Dare to Trust OpenID

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-02-20 Print this article Print

Just about all the major companies in the business are on board now, and if it's widely adopted it should make things better for users on the Web. 

If you run a Web site-let's say a storefront-that manages user information, you need to authenticate your users. It's dangerous business, but you have to do it and you have to do it well. Screwing up could ruin your reputation.

And yet you're also part of a big problem for users: the proliferation of IDs. Think of all the log-ins you have all over the Web. Some sites have you log in with a username, which is probably the same as your username on all others. And some have you log in with an e-mail address (a pretty good system in its day). And then you need a password. Do you use the same one everywhere? Not a good idea; one of those sites gets compromised and your ID everywhere else is compromised. Plus, you're not in the authentication business, so you're probably not going to do the best job possible.

There are personal solutions available, like RoboForm, but the Internet needs a systemic solution, and one is available in the form of OpenID. OpenID is a standard for authentication by third parties. Instead of asking you for your log-in, a site could ask you for your OpenID, which takes the form of a URL, such as myname.openid-provider.net. In fact, with the newer 2.0 version of OpenID, you may just have to provide the domain, such as yahoo.com (yes, Yahoo supports such usage for its members).

At this point, the process is redirected through an HTTP 302 redirect to that provider, which authenticates you by whatever means have been arranged. It could just ask for a password, but it could be stricter than that. For instance, it could demand two-factor authentication, such as that I discussed in a recent column. Some sites, such as VeriSign Labs' and Ping Identity's SignOn.com, have added phishing-resistant log-ins with features reminiscent of Bank of America's SiteKey. Oh, and I have to mention VeriSign's OpenID Firefox plugin, SeatBelt.

And there's a fair amount of excitement around OpenID among third parties, tops of which is the news that Google, IBM, Microsoft, VeriSign and Yahoo have joined the board of the OpenID Foundation. The foundation doesn't own the standards of OpenID per se, but facilitates the standards and development process. With a board like that, OpenID is either unstoppable or doomed. I don't see why this group would conspire against OpenID, so I'll just assume it's a good thing for now.

Security analysts strip away malware's armor. Read more here. 

So can you trust OpenID? Paul Ferguson, a senior techie at Trend Micro, says (in what appears to be a personal blog) no. I know Paul from security mailing lists and he's got a point, but I think he throws out the baby with the bathwater. His point is that you, the user, have to trust that the OpenID provider will securely store your credentials and handle them responsibly, and that they could easily screw this up. Therefore, he won't be using it.

I also think that I wouldn't trust just any OpenID provider, but I would trust, for example, VeriSign, which has been in the OpenID provider business from the very early days. VeriSign is high on it, and (for what it's worth) the company even goes to the trouble of putting an EV SSL certificate on the site. Why do I trust VeriSign? I don't know, call me naive, but it runs trusted authentication infrastructure for very big businesses. Seems to me the industry as a whole has bought into OpenID in theory, and if anyone can implement it well, VeriSign can.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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