We talk a lot in the identity milieu about opening up the “walled Gardens” that keep our digital experiences partitioned between Internet portals. Speaking as a person who dabbles in many services, it would be really great if I could reuse information rather than entering it over and over again. I think as time goes on we will get more and more fed up with the friction that engulfs our information. Over time enough people will feel this way that no portal will be able to avoid ”data portability” and still attract usage.
Even so, many have argued that today’s business models don’t allow more user-centric services to evolve. That’s why it has been fascinating to read about the new Flickr Friend Finder. I think it is tremendously significant to see organizations of the stature of Flickr, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft working closely together so people can easily associate their pictures on one site with their friends and colleagues from others.
Once people decide to share information between their services, we run smack dab into the “how” of it all. In the past, some sites actually asked you to give them your username and password, so they could essentially become you. Clearly this was terrible from a security and identity point of view. The fact is, sharing requires new technology approaches.
Windows Live has moved forward in this area by developing a new “Contacts API“. Angus Logan gave us a great overview on his blog recently, taking us through the whole experience. I recommend you look at it – the design handles a lot of fascinating issues that we’ll be encountering more and more. I’ll just pick up on the first couple of steps:
Go to the Friend finder
Select Windows Live Hotmail (you can also select Yahoo! Mail and GMail) – I’d imagine soon there will be Facebook / LinkedIn / insert social network here.
If you aren’t already authenticated, use your Windows Live ID to sign in (IMPORTANT: Notice how you are not sharing your Windows Live ID secret credential pair with Flickr – this is a good thing!)
If you have followed my work on the problems with protocols that redirect users across web contexts, you will see there is a potential problem here.
If Flickr plays by the rules, it will not learn your username and password, and cannot “become you”. It really is a step forward.
But if a user gets used to this behavior, an unreputable site can pretend to send her to Windows Live by putting up a fake page. The fake can look real enough that the user gives away her credentials.
A user called davidacoder called this out on Angus’ blog:
I think this whole approach will lead to many, many, many hacked Windows Live ID accounts. If you guys seriously believe that average users will be able to follow the rule “only type in your credentials on login.live.com” your are just naive. AND your own uber-security guy Kim Cameron is telling that very story to the world for years already. I wouldn’t mind so much if a Live ID was a low-value asset, but you bring people to associate some of their most valuable assets with it (email, calendar, contacts). I find the whole approach irresponsible. I just hope that at some point, if someone looses his credentials this way, he will sue you and present Kim Cameron’s blog as evidence that you were perfectly aware in what danger you bring your users. And to make a long story short, I think the Live ID team should fix the phising problem first (i.e. implement managed infocards), before they come up with new delegation stuff etc that will just lead to more attack surface. Very bad planning.
I admire David’s passion, although I’d prefer not to be used in any law suits if that is OK with everyone. Let’s face it. There are two very important things to be done here.
One is to open up the portals so people can control their information and use it as they see fit I totally endorse Angus’ work in this regard, and the forward-looking attitude of the Windows Live team. I urge everyone to give them the credit they deserve so they’ll continue to move in this positive direction.
The other is to deal with the phishing problems of the web.
And let me be clear. Information sharing is NOT the only factor heightening the need for stronger Internet identity. It is one of a dozen factors. Perhaps the most dangerous of these is the impending collision between the security infrastructure of the Internet and that of the enterprise. But no one can prevent this collision – or turn back the forces of openness. All we can do is make sure we apply every effort to get stronger identity into place.
On that front, today Neelamadhaba Mahapatro (Neel), who runs Windows Live ID, put up a post where he responds to David’s comment:
- We are absolutely aware of the dangers of phishing on the Internet.
- We understand the probability of attack goes up when the value of the asset that is being protected is higher than the strength of authentication protecting that asset – watch this video by Kim Cameron to see OpenID phished.
- We have put certain measures in place to counteract phishing attempts which are listed below.
Self Issued InfoCards
In August 2007 we announced beta support for self issued InfoCards with Windows Live ID (instead of username/password). The Windows Live ID team is working closely with the Windows CardSpace team to ensure we deliver the best solution for the 400 million+ people who use Windows Live ID monthly. Angus’s commentor, davidacoder, also asked for the Windows Live ID service to become a Managed InfoCard provider – we have been evaluating this; however we have nothing to announce yet.
Additional Protection through Extended Validation Certificates
To further reduce the risk of phishing, we have implemented Extended Validation certificates to prove that the login.live.com site is trustworthy. I do however think more education for internet users is required to help drive the understanding of what it means when the address bar turns green (and what to do when it doesn’t). When authenticating in a web browser, Microsoft will only ask for your Windows Live ID credential pair on login.live.com – nowhere else! (See this related post).
Neel continues by showing a number of other initiatives the group has taken – including the Windows Live Sign-in Assistant and “roaming tiles”. He concludes:
We’re constantly looking for ways to balance end-user security/privacy and user experience. If the barrier to entry is too high or the user experience is poor, the users will revolt. If it is too insecure the system becomes an easy target. A balance needs to be struck… Using Windows CardSpace is definitely a move forward from usernames & passwords but adoption will be the critical factor here.
And he’s right. Sites like Windows Live can really help drive this, but they can’t tell users what to do. The important thing is to give people the option of using Information Cards to prevent phishing. Beyond that, it is a matter of user education. One option would be for systems like Live ID to automatically suggest stronger authentication to people who use features like data sharing and off-portal authentication – features that put password credentials more at risk.