Definitions for a Common Identity Framework

The Proposal for a Common Identity Framework begins by explaining the termnology it uses.  This wasn't intended to open up old wounds or provoke ontological debate.  We just wanted to reduce ambiguity about what we actually mean to say in the rest of the paper.  To do this, we did think very carefully about what we were going to call things, and tried to be very precise about our use of terms.

The paper presents its definitions in alphabetical order to faciliate lookup while reading the proposal, but I'll group them differently here to facilitate discussion.

Let's start with the series of definitions pertaining to claims.  It is key to the document that claims are assertions by one subject about another subject that are “in doubt”.  This is a fundamental notion since it leads to an understanding that one of the basic services of a multi-party model must be “Claims Approval”.  The simple assumption by systems that assertions are true – in other words the failure to factor out “approval” as a separate service – has lead to conflation and insularity in earlier systems.

  • Claim:  an assertion made by one subject about itself or another subject that a relying party considers to be “in doubt” until it passes “Claims Approval”
  • Claims Approval: The process of evaluating a set of claims associated with a security presentation to produce claims trusted in a specific environment so it can used for automated decision making and/or mapped to an application specific identifier.
  • Claims Selector:  A software component that gives the user control over the production and release of sets of claims issued by claims providers. 
  • Security Token:  A set of claims.

The concept of claims provider is presented in relation to “registration” of subjects.  Then claims are divided into two broad categories:  primordial and substantive…

  • Registration:  The process through which a primordial claim is associated with a subject so that a claims provider can subsequently issue a set of claims about that subject.
  • Claims Provider:  An individual, organization or service that:
  1. Registers subjects and associates them with primordial claims, with the goal of subsequently exchanging their primordial claims for a set of substantive claims about the subject that can be presented at a relying party; or
  2. Interprets one set of substantive claims and produces a second set (this specialization of a claims provider is called a claims transformer).  A claims set produced by a claims provider is not a primordial claim.
  • Claims Transformer:  A claims provider that produces one set of substantive claims from another set.

To understand this better let's look at what we mean by  “primordial” and “substantive” claims.  The word “primordial” may seem a strange at first, but its use will be seen to be rewardingly precise:  Constituting the beginning or starting point, from which something else is derived or developed, or on which something else depends. (OED) .

As will become clear, the claims-based model works through the use of “Claims Providers”.  In the most basic case, subjects prove to a claims provider that they are an entity it has registered, and then the claims provider makes “substantive” claims about them.  The subject proves that it is the registered entity by using a “primordial” claim – one which is thus the beginning or starting point, and from which the provider's substantive claims are derived.  So our definitions are the following: 

  • Primordial Claim: A proof – based on secret(s) and/or biometrics – that only a single subject is able to present to a specific claims provider for the purpose of being recognized and obtaining a set of substantive claims.
  • Substantive claim:  A claim produced by a claims provider – as opposed to a primordial claim.

Passwords and secret keys are therefore examples of “primordial” claims, whereas SAML tokens and X.509 certificates (with DNs and the like) are examples of substantive claims. 

Some will say, “Why don't you just use the word ‘credential'”?   The answer is simple.  We avoided “credential” precisely because people use it to mean both the primordial claim (e.g. a secret key) and the substantive claim (e.g. a certificate or signed statement).   This conflation makes it unsuitable for expressing the distinction between primordial and substantive, and this distinction is essential to properly factoring the services in the model.

There are a number of definitions pertaining to subjects, persons and identity itself:

  • Identity:  The fact of being what a person or a thing is, and the characteristics determining this.

This definition of identity is quite different from the definition that conflates identity and “identifier” (e.g. being called an identity).  Without clearing up this confusion, nothing can be understood.   Claims are the way of communicating what a person or thing is – different from being that person or thing.  An identifier is one possible claim content.

We also distinguish between a “natural person”, a “person”, and a “persona”, taking into account input from the legal and policy community:

  • Natural person:  A human being…
  • Person:  an entity recognized by the legal system.  In the context of eID, a person who can be digitally identified.
  • Persona:  A character deliberately assumed by a natural person

A “subject” is much broader, including things like services:

  • Subject:  The consumer of a digital service (a digital representation of a natural or juristic person, persona, group, organization, software service or device) described through claims.

And what about user?

  • User:  a natural person who is represented by a subject.

The entities that depend on identity are called relying parties:

  • Relying party:  An individual, organization or service that depends on claims issued by a claims provider about a subject to control access to and personalization of a service.
  • Service:  A digital entity comprising software, hardware and/or communications channels that interacts with subjects.

Concrete services that interact with subjects (e.g. digital entities) are not to be confused with the abstract services that constitute our model:

  • Abstract services:  Architectural components that deliver useful services and can be described through high level goals, structures and behaviors.  In practice, these abstract services are refined into concrete service definitions and instantiations.

Concrete digital services, including both relying parties and claims providers, operate on the behalf of some “person” (in the sense used here of legal persons including organizations).  This implies operations and administration:

  • Administrative authority:  An organization responsible for the management of an administrative domain.
  • Administrative domain:  A boundary for the management of all business and technical aspects related to:
  1. A claims provider;
  2. A relying party; or
  3. A relying party that serves as its own claims provider 

There are several definitions that are necessary to understand how different pieces of the model fit together:

  • ID-data base:  A collection of application specific identifiers used with automatic claims approval
  • Application Specific Identifier (ASID):  An identifier that is used in an application to link a specific subject to data in the application.
  • Security presentation:  A set consisting of elements like knowledge of secrets, possession of security devices or aspects of administration which are associated with automated claims approval.  These elements derive from technical policy and legal contracts of a chain of administrative domains.
  • Technical Policy:  A set of technical parameters constraining the behavior of a digital service and limited to the present tense.

And finally, there is the definition of what we mean by user-centric.  Several colleagues have pointed out that the word “user-centric” has been used recently to justify all kinds of schemes that usurp the autonomy of the user.  So we want to be very precise about what we mean in this paper:

  • User-centric:  Structured so as to allow users to conceptualize, enumerate and control their relationships with other parties, including the flow of information.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.