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.
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.