attack or through other more subtle forms of social engineering trickery, VbyV login credentials make it easier for crooks to make purchases online while simultaneously making it harder for consumers to deny responsibility for a fraudulent transaction…

The little-publicised mandatory use of the technology by some banks means that those with reservations have an uphill struggle to opt out of the scheme…

Verified by Visa and Mastercard SecureCode are there purely to protect the banks, not the card holder. They offer zero additional protection to the consumer, but allow the bank to claim that transactions using purloined credit card credentials were really made by the card holder. It is as simple as that.

[More here}.

 

Clarification

In response to my post earlier today on some OpenID providers who did not follow proper procedures to recover from a bug in Debian Linux, a reader wrote:

 

“You state that users who authenticated to the OpenID provider using an Information Card would not have their credentials stolen.   I assume that cracking the provider cert would allow the bad guys to tease a password out of a user, and that InformationCards require a more secure handshake than just establishing a secure channel with a cert. But it still seems that if the bad guys went to the effort of implementing the handshake, they could fool CardSpace as well. Why does that not expose the users credentials?

 

I'll try to be be more precise.  I should have stayed away from the word “credential”.  It confused the issue.

 

Why?  There are two different things involved here that people call “credentials”.  One is the “credential” used when a user authenticates to an OpenID provider.  To avoid the “credential” word, I'll call this a ”primordial” claim: a password or a key that isn't based on anything else, the “first mover” in the authentication chain.

 

The other thing some call a ”credential” is the payload produced by the OpenID provider and sent to the relying party.  At the minimum this payload asserts that a user has a given OpenID URL.  Using various extensions, it might say more – passing along the user's email address for instance.  So I'll call these “substantive” claims – claims that are issued by an identity provider and have content.  This differentiates them from primordial ones.

 

With this vocabulary I can express my thoughts more clearly.  By using a self-issued Information card like I employ with my OpenID provider -  which is based on strong public key cryptography – we make it impossible to steal the primordial claim using the attack described.  That is because the secret is never released, even to the legitimate provider.  A proof is calculated and sent – nothing more.

 

But let's be clear:  protecting the primordial claim this way doesn't prevent a rogue identity provider who has guessed the key of a legitimate provider – and poisoned DNS  - from tricking a relying party that depends on its substantitve claim.   Once it has the legitimate provider's key, it can “be” the legitimate provider.  The Debian Linux bug made it really easy to guess the legitimate provider's key.

 

Such a “lucky” rogue provider has “obtained” the legitimate provider's keys.  It can then “manufacture” substantive claims that the legitimate provider would normally only issue for the appropriate individual.  It's like the difference between stealing someone's credit card, and stealing a machine that can manufacture a duplicate of their credit card – and many others as well. 

 

So my point is that using Information Cards would have protected the primordial claim from the vulnerability described.  It would have prevented the user's keys from being stolen and reused.  But It would not have prevented the attack on the substantive claim even in the case of PKI, SAML or WS-Federation.  A weak key is a weak key.

 

The recently publicised wide-scale DNS-poisoning exploits do underline the fact that OpenID isn't currently appropriate for high value resources.  As I explained in more detail here back in February:

 

My view is simple.  OpenID is not a panacea.  Its unique power stems from the way it leverages DNS – but this same framework sets limits on its potential uses.  Above all, it is an important addition to the spectrum of technologies we call the Identity Metasystem, since it facilitates integration of the “long tail” of web sites into an emerging identity framework.