The Business of Identity: Thoughts from the NSTIC White House Event

Yesterday’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace event was a bit of a blur. Really good conversations. Lots of new ideas swimming through my head. Here are some of the highlights:

New faces from outside the echo chamber

First and foremost, there were a lot of new faces and new companies at the NSTIC event. The NSTIC team did an admirable job of getting companies to the table that hadn’t been there before. There were retailers, energy companies, and banks in the room who had never engaged with the identity community before. This is a huge step forward. As I wrote about last week, participation, specifically relying party participation, is critical to the success of NSTIC. As Senator Mikulski said, “The key to a voluntary system is actually having volunteers.” If the event was indication, there is a new wave of volunteers, willing to participate in NSTIC.

Business of Identity

The bulk of our conversations yesterday were regarding the business impact of better identity practices. Companies pointed to existing inefficiencies that they can remove from their business simply by starting to accept federated credentials. These sorts of scenarios weren’t particularly complex, which is why they have good chance to succeed. They are simple scenarios with real business impact – exactly the kind of thing identity teams need in order to demonstrate value.

What was even better was that these simple scenarios were the stepping-stone to more complex, new business opportunities. Remove inefficiencies, then unlock new business, repeat. We’ll be talking more about these opportunities in future blog posts and in our research.

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Beyond Industrial Era Identity Management

(The following is the statement I’ll deliver today at the National Strategy For Trusted Identities in Cyberspace event at the White House.)

Our way of thinking about identity management is outdated. This outdated thinking poorly reflects the way we interact on Main Street, and it doesn’t fit the needs of people and enterprises trying to interact on the Internet.

On the whole, current thinking regarding identity management is that of the Industrial Era. Enterprises are creating “company towns” for identity. In the Industrial Era, companies, such as Pullman, created towns for their workers to live in, and these towns provided all the services that the employees could use. In today’s identity “company towns,” the enterprise has created your identity, owns your identity, and you cannot use your identity anywhere else – it has no value or meaning outside of “the town.”

This model is problematic. First, this is antithetical to our belief in self-determination. Second, this model is costly. Enterprises have to create and support extra services to manage identities. This also increases information security risk because the enterprise possesses potentially sensitive information that it must protect, not to mention the problems and risks related to over-collection of personal information. The last problem with this outdated way of thinking is that it doesn’t reflect how the non-digital world works.

In the “real” world, I can choose how I want to be known and how much I want to share with others. I can pick my nicknames; I can choose not to share my name. I can choose to tell a merchant my phone number or that my first car was made in America.

Businesses have grown to accommodate and augment the way we interact. Companies offer services to help an enterprise strengthen individually asserted claims, such as my name and my address. Credit bureaus and other services help businesses gain higher assurance that the “Ian” in front of them is really me.

We must leave the “company town” model of identity management. We must shift our digital interactions to be more like our day-to-day, face-to-face ones. The evolution toward federated identity would mean that our identities are no longer owned by parties other than ourselves.

Just as in the real world, third parties can be consulted to help an enterprise have greater assurance that the “@iglazer” using its service is me. Such third parties can help the enterprise have greater confidence that “@iglazer” is over-21 and has a verified mailing address here in DC. By the way, the services offered by these third parties are new business opportunities.

With both greater assurance about the individual’s identity and confidence in what they claim about themselves, business can:

  • avoid managing identities and thus not have to deploy extra services such as password reset
  • reduce information risk by collecting less information about individuals
  • deliver higher value services to the individual

In the last year, NSTIC has acted as a catalyst, not only for protocol and specification development, but has also driven policy conversations, and more importantly, business conversations. In a way, NSTIC has given the “all clear” signal for the business to get involved in this evolution of identity management.

I used to take calls from Fortune 500 companies asking, “Should we care about OpenID?” Now I take calls that ask:

  • “What are business models for identity providers?”
  • “What communities of interest are likely replying parties for our identity services?”

Within these questions are lie new business opportunities that my customers are looking to capitalize upon.

Now is the time to act. Study your current use of identity – are you the mayor of an identity “company town?” If you truly think you own other people’s identities, take a hard look at whether that ownership brings enough value to offset the expense and risk of maintaining those identities. For most organizations, the risk and expense of owning identities outweighs any tangible benefits. For most organizations, owning identities is a vestige of outdated thinking. As NSTIC gains momentum, now is the time to plan and deploy for our federated future. I am very eager to hear from my fellow panelists and the audience what they are doing and what they have planned.


Put 100 Relying Parties in a Room and What Do You Get?

It’s an open secret among us identity geeks that, despite all of federated identity’s progress, one thing has lagged significantly: relying party participation1. Getting relying parties to the table, to talk about challenges they have with identity on the Internet, has always been a hard problem. Although the identity community has grown, the number of relying parties getting involved with things like the Internet Identity Workshop hasn’t kept pace.

