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.

Protecting your Identity

August 1, 2010 at 12:23 am | Posted in Data Protection, Identity Theft | 7 Comments
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A post on Twitter from @backupify the other day amused me …

“Google Apps has the same vulnerability as Microsoft products: Users”

They were making the point (explained further in their blog) that, according to a poll,  a significant number of administrators, if they were fired, would take with them business sensitive information.  Now, I’m not looking at those that take business sensitive information (customer databases, price lists, R&D files) as serious as that might be.  What interests me is that a significant number said they’d take a key set of credentials with them.  Yet another reminder of how vulnerable our online identity can be.

It also occurs to me that you can’t always expect to mitigate users’ behaviour with software based controls, particularly when those users are members of the general public, with, at best, a sketchy idea of what online security is all about.  back in 2003, I was working as lead architect on an Identity Management solution for ABSA, South Africa’s biggest retails bank (and now part of the Barclays group).  3 customers had funds removed from their accounts through ABSA’s internet banking facilities, in what appeared to be the country’s first documented case this type of crime.  It transpired that the 3 customers had picked up a keystroke logger, not having the necessary security software installed on their home PCs.  Nevertheless, it was their Bank that reaped the bad publicity.

Since then, banks around the world have done much to try to protect their customers, offering free or highly subsidised anti-virus software, offering various alternatives to the wholly inadequate use of passwords for authentication and even in some cases, confirming transactions through SMS message to your mobile phone.  My business bank account is protected by a token, which generates a one time password (OTP) as well as a conventional password.  My Bank also supplies me with free anti-fraud software from Trusteer.  The Rapport browser plug-in protects session information stored in the browser and defends against man-in-the middle attacks, trojans and phishing scams.  Most significantly for this discussion, it also monitors the user’s activity on the web and warns if the user attempts to use their Internet banking password in conjunction with another site.

Still though, users will continue fall victim to identity theft because of unwise behaviour online.  So, I was pleased to see Macafee launch a decent eguide to Identity Theft on their website recently.  As well as the guide, Macafee provide an online self-assessment tool.  By answering a series of questions, you can build a picture of the risks you run of identity theft, based on your online behaviour.  The risk assessment tool generates a detailed report in PDF.

Working through the tool, I found that my risk is assessed as moderate.  I could guess as I carried out the assessment which answers were affecting the score, but I feel comfortable that I’m making informed decisions to accept some risks.  After all, you can’t remove all risks, only mitigate some and accept the rest.  In fact, for many years, Marcus Ranum, who is widely credited with designing the first ever commercial firewall, published a picture of a set of wire cutters, under the title “The Ultimate Firewall”.  This illustrates the basic dichotomy in computer security – that for total security you can’t have any connectivity.  All security is a compromise with usability.

The Macafee eGuide and risk assessment tool are welcome resources, provided that they’re brought to the attention of users.  Of course, their publication coincides with the launch of Identity Protection features into their flagship consumer packages.  These features prompt the user for permission before Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is sent to a web site.  This is the consumer equivalent of the Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions, which are beginning to be deployed by large organisations.  These packages aim to identify information assets (files to you and me) on computer systems) that contain PII and apply policies to control what can be done with those files.  This in turn limits the dangers of accidental or malicious leakage of the PII through USB sticks, email attachments, printed copy and so on.  All these technologies will of course help, but ultimately, each of us is responsible for protecting our identity through responsible online behaviour.  At least for now, too many users are completely unaware of the risks in what they do online.   To find out more about the risks, try starting at the UK Information Commissioner’s website.

New Blog, Old Friend

March 18, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’m always on the lookout for interesting new blogs, especially in my main subject area of Identity and Access management.  Of course, I try to follow the blogs of the best known gurus in my field.  However, I reserve space on my blog roll (over to the right =>) for people that I know and trust.

In this spirit, I just added a link to the “Joined Up Thinking” blog, maintained by Stephen Swann.  Stephen is Belfast based and we met around 8 years ago on opposite sides of an IAM project for a retail bank.  I stumbled upon Stephen through Twitter – he showed up in a search, fed through to Google Reader – and we took the advantage to reconnect through LinkedIn. 

Stephen is an experienced and thoughtful professional and I’ll follow his blogging with great interest.  I strongly recommend that you do too.

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News from the RSA Show: CA Provisions to App

March 3, 2010 at 8:23 am | Posted in Cloud Security, Identity Management | 1 Comment
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You may have noticed that I published an article the other day on how user provisioning products have evolved into the sophisticated Identity Management offerings we see today from the major vendors. In that article, I ended by commenting that the next challenge is to be able to extend Identity Management beyond the enterprise, to cater for the whole raft of new application delivery platforms.

According to a Network World article today, CA is expected to announce at the RSA Show that CA Identity Manager will allow organisations to provision their users to Sales Cloud 2.  This new addition is expected to be made available at no cost to exisiting customers.

