Managing consumer or citizen identities comes with two key problems--scale and cost--prompting organizations that require onboarding, authentication, and password management to look for ways to outsource this effort. Entertainment websites, online retailers, and even US federal government-to-citizen websites are experimenting with a federated model for more of their identity management life cycle. By using single sign-on (SSO) and attribute-sharing between "social" identity providers (IdPs) (i.e. Google and Facebook) and relying parties (RPs), this model effectively reduces cost and improves the customer experience.
Compared with a fully local model for consumer identity management, an RP can count on an IdP to provide initial and ongoing user identification, user password authentication with attendant password reset management, and automatic provisioning of the latest copy of key user attributes at each login.
What consumer-scale IdPs dont do, however, is assure that each identity maps to a real-world person.
[Also see Facebook adds two-factor authentication]
Assurance involves two factors: 1) During credential issuance, were the identity verification measures that bound the issued credential to a real-world person accurate? and 2) when the credential is presented at runtime, how strong are the authentication and other protection measures that continue to bind the "right person" to it? While closed networks, such as SAFE-BioPharma and Surescripts in the medical world, provide identity assurance to their communities through relatively heavyweight PKI mechanisms, the popular free consumer IdPs today offer neither meaningful assurance promises nor the technical underpinnings to support reliance on them.
Not surprisingly, many consumer RP scenarios would benefit from ensuring at login that the user identities correspond to real people for a variety of liability, forensic and business agility reasons. Having this assurance could help with identity issues ranging from preventing criminal gangs and terrorist groups from activating SIM cards, to maximizing the security of online auctions, to offering better "verified accounts" for social networking sites.
Forrester's take: Over the next three years, advances in consumer federated identity and identity assurance will provide new options for distributing risk, liability, and cost in managing identities. In the meantime, the good news is that the U.S. federal government is at the forefront of a variety of innovations in federated identity assurance, for both government-specific and commercial scenarios that require trusted online interactions. In addition to web 2.0 solutions, security professionals should leverage the following standards to address the challenges of outsourcing identity assurance.
NIST Assurance Levels Offer Common Ground
In 2003, the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued Memo 04-04, which maps a system of risk assessments to four broad assurance levels. Building on this memo, the US National Institute of Standards and Technologys (NIST) Special Publication 800-63 defines a standard for credential issuance, identity proofing, and authentication, giving operational meaning to each level. Level 1, for example, is used to guarantee baseline "security hygiene" in lightweight, privacy sensitive scenarios, while Level 4 is reserved for non-consumer-scale applications requiring high levels of security.
The NIST assurance levels are becoming a lingua franca around the world. Identity verification vendors and IdPs are beginning to brand their offerings accordingly even for nongovernmental markets. When developing your own identification and authentication requirements, whether federated or locally sourced, you can benefit from matching your risk tolerance and appetite to the levels defined in M-04-04 and SP 800-63, as many US government agencies do today, or their international equivalents as appropriate.
ICAM Provides Tools for Trust Relationships that Support Assurance
The US General Service Administration's Identity, Credentialing, and Access Management (ICAM) committee has an "Open Identity Solutions for Open Government" project to solve government-to-citizen use cases. This initiative aims to allow federal government agencies to become relying parties on private sector IdPs in order to lower identity management costs while streamlining the customer's, or citizen's, online experience. The growing ICAM stack of solutions is based on the NIST levels of assurance.
NSTIC Takes it all into the Commercial Space
While the ICAM solutions were designed for government use, they also provide the basis for the emerging US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). NSTIC targets the improvement of security and privacy in eCommerce by fostering an "Identity Ecosystem" that places a priority on broadbased trust in private sector trust framework providers (federation operators), IdPs, and RPs as institutions. These broad purposes require a new element--an internationally recognized legal liability model that allows IdPs and RPs to manage risk at a broad scale for the use of digital identity credentials in commerce. As this element is not yet in place, private contracts must be used to govern trust frameworks instead. A variety of commercial groups share the goals of NSTIC, including companies using e-prescribing and medical authorizations, telecommunications companies, and identity verification and marketing data services.
Eve Maler is a principal analyst at Forrester Research, where she serves Security and Risk Professionals. She is an expert on emerging identity and security solutions, identity federation, consumer-facing identity and web access management, distributed authorization, privacy enhancement, and web services security.