Managing Credentials on the Web

January 19, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Cyber Security, Identity Management | 1 Comment
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I enjoyed reading a good natured rant about the vagaries of managing your identity online on the Des Res blog the other week.  If, like me, you work for a large organisation, you’ll probably be obliged to follow strict rules on selecting a password for access to corporate systems.  If, again like me, you use a lot of websites that require you to select credentials for logging in, you may struggle to manage a large (and constantly growing) set of strong passwords without writing them down.  In these circumstances, it’s very tempting to re-use the strong password for your work systems for other purposes.

Identity 2.0

Identity 2.0 or digital identity has long promised to solve these problems in a world where a user can potentially have one online identity, with a pre-certified proof which is submitted when required for authentication.  This model is represented by Microsoft’s Cardspace and the open source Higgins project, but has been slow to gain momentum.  However, in recent years, a number of the larger IAM vendors, starting with CA Technologies, have added support for these technologies to their Web Access Management products.

Multiple Identities Online

Of course, being able to use a single identity and set of credentials for all your online activities is a real “good news/bad news” story.  The convenience of managing a single set of credentials comes at a price:  it’s quite conceivable that your visits to different websites could be aggregated and correlated, to build a far more comprehensive (and revealing) picture of your online activity than you might feel comfortable with.  It’s also true to say that not all web sites we visit (and register for) justify the same level of strength in authenticating our identity.  For example:

  • Online Banking: There’s so much at stake if your banking credentials become compromised that it’s obvious to all but the hard of thinking that those credentials should never be used elsewhere.  In a previous post, I described how my bank allows me to be warned if I try to re-use internet banking credentials on another site, by providing me with a free copy of Trusteer Rapport.  This protection can be easily extended to other high risk sites.
  • Social Media: As I’ve described on these pages before, I use a wide range of social media applications (in the widest sense of the term) to maintain my contact list, collect and collate information and publicise this blog.  Each site requires a separate set of credentials, but increasingly I’m offered the chance to sign in to one application using the credentials from another (very often, either Twitter or Facebook).  This makes use of the Open Authentication (OAuth) protocol.  OAuth allows the user to authenticate with their chosen service to generate a token.  The token can then be used to allow another application to access resources for a given period of time.  So, for example, when configuring Tweetdeck, I authenticate in turn to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Buzz and authorise Tweetdeck to use the OAuth tokens to retrieve data from those applications until I revoke that access.

Single Sign On
This still leaves a wide range on different sites that require a login.  I use a wide range of Cloud Services, including Drop Box (of which, more in a moment), Windows Live Mesh, Mind Meister (for collaborating on mind maps), MobileNoter (for sharing and synchronising Microsoft OneNote) and of course, Google Docs.  These (or at least the data I entrust to them) are important enough to me to warrant good quality credentials and together they make a good case for Single Sign On.  With more than 10 years’ experience in Identity Management projects, I’ve always viewed SSO as primarily a user productivity tool, with some incidental security benefits.  However, I came across a story on Mashable, describing tools for managing web passwords and quickly realised that I could:

  • Store all my credentials in a single location;
  • Secure them with a single strong password, which never leaves my machine;
  • Synchronise that credential store across multiple computers by locating the credential store on Drop Box;
  • Use the same, synchronised solution on my iPhone.

So, armed with these requirements and the Mashable product reviews, I eventually settled on 1Password.  As well as a management app, which sits in the system tray, 1Password installs a plug-in for all the modern browsers (I’m using it with IE and Firefox) which detects when you’re completing a registration or login form and prompts you to save the credentials.  Next time you visit the site, just press the 1Password button to login.  Incidentally, the Mashable article mentions that 1Password is primarily a Mac product, with a Windows version in beta.  The Windows version is now in fact available as a paid-for GA product.

Summing Up

So, in conclusion, it’s possible to figure out a strategy to at least simplify sign on and credential management to a wide range of web sites and applications, each with differing needs for strength and protection.  By and large, the tools to do this a available for free and even the commercial components I chose are available for a very modest fee.  All in all, the benefits far outweigh the modest outlay of time and cash.

