Blogger: Mike Neuenschwander
Melissa Lafsky, editor of freakonomics.com, recently posted on the debate, mystery, and hype surrounding OpenID. Refreshingly, she’s not buying in to any side of the debate; she simply wants to know whether OpenID can do anything useful, namely aid in the war on identity theft. Bob Blakely posed the question in a more general sense when he asked proponents of the technology “what is OpenID for?”
As Melissa points out, there’s plenty of debate over the technical merits and business models for OpenID. For those of you that want to dive in to the minutia of it all, I recommend starting with this post from Stefan Brands and this response from David Recordon. And never one to miss an opportunity to market my own musings, I highly recommend checking out my posts here and here.
But technical issues aside, I think it’s more important for people to understand a few concepts about what OpenID actually is, since it’s not immediately obvious. For one thing, although the name is catchy, OpenID isn’t an ID. Also, it’s not necessarily a single sign-on (SSO) protocol. OpenID is a protocol for “proving” control of an Internet address. The idea is that you log into something you control on the Internet; then using OpenID you can provide evidence to others that you have a verified relationship with the thing you logged into. The following example should clarify how this works:
OpenID-Inspired Bridge Buying
- Imagine your telephone rings and you answer “hello, who’s this?”
- A voice on the other end says “I own a bridge and I would like to sell you that bridge”;
- You say “Interesting. But who are you?”
- The caller responds “I’m the bridge owner; I’m going to pass you to someone who will verify that I own the bridge.”
- You hear some Muzak and a couple of weird clicking noises; you notice the Caller ID on your phone says “ACME bridge verification.” Then another voice answers the phone and you say “who is this?”
- You hear a voice that says, “I’m the Acme bridge ownership verification service; the guy you just talked to in fact owns that bridge. Thank you for your time.”
So the question is, under what context would you take such a deal? If you knew the caller also owned the ACME bridge owner verification service you would justifiably be suspicious. But if you already had a good relationship with the verification service, it might be a pretty good thing.
Currently, OpenID doesn’t include a mechanism for setting up a suitable context for most purposes (bridge buying or otherwise). Sure, we can invent one. But remember that really smart people have worked on trust problems for years. Things get much trickier once you start adding trust; in fact the protocol starts to look a lot like the also-rans that preceded OpenID.