CA itself is a customer, with access to the applications made available to its sales and pre-sales teams.  CA Siteminder is already integrated into the offering, to provide single sign on.

What will be interesting will be to see to what extent CA can incorporate this cloud-based provisioning into their role life cycle management story.

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The Provenance of Provisioning

September 11, 2009 at 10:01 am | Posted in Identity Management | Leave a comment
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I was reading Dave Kearns’ article on directories in Network World Identity Management Alert (more on that in a later blog) the other day and I spotted a reference to an article from 10 years ago (the newsletter was then called “Fusion Focus on Directory Services”) on the beginnings of the provisioning sector . Aberdeen had christened this new breed of “office productivity” applications as e-provisioning in their Technology Viewpoint of September 1999. Dave recounts how he came across a startup at NetWorld+Interop 99. Dave noted that this startup, Business Layers, was the only vendor active in the new space.

At around that time (well, OK, in early 2000) I had moved from infrastructure and security management at a UK defence contractor to the newly formed security practice at a Top 5 software vendor. While I’m loathe to dispute Dave’s account, it’s not quite as I remembered it. I chatted with colleagues from that time and confirmed that, for example, CA had released their first provisioning solution in 1997. The solution was designed as an extension to CA’s flagship Unicenter networks and systems management family, and released under the name Unicenter Directory Management Option (DMO). Following CA’s acquisition of Platinum, DMO was relaunched as a standalone product under the name eTrust Admin in 2000. It’s maybe not all that surprising though that this went largely unnoticed. A friend (who was the eTrust Admin development manager at the time) recalls how one of the major industry analyst firms contacted CA Analyst Relations to ask if they had a tool for provisioning to be told “No”.

It seems to me that the earliest provisioning vendors were top tier network and systems management vendors (BMC, CA, IBM Tivoli). They started with important advantages. For example, their presence in the mainframe market exposed them to effective and mature (though largely manual) processes for user administration widely found in mainframe shops built around RACF, ACF2 or Top Secret. Secondly, their experience in building network and systems management solutions meant expertise in development of agent technology and reliable (store and forward) messaging, the vital “plumbing” for a provisioning engine. These first attempts placed emphasis on centralised, consistent manipulation of credentials on target systems.

The second wave of provisioning products came from niche vendors (Business Layers, Access 360, Waveset, Thor) and were characterised by their use of web technology and the adoption of configurable workflow-based approval processes. They also initially had limited coverage for connectors (and some connectors had limited capabilities) . At the time of the CA acquisition of Netegrity in 2005, Identity Minder -eProvision (formerly the Business Layers Day One product) was still licenced to use the connectors from BMC’s Control-SA product.

In late 2000, at the height of the DotCom boom, I was lead security architect for a proposed chain of high security hosting centres around the world, to be implemented by a consortium that included CA, Sun and Oracle. Business Layers demonstrated their product, showing me a workflow process, updating its status in real time, displayed on a Unicenter Worldview map. I was impressed – it was better than the integration between the Unicenter components!

These new capabilities however proved to be pre-requisites for delegated administration and user self-service. This then led to a rash of acquisitions, with Netegrity joining CA, Access 360 joining IBM, Thor joining Oracle and Waveset joining Sun. Netegrity brought two distinct offerings to the party, in Identity Minder (web based administration for Siteminder deployments) and eProvision (the former Business Layers product). The 2nd generation CA product was built by integrating Netegrity’s Identity Minder with CA’s eTrust Admin. The eProvision developers left CA to form a new company IDFocus, which developed add-ons for Identity Manager implementing the best features of eProvision which were still missing from the CA product. CA eventually acquired IDFocus in late 2008 and merged the two development teams. BMC acquired a directory management product (Calendra) in 2005 to add the missing elements of workflow and graphical interfaces.

The current race for the Identity Management vendors is to integrate role mining and role management capabilities into their solutions. First, Oracle acquired Bridgestream, then Sun acquired VAAU with their RBACx product. Finally in late 2008, CA acquired Eurekify. Meanwhile IBM have decided to build their capability in-house.

So, where next? It goes without saying that all the major vendors still have much to do to improve integration and remove duplication between the multiple components from which their products are built. Beyond that, I think there’s a growing realisation that real-world deployments of identity management will have to be built from multi-vendor solutions. Mergers , acquisitions and divestments will see to that. The cost, time and risk of replacing one vendor’s IdM products with another’s will prove to be completely unacceptable to the business. So, vendors are going to have to address interoperability seriously. Perhaps this will be the catalyst for renewed interest in
Open standards, such as SPML and DSML. In his article on directories, Dave Kearns noted that as directories matured from the hype of directory-centric networks to unglamorous (but still vital) low level infrastructure, DSML never really took off, despite being adopted by OASIS in 2002. Interoperability is aided when directories (the single source of truth for an IdM system) are able to exchange updated information autonomously.
Which brings us back to where we started.

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