When I read the first few lines of Sun’s press release announcement support of OpenID, I almost quit reading because it seemed un-newsworthy. And for you PR folks writing press releases, here’s the kind of stuff that triggers my “so what” response: “Through its new initiative, Sun is exploring what changes and practices are needed to make OpenID applicable to a broader spectrum of business and IT challenges.” Alert the media!
But Sun’s use of OpenID as an outward-facing registry of their workforce is an interesting move. Few businesses will trust just any old OpenID provider; rather, businesses will likely accept only OpenIDs (if any) from a provider on a whitelist. By tying a corporate identity to an OpenID, the relying party can improve the assurance of the issuer and make inferences however they may.
OK, still not huge news, but Sun’s initiative has incited the right kind of dialogue among OpenID enthusiasts. Tim Bray blogged on Sun’s forthcoming OpenID provider, which reinvigorated the identity gang mailing list. I’m convinced that the actual solution won’t be nearly as rosy as Tim portrays it. I’m not sure, for example, just how confident you can be that someone holding one of these OpenID’s is really a Sun employee (or just a contractor or former executive). But in my view, Sun’s pushing OpenID in the right direction.
In fact, I’d like to see these ideas taken much further. The Diffie-Hellman qualities of OpenID can be put to much better use than the SSO use cases so often cited. It’s as if the OpenID community serendipitously stumbled onto something that is of great value and has yet to realize it. I alluded to this in a previous post. Although the name “OpenID” is catchy, it’d be better if we didn’t think of OpenID’s as IDs; and it’d be better not to think of the URIs associated with OpenIDs as usernames. And it would be great if people could have a dozen or so of these things at their disposal.
I recently published a report at Burton Group called, “In Search of the Internet Identity System: Contrasting the Federation Approaches of SAML, WS-Trust, and OpenID,” in which I proposed an alternative use of OpenID. Here’s an excerpt:
OpenID Is for Showoffs
Although its proponents tout SSO as the most important feature of OpenID, the standard can be put to better use. The proofs in OpenID allow for a certain kind of interaction that is of great value on the Internet. Roughly, OpenID enables a person to demonstrate control over a given web property to a stranger (who understands OpenID). It’s a web version of showing someone you own a car by hitting the “unlock” button on your key fob. Although this might seem a high-tech form of showing off, it can also be used in reputation systems. For example, a user may demonstrate control over a dozen popular websites to gain access to an exclusive site. The user may also demonstrate ownership of a particular reputation (on eBay, for example).
OpenID not only demonstrates a relationship, but to a degree, projects the status of a relationship, because the demonstration is dynamic (not based on historical certification). Once a user can demonstrate control over a resource (such as reputation), the user can then offer it as collateral in forming a new relationship. Accordingly, in the hands of astute architects, OpenID may be used to reduce risk in relationships. (For more information, see the post “Law of Relational Risk” on the Burton Group Identity and Privacy Strategies blog.)
In short, OpenID may be a convenient, scalable way to project high quality signals to perfect strangers. (For background on the topic of signaling, have a look at the work of Judith Donath). Using OpenID in this way may also satisfy the need for multi-factor identity that I pointed out in my post on the law of relational risk:
… single sign-on (SSO) efforts are often misguided. In the interest of promoting relational continuity, the more authenticated connections the better—particularly if the user can parlay these authentications into improved reputation. Recognition of participants based on multiple channels of connectivity would be the method for improving identity assurance rather than on a single login event.
To me, these are important elements for creating functional online relations and societies. At Catalyst, we’ll be proposing other pieces of a technical architecture to support relational and social processes important to social trust. So if you have any thoughts on the subject, please drop a comment on this post!
[posted by Mike Neuenschwander]