Standards could turn social networks into trusted ID brokers: NetIQ

Ian Yip, NetIQ

Adoption of identity and access management (IAM) standards may see social-network giants like Facebook and LinkedIn emerge as trusted identity brokers for everything from government transactions to financial services, a security expert has predicted.

Speaking after the CSO-NetIQ Agile Security breakfast in Melbourne, Ian Yip, Asia-Pacific identity and security product and business manager with security specialist firm NetIQ, said the sheer size of social-networking sites was giving them currency amongst online service providers wanting more readily-available ways to ascertain the identities of online users.

“Whether or not it’s practical, it’s being forced upon us,” he said. “Consumer standards are a lot of the common conversation we’re having nowadays when we’re talking about the identity layer.”

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other networks already provide rudimentary login services that let users authenticate themselves to other online services using their social-media credentials. The government of the US state of Washington recently took this trust to new levels by announcing it would let residents register to vote – a process requiring a high level of authentication – through a Facebook application.

That’s a lot more accessible than previous efforts by Australian government bodies to implement mainstream digital-identity programs: the Australian Taxation Office, for example, was a world leader in introducing digital certificates for taxpayers to lodge documents online – but discontinued the program in 2010 due to lack of public interest (a business-only alternative called AUSkey persists).

Social networks, on the other hand, were already widely accepted and trusted by the public – and extensively valued by online service providers who see great opportunities in the massive amount of personal information they contain.

“The government isn’t as enthusiastic about it,” Yip said, “but sectors like retail want to use it because there’s a lot of valuable information and insight you can get from our social identities. They can potentially use social logins to do lightweight authentication, then they have a relationship to do things.”

Trust levels for this model could be increased through a ‘delayed authentication’ model where social-media credentials are used for easy initial login, then additional identity details demanded for access to sensitive services or functions.

Other increasingly-popular methods of identification may also play a role: many banks, for example, confirm transactions by sending one-off codes in an SMS to a registered mobile phone. Acceptance of this sort of authentication represents an increasingly flexible and agile security strategy, predicated on regular, rapid process and technology change over time.

The role of social networks as identity brokers may be boosted as identity-management standards become more widely and consistently used online. The likes of SAML (enterprise federated single sign-on); XACML (enterprise access control); SCIM (user account provisioning); OpenID and OAuth (consumer single sign-on); and OpenID Connect and OAuth (consumer access control and identity interactions) each addressed pieces of the puzzle in delivering online IAM that is trustworthy, non-repudiable and easy to integrate into new services.

The key is for enterprises and service providers to be flexible in how they address identity – and for online social networks to get proactive in converting their massive level of user trust into business-level trust: “For access it doesn’t matter who I am; it matters what I am,” Yip said. “It all comes down to how much trust you put against the provider of the identity.”

And while consumer trust in social networks may still outweigh that of many businesses and government bodies, that’s rapidly changing, he added: “Facebook isn’t at the point where it should be used for anything other than a lightweight version of identity, but social logins are easier to manage [than digital certificates]: they’re a lot more portable and embeddable.”

“The consumer world will drive what is used – so [social networks] have to get in on this identity game.”

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