Willingly or not, NIST’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) has taken up the challenge of increasing relying party participation. Without real-life use cases based on actual business, actually problems, NSTIC is, though aspirational, vague. However, armed with a set of discrete use cases, NSTIC (and more importantly the identity community) can begin to craft solutions, discover unforeseen challenges, strengthen protocols, and tackle policy issues. But to get these needed use cases requires relying parties to be involved.

To that end, NSTIC is hosting an event at the White House Wednesday May 23rd. The program office has invited over 100 companies all of whom are potential relying parties. These companies are household names, spanning multiple industry sectors. In short, they are a cross-section of economic engines of this country, and by bringing them together in a safe space, the NSTIC program office hopes pick up the pace of relying party engagement and bolster the ranks of companies who can become more efficient and unlock new value by using federated identity.

But there’s only so much convincing the government can do directly. At the event, I’ll be participating on a panel of companies from different industries discussing the value they can recognize by using the techniques that NSTIC promotes. I am going to try and tweet as much as I can from the event and will follow up with a post on its results. If you want to keep tabs on NSTIC’s relying party party, follow me, and tune in on Wednesday May 23rd at 10am eastern.


1 I know that getting identity providers to play is an issue too but that seems to be an easier problem to solve.

Collective Punishment: SOPA and Protect-IP are Threats to NSTIC and Federated Identity

As a technologist you’ve likely heard about the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) or the Protect-IP Act. The intention of these bills, as described by SOPA, is “[t]o promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” It provides a range of resource to tackle “foreign websites” who “engage in, enable or facilitate” copyright or trademark infringement. Amongst SOPA’s so-called “reasonable measures” of dealing with the assertion that a site engages in, enables, or facilitates copyright infringement, is the use of DNS filter. In essence, the site’s hosting provider would be required to modify its DNS records such that entry for does not resolve. Beside the well publicized incompatibility between DNS filtering and DNSSEC, DNS filtering has tangible negative effects on federated identity systems including the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC.)

Consider the imaginary example of the University of Imagistan. The University is renowned for its comparative literature, geology, and biology programs as well as it its study-abroad program. The University recently upgraded a section of its website dedicate to excellent study-abroad program, hoping to attract more students from the US. Also the University recently upgraded its search engine making more content accessible from its website

Meanwhile, a professor from the University of Imagistan has been using the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed to aid his research. There she has bookmarked a variety of articles that she found interesting. One thing to note about how the professor logs in to PubMed. Thanks to NSTIC (well FICAM actually, but same idea in this case), she does not need a separate username and password to access PubMed but instead logs in using her credentials from the University of Imagistan – a federated logon. When she accesses PubMed, PubMed gathers credential information from the University’s IdP service.

Now imagine that the University’s search engine discovered, indexed, and then linked to spam found in a student’s University-hosted blog. This spam advertised both herbal “performance enhancement” pills as well as a torrent for Hollywood’s action movie du jour – ‘The Postman Got Disintermediated”. At this point the University is squarely in SOPA’s sights:

  • It is a “foreign website”
  • A portion of it, the study-abroad program, is “US-directed”
  • It facilitates copyright infringement (bit torrent of the movie) and is a threat to health in safety (possibly counterfeit drugs)

If the University’s hosting provider receives and chooses to act upon a request to take the website down via DNS filtering. Now when the professor attempts to access PubMed she cannot. Why? Because the federation between PubMed and the University has been broken. PubMed will be unable to access the identity provider at the University because PubMed cannot resolve it via DNS. This means that the professor loses access to all of the articles she previously bookmarked; the value of PubMed is diminished in the process. Keep in mind, that the professor has absolutely nothing to do with the supposed copyright infringement; she just wanted to use the services that she used to use via federation.

The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, at its core, promotes the use of federated identity. It asserts that an identity ecosystem can provide stronger, more trustworthy credentials, while offering people greater control over their privacy. The approach SOPA and Protect-IP poisons this ecosystem – denying access to IdPs in turn denies access to downstream relying parties and service.

Using censorship tools to enforce copyright does more harm than good. The DNS filtering in SOPA and Protect-IP proposes breaks federation, denying service to not just a supposed infringing website. SOPA and Protect-IP prevent people, who use identity services (identity provider, attribute provider, etc) from that accused domain, from using services like PubMed and every other relying party such as Flickr, Google Apps,, etc.) This, my friends, is the definition of collective punishment.

There are a lot of issues with SOPA and Protect-IP, and the bills have inspired a growing chorus of opposition. If reading the works of Congress is unappealing, check out the Center for Democracy and Technology and/or the Electronic Freedom Foundation; they both have excellent coverage of both bills. TechDirt has compiled resources for contacting your Senator or Representative.

UPDATE – January 13

It appears that someone’s (or maybe everyone’s) voice has been heard. Both Lamar Smith and Patrick Leahy have decided to amend SOPA and Protect-IP respectively to remove the DNS filtering sections. It is heartening that Congress has come to its senses and decided not to employ censorship tools to enforce copyright. The only good that came of this affair is the reminder that our identity systems have dependencies lower down in the stack. We must acknowledge and mitigate threats to those foundational layers, regardless whether such threats are technical or legislative.