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Federating identity will slow personal information leaks

The heartbleed vulnerability, which can leak sensitive data from supposedly secure Web connections, exposes the limits of using one-off credentials that must be authenticated separately for each transaction. Attack surfaces are greatly expanded when personally identifiable information (PII) is maintained by every agency and Web site offering online services.

“The idea that the user must have information everywhere is a bad idea,” said Andre Boysen, executive vice president for marketing at SecureKey. Having a single credential that can be authenticated by a trusted authority and accepted by multiple users can reduce the attack surface by maintaining PII at a single point. It also helps relieve the burden of managing credentials and identities.

This idea of federated identity is not new. Banks, merchants and credit card companies have been using a form of it for years. Merchants no longer have to issue and manage their own credit cards. A bank vets your identity and creditworthiness, a card company ensures the credit card is valid and has not been compromised, and online merchants do not have to worry about who you are as long as a credit card company vouches for the card.

It is not a risk-free system, but the risk is managed. Credit card numbers are sometimes exposed, but the exposure is considerably less than if every merchant had to maintain PII for every customer. When a breach occurs, users have to change one credit card, not one for every merchant visited.

Why can’t government online authentication be this simple? “It is heading that way,” Boysen said.

Canada implemented a Federated Identity Management program to leverage interoperable security credentials several years ago. In the United States, the Postal Service is preparing to roll out the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX), a federated identity management hub that will let agencies accept online credentials issued by trusted third parties.

The system is part of the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. Personal information and the identity of the original issuer of the credentials will be hidden from the FCCX hub, and log-in information will not be shared or compared between agencies. But the agency will know what it needs to know: You are who you say you are.

It should be noted that SecureKey is not exactly an impartial observer in this issue. The company has contracts with both Canada and USPS to provide a cloud-based platform for authenticating digital credentials. But this does not change the fact that a federated system offers a way to improve both security and privacy at a time when attacks on online activities are growing and digital credentials are like money in the bank for criminals.

Government stands to benefit greatly from federated identity schemes. Unlike banks, agencies tend to have relatively few transactions with each individual, which raises the overhead of authenticating each user that logs on. “Basically, every transaction is a re-enrollment,” Boysen said. This is frustrating to the user, expensive for the agency, and each agency also must manage and secure its own database of PII. Offloading authentication to a central hub eliminates the need to hold and protect that extra data.

No scheme will provide absolute security or completely transparent authentication. But federation and an interoperable system of trust can help. With such a system in place, agencies won’t have to worry if PII is leaking from their sites, and users would be able to whittle down the number of passwords and other credentials to be replaced when something does go wrong.

Posted by William Jackson on May 02, 2014 at 11:44 AM


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