OpenID 2.0 and concerns about it

It seems JanRain is finally readying the final version of OpenID 2.0. There’s a great overview of some concerns that I mostly share on readwriteweb.com. Together with another recent standard (OAuth), OpenID 2.0 could be a huge step forward for web security and privacy.

Lets start with what OpenID is about and why, generally, it is a good idea. The situation right now on the web is that:

  • Pretty much every web site has its own identity solution. This means that users have to keep track of dozens of accounts. Generally users have only one or two email addresses so in practice that means most these accounts are actually tied to 1 email account. Imagine someone steals your gmail password and starts scanning your mail for all those nice account activation mails you’ve been getting for years. Hint: “mail me my password”, “reset my password”. In short, the current situation has a lot of security risks. It’s basically all the downsides of a centralized identity solution without any of the advantages. There are many valid concerns about using OpenID related to e.g. phishing. However, what most people overlook is that the current situation is much worse and also that many OpenID providers actually address the concerns by implementing various technical solutions and security practices. For example myopenid.com and verisign employ very sophisticated technologies that you won’t find on many websites where you would happily provide your credit card number. There is no technical reason whatsoever why openid providers can’t use the same or better authentication mechanisms that you probably use with your bank already.
  • While technically some websites could work together on identity, very few do and the ones that do tend to have very strong business ties (e.g. banks, local governments, etc. This means that in most cases, reusable identity is only usable on a handful of partner sites. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are great examples. They each have partner programs that allows externals to authenticate people with them. Only problem: almost nobody seems to do that. So reality check: OpenID is the only widespread single sign on solution on the web. There is nothing else. All the other stuff is hopelessly locked into commercial verticals. Microsoft has been trying for years to get their password solution to do what OpenID is doing today. They failed miserably so far.
  • Web sites are increasingly dependent on each other. Mashups started as an informal thing where site A used an API from site B and did something nice with it. Now these interactions are getting much more complex. The amount of sites involved in typical mashups is increasing and the amount of privacy sensitive data flying around in these mashups is also increasing. A very negative pattern that I’ve seen on several sites is the “please provide your gmail/hotmail/yahoo user password and we’ll import your friends” type feature. Do you really want to share your years of private email conversations with a startup run in a garage in California? Of course not! This is not a solution but a cheap hack. The reality is that something like OpenID + OAuth is really needed because right now many users are putting themselves in danger by happily providing their username and passwords.
  • Social networks like Facebook authenticate people for the many little apps that plug into them. So far Facebook is the most successful here. Facebook provides a nice glimpse of what OpenID makes possible on a much larger scale but it is still a centralized vertical. I am on Facebook and generally like what I see there but I’m not really comfortable with the notion that they are the web from now on (which seems to be implied in their centralized business model). Recent scares with their overly aggressive advertisement schemes shows that they can’t really be trusted.

OpenID is not a complete solution for the above problems and it is important to realize that is by design: it tries to solve only one problem and tries to solve it well. But generally it is a vast improvement over what is used today. Additionally, it can be complemented with protocols like OAuth which are about delegating permissions from one site to another on your behalf. OpenID and OAuth are very well integrated with the web architecture in the sense that they are not monolithic identity solutions but modular solutions designed to be combined with other modular solutions. This modular nature is essential because it allows for very diverse combinations of technology. This in turn allows different sites to implement the security they need but in a compatible way. For example, for some sites allowing any OpenID provider would be a bad idea. So, implement whitelisting and work with a set of OpenID providers you trust (e.g. Verisign).

OpenID and OAuth provide a very decent base level of protection that is not available from any other widely used technology currently. The closest thing to it is the Liberty Alliance/SAML/Microsoft family of identity products. These are designed for and applied exclusively in enterprise security products. You find them in banks and financial institutions; travel agencies, etc. These are also used on the web but invariably only to build verticals. Both Google and Microsoft use technologies like this to power their identity solutions. In fact, many OpenID identity providers also use these technolgies. For example, Microsoft is rumoured to OpenID enable their solution and several members of the Liberty Alliance (e.g. Sun) have been experimenting with OpenID as well. They are not mutually exclusive technologies.

It gets better though. Many OpenID providers are employing really advanced anti phishing technologies. Currently you and your cryptographically weak password are just sitting ducks for Russian/Nigerian/Whatever scammers. Even if you think your password is good, it probably isn’t. OpenID doesn’t specify how to authenticate. Consequently, OpenID providers are competing on usability and anti phishing features. For example, Verisign and myopenid.com employ techniques that makes them vastly more secure than most websites out there, including some where you make financial transactions. There has been a lot of criticism on openid and this has been picked up by those that implement it.

So now on to OpenID 2.0. This version is quite important because it is the result of many companies discussing what should be in there for a very long time. In some respects there are a few regrettable compromises and maybe not all of the spec is that good of an idea (e.g. .name support). But generally it is a vast improvement over OpenID 1.1 which is what is in use currently and which is technically flawed in several ways that 2.0 fixes. The reason 2.0 is important is because many companies have been holding off OpenID support until it was ready.

The hope/expectation is that those companies will start enabling OpenID logins for their sites over the next few months. The concern expressed here is that this may not actually happen and that in fact OpenID hype seems past its glory already. Looking at how few sites I can actually sign into with my OpenID today, I’d have to agree. As of yet, no major website has adopted OpenID. Sure there are plenty of identity providers that support OpenID but very few relying parties that accept identities from those providers. Most of the OpenID sites out there are simple blogs, startups web 2.0 type stuff, etc. The problem seems to be that everybody is waiting for everybody else and also that everybody is afraid of giving up control over their little clusters of users.

So ironically, even though there are many millions of openids out there, most of their owners don’t use them (or even are aware of having one). Pretty soon openid will be the authentication system with the most users on this planet (if not already) and people don’t even know about it. Even the largest web sites have no more than something like a hundred million users (which is a lot). Several of those sites are already openid identity providers (e.g. AOL).

The reason I hope OpenID does get some adoption is because if it isn’t it will take a very long term for something similar to emerge. This means that the current very undesirable situation is prolonged for a very long time. In my view a vast improvement is needed over the current situation and besides OpenID, there seems to be very little in terms of solutions that can realistically be used today.

The reason I am posting this is because over the past few months me and my colleagues have been struggling with how to do security in decentralized smart spaces. If you check my publications web site, you will see several recent workshop papers that provide a high level overview of what we are building. Most of these papers are pretty quiet on security so far even though obviously security and privacy is a huge concern in a world where user devices use each others services and mash them up with commercial services in both the local network and internet. Well, the solution we are applying in our research platform is a mix of OpenID, OAuth and some rather cool add-ons that we have invented to those. Unfortunately I can’t detail too much about our solutions yet except that I am very excited about them. Over the next year, we should be able to push out more information into the public.