Gabe hits the nail on the head

This post by Gabe Wachob at Digital Identity and Beyond is golden: 

There's been a lot of discussion about the fact that OpenID protocol has a special exposure to phishing/pharming and that the OpenID community needs to address these issues, either technically or through pressure on various parties to address phishing/pharming more broadly. There are a lot of proposals – in particular, we are all waiting to hear from Kim Cameron about OpenID and Cardspace (though applying Cardspace at the OpenID Provider seems like a straightforward solution).

If you ask me, things are happening EXACTLY how I would have wanted and expected them to. Why? Becuase OpenID is a platform for innovation in authentication. People who want to innovate in authentication methods (Mozilla/Firefox, Cardspace, VxVsolutions, etc) do NOT have to be the same people who innovate in offering services on the web (any one of a million folks running mediawiki, drupal, etc). That “delinking” of authentication innovation and service innovation is what is valuable in OpenID.

No, OpenID doesn't solve all problems, and maybe today it only solves a very narrow set of problems with an acceptable risk profile. But to me, thats not the point – its the unleashing of creativity and the power to let developers and architects focus on what they are interested in and good at. Security and identity nuts can focus on authentication and let the social networking, wiki-touting, web 2.0-heads do what they do best! OpenID is an abstraction, a key middle ground for these folks to meet and leverage each other's work – that OpenID is deployed for use in a fairly narrow set of use cases TODAY should not mean that it will not be very important in they very near future

Very interesting thinking and way to put things.


Ben Laurie and the “Kittens” phishing attack.

Here's a post about potential OpenID phishing problems by Ben Laurie, long-time security avocate who played an important role in getting SSL into open source.  He's now at Google.  Don't misinterpret his intentions despite his characteristically colorful introductory sentence – in a subsequent piece he makes it clear that he too wants to find solutions to these problems.

OpenID announced the release of a new draft of OpenID Authentication 2.0 today. I’m reluctantly forced to come to the conclusion that the OpenID people don’t care about phishing, since they’ve defined a standard that has to be the worst I’ve ever seen from a phishing point of view.

OK, so what’s the problem? If I’m a phisher my goal is to be able to log in to some website, the Real Website, as you, the Innocent Victim. In order to do this, I persuade you to go to a website I control that looks like the Real Website. When you log in, thinking it is the Real Website, I get your username and password, and I can then proceed to empty your Paypal account, write myself cheques from your bank account, or whatever fiendish plan I have today.

So, why does OpenID make this worse? Because in the standard case, I (the phisher) have to make my website look like the Real Website and persuade you to go to it somehow – i.e. con you into thinking I am the real Paypal, and your account really has been frozen (or is that phrozen?) and you really do need to log in to unphreeze it.

But in the OpenID case I just persuade you to go anywhere at all, say my lovely site of kitten photos, and get you to log in using your OpenID. Following the protocol, I find out where your provider is (i.e. the site you log in to to prove you really own that OpenID), but instead of sending you there (because, yes, OpenID works by having the site you’re logging in to send you to your provider) I send you to my fake provider, which then just proxies the real provider, stealing your login as it does. I don’t have to persuade you that I’m anything special, just someone who wants you to use OpenID, as the designers hope will become commonplace, and I don’t have to know your provider in advance.

So, I can steal login credentials on a massive basis without any tailoring or pretence at all! All I need is good photos of kittens.

I had hoped that by constantly bringing this up the OpenID people might take some step to deal with the issue, but they continue to insist on punting on it entirely:

The manner in which the end user authenticates to their OP [OpenID provider] and any policies surrounding such authentication is out of scope for this document.

which means, in practice, people will authenticate using passwords in forms, as usual. Which means, in turn, that phishing will be trivial.

Like me, Ben was struck with how readily the system currently lends itself to automation of phishing attacks.  His second post on the subject is also interesting.


We need severe crypto

Someone just pointed out this super strong message from the Energy Field that is Marc Canter (founder of Macromedia and Broadband Mechanics):

Kim Cameron sets the record straight: State of the market or chance to get things right?  And he has nothing against OpenID.  But Kim is the god head and groks this shit better than any of us – so please listen to him!  ID is a hell of a lot more than SSO or authentication and if we’re to stop phishing, and spoofing and ID theft – we need severe crypto, locked down, secure ID systems.

No one can say Marc doesn't speak in thunder bolts.  This is better summary of what I've been trying to say than I can manage (I would have elided the “god head” part!)


Dmitry Shechtman's Undevelopment Blog

So much is happening in the identity discussion it's hard to keep up with it.  Through the miracles of ping-back I came across The Undevelopment Blog by Dmitry Shechtman, and this posting on a new proposal called Identity Manager: 

It seems like the OpenID community is currently bothered with the following two questions:

  1. OpenID facilitates phishing. What can be done about this?
  2. FireFox 3.0 will have CardSpace and OpenID support. What does that mean?

I addressed the OpenID phishing problem even before it became wildly discussed. Unfortunately, the method wasn’t foolproof, to say the least. Several other suggestions have been brought up, but none seemed to solve the problem without making OpenID unusable.

Kim Cameron of Microsoft has been repeatedly promising to elaborate on how CardSpace and OpenID could converge. Although he has yet to keep his promise, we can make an educated guess. We recently saw the FireFox extension Identity Selector act as an in-browser OpenID-to-InfoCard bridge. That is definitely something CardSpace folks would love to see as a standard browser feature, since it would effectively turn an OpenID into nothing more than a fairly insecure InfoCard.