21st Century Typing Pool

August 8, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Collaboration | Leave a comment
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I’ve written before in this blog about the difficulties of managing information across multiple computers and other devices, when you’re an independent consultant, looking to stretch your budget using (mostly) free tools.  In those posts, I’ve speculated that at some point, I would need to resolve the problem of how to collaborate in real-time with colleagues.  As it happens, it was after my recent return to the corporate world that the first real need came up.

I accepted an assignment to write a short document for an important customer.  The document was to be co-authored by me and a colleague, with other members of our team making contributions or acting as reviewers.  The problem was that we had a very short period of time to produce a first draft and it was unlikely that we’d be able to find much time working together in the same office – a clear case for online collaboration.

The nice thing about my current employer is that staff are actively encouraged to experiment with social media, collaboration and other tools.  So in casting around for a solution, there were no shortage of suggestions.  Keep in mind that:

  • We didn’t have the time to be very formal in our approach;
  • There was no clear demarcation on who should write each section – we anticipated that we’d all contribute to all of it;
  • It was to be only a short (no more than 20 page) document.

Given who we work for, the logical first step was to try out Lotus Quickr. This web-based system allows real-time collaboration for teams and can work both inside and outside the corporate firewall.  It was useful for building a library for the reference material we needed for our task, particularly with connectors allowing us to drag and drop files into the library on the Windows desktop and to use it from within email (Lotus Notes) and IM (Lotus SameTime).  However, while it has all the facilities for managing collaboration on a document, they proved too formal for our requirements.  Documents must be checked out for editing and then checked back in for review.  That was just too slow (and single user!) for our purposes.

Our next attempt was to use a wiki.  This allowed us to work on our document collaboratively, either in a simple markup language or using a WYSIWYG editor from a web browser.  So far, so good.  The problem came when we tried to simultaneously edit the document.  Wikis are designed to be open for anyone to edit.  The philosophy is that incorrect information, bad grammar or typos will be quickly corrected by someone else.  This is fine, if you have the time to break your document into a series of hyperlinked pages.  For us though, when we were both working simultaneously, the last one to save changes was confronted with either overwriting his coauthor’s changes or discarding his own.

Finally, my co-author (Identity and Access Management specialist Matt Kowalski) persuaded me that we should try Google Docs.  We both use a number of Google services already (in my case, Buzz and Wave, as well as Calendar), so it was a simple matter to set up an account, import our existing draft from Microsoft Word and get started.  Google Docs is like using the 50% of functionality in Word that everyone uses, without being slowed down by the other 50% that no-one uses.  Even the toolbars are familiar enough to start working straightaway.  You of course have control over who can collaborate and who can view, but within those boundaries, everyone can work simultaneously.  This can be a little unnerving at first, seeing changes happen elsewhere on the page, as you’re typing.

Google Docs allows some collaboration apart from document editing.  It provides an online chat window when collaborators are editing or viewing the document at the same time.  However, it occurred to me that the whole idea of Google Wave is to provide more sophisticated collaboration tools.  The downside of Wave of course is that you can’t create, edit or share documents.  However, you can work around that by integrating the two services, using the Google Wave iFrame gadget.  I know that Google Wave will be shut down at the end of this year, but for now, it seems worth taking the time to experiment.  To me, it seems to work well, albeit in somewhat limited screen real estate.

Of course, if I’m going to consider using such a combination for real work, I need to consider security – that is after all my speciality.  The first consideration is to be able to back up and restore anything I commit to Google Docs.  For this, I turned again to Backupify.  Sure enough, their free service includes backup of a single Google Docs account.  I configured it and by next morning, I’d received an email confirming the first successful backup.  To be sure, I accessed the archive at Backupify.  I opened the archive, located my document and opened it, without any drama at all.

For a real commercial solution using Google Docs, it would be necessary to add further security.  CA Technologies recently announced new cloud based capabilities for its Identity and Access Management (IAM) suite, allowing customers to provision users with credentials in Google Apps (including Google Docs) and also to enforce access through CA Siteminder and for business partners through CA Federation Manager.  No doubt other vendors either have or are developing equivalent capabilities.

By way of a conclusion, we found a solution to our dilemma – a multiuser, real-time collaboration system, to edit and then publish a document.  In practice, it was easy to use and the necessary security can be easily (and to some extent for free) added.  Give it a try yourself – if you want to try it in Wave, then you’ll have to be quick.

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