Of course, OpenID could simply dismiss CardSpace (I was trying to get into the average kool-aid drinker’s shoes). Or it could very well learn from it. The CardSpace UI seems very intuitive:

  • A Sign In button on a website
  • An identity selection dialog
  • Seamless secure login

This is exactly what OpenID needs in order to become both widely used and insusceptible to phishing. And since CardSpace planned support is now a reality, why shouldn’t OpenID be integrated? This is no trivial requirement, but one that can be met with some additions to the browser logic.

The combination of UI and business logic outlined in this proposal is dubbed Identity Manager. The proposal uses informal language (should, must, be and do are used interchangeably); handle with care.

Whenever a web page presents an OpenID sign in option, the OpenID field and the Sign In button are replaced by a single OpenID Sign In button. Moreover, separate OpenID Sign In and CardSpace Sign In buttons are replaced with a Secure Sign In button.

Once such a button is pushed, an Identity Manager window is presented with a list of the user’s identities — OpenIDs, InfoCards or both, depending on what the relying party accepts. The user must be able to decline; we treat this case as trivial. The user must be able to make a persistent selection (e.g. a checkbox with the text Always use this ID for

(Dmitry's piece continues here…)

I would never characterize OpenID as “nothing more than a fairly insecure infocard”. It is a system where the root of trust is defined to be control over the content at a URL.  Folks, this is innovative.  I like it as what I call an “underlying identity system” that should live within the identity metasystem.  Given its theoretical starting point in terms of trust, OpenID has the security characteristics, good and bad, of the Internet which it harnesses in the name of identity.  That makes it very exciting, especially for bottoms up use cases involving public personna.

But “exciting” doesn't mean “good for every purpose.”  OpenID won't replace all other forms of digital identity!

Is it necessary to explain further?

I'm fine with blog comments being associated with my URL.  But I don't want access to my bank account to be gated by nothing more than the ability to set the header in what a system thinks is (I'm thinking here about all the potential attacks on DNS as well as the ways in which third parties could gain unauthorized access to my page). 

My site is hosted by the good people at  As administrators of the shared systems there, they could certainly, for example, gain access to my pages. 

Are their employees bonded?  Do they practice strict separation of duties for access to web pages?  Do they have HR practices that will protect them from organized crime?  I don't think so!  And if they did,  wouldn't they turn into the world's most bureaucratic mess as a web hosting service?  Their flexibility and personal touch is what makes them so good.  I like them just as they are, thank you very much.

So it all comes back to the Laws of Identity.  There will be a pluralism of providers and technologies, optimal in different use cases.  And, as the potential phishing attacks demonstrate, there remains the requirement of giving users a consistent and controlled experience across these multiple systems.

My conclusion?

Combine CardSpace (insert your favorite replacement identity selector here) with OpenID and you have the best of both worlds.  You have the web-based identity system.  You have a consistent anti-phishing user experience.  And you have continuity between OpenID and other underlying systems in a metasystem.  Wouldn't we all want this?

As Dmitry reports, I have promised to share my own technical ideas about how to move forward but haven't come through on my promise yet.  So I'm going to do that now.  One idea is very simple (and effective) – I'll start with that.  The second is in many ways more interesting (at least to me) but I need to explain a bit more about managed cards before I get to it.


State of the market or chance to get things right?

Eric Norlin of Digital Identity World comments on my concerns (note:  concerns are not allegations) about the need for client-side anti-spoofing components: 

Every now and then a technical disagreement betrays the state of a marketplace. That phenomenon is currently happening in the user-centric identity trenches.

The players are Kim Cameron (InfoCards/CardSpace) of Microsoft on one side and Dick Hardt (OpenID) of Sxip Identity on the other.  The issue: Kim's recent allegations that OpenID will make identity *less* secure and possibly result in security breaches that will set the user-centric identity work back in the minds of users.

The debate highlights where we are with user-centric identity.

The technical details all focus around the need (or lack of need) for client-side identity selectors with Kim arguing that its necessary to prevent spoofing, and Dick arguing that the spoofing security threat is acknowledged and defensible via OpenID. But the technical details (and argument) are not the most interesting thing.

Arguments like this, as all engineers know, are common in the world of the engineering. The reason is simple: the “engineer's mind” (versus the “marketer's mind”) naturally seeks the “perfect solution.” That's the blessing of the engineer's mind. It is, of course, also the curse.

As any student of technology history knows, the “perfect solution” has rarely won the battle of the marketplace. Instead, the solution that solved the problem set using “the principle of good enough”, and *also* attained a critical mass of adoption has won. Does that result in further problems to be solved? Of course it does! That, my friends, is the cycle of innovation.

The current debate between Kim and Dick actually serves to show us where the user-centric identity market actually is. Several years ago, two groups were competing around federation standards (the Liberty Alliance and Microsoft/IBM's WS-* standards). For what seemed like forever, they held obscure debates about the details of the standards. Eventually, the market moved forward (seemingly without either group's help), and now today we find ourselves witnessing a new Liberty Alliance President saying that the “gloves are off” and they'd like to find ways to converge with the WS-* standards.

That simple, recent analogy shows us where we are with user-centric identity. We're on the verge of the market beginning to really adopt some technology. These conversations don't reach this level unless those involved see this potential.

In the meantime, the engineers will continue to debate the details, and that's good for all of us.

I want people to understand I'm not against OpenID, and I don't see this as something that should turn into a war, marketing or other.  We should do everything we can to make OpenID as secure as possible, and that includes integrating it with InfoCards wherever this is possible.