This week Jackson Shaw commented in his blog on an article written by John Fontana. The discussion is about the future of passwords and how federation and structures with IdPs (Identity Providers) will help us to avoid them. Both have somewhat different opinions. However, in both posts there is the idea of having an IdP, using federation, and getting rid of passwords.

My perspective is a little different and I’d like to add two important points (even while I think that Jackson is right with his skepticism regarding a quick replacement of passwords and with highlighting that password management solutions will be required by many organizations):

1)      There is the need to authenticate to the IdP

2)      We won’t rely on a single IdP in future

For the first point you might argue that you can use stronger authentication mechanisms relying on more than one factor (i.e. more than knowledge, more than what you know) when relying on a central IdP or a very few trusted identity providers whose business it is to secure everything. But:

  • We’ve learned that nothing is fully secure – think about the RSA incident last year and many other incidents.
  • We’ve learned that companies earning money for providing a high level of security do not necessarily care much about their own security – think about the DigiNotar scandal.
  • We know that it is pretty complex and costly rolling out hardware-based two- or more-factor authentication – and pure software-based approaches have a tendency to be more limited regarding security. Approaches which require specialized hardware are unlikely to succeed, so until NFC (near field communication, with its own security issues) or security technology built into chipsets becomes standard, we will struggle with this.
  • We also know that user acceptance is key to success – and many of the strong authentication approaches just fail here, like virtually all types of biometrics.
So passwords might still be the approach used by the central IdPs, leaving us in the “sad world of passwords” mentioned in these posts.

Even if we can solve these issues, there is the second one. The future will not see us relying on a single IdP. The future is about having multiple IdPs, even different IdPs for a single transaction and for different claims within one authorization request. I’ve touched on this topic repeatedly in my recent posts.

So many approaches like NSTIC are or might be limited in that they are country specific. NSTIC is driven by a US agency. It shall be usable globally. But will it be accepted globally? Or will others decide for somewhat different approaches? LinkedIn and all the others mentioned by John Fontana can’t rely on anything which is focused on one country. They will have to support IdPs from all over the world, with different implementations and different levels of identity assurance. And that is true for everyone relying on the concept of IdPs and related SPs (Service Providers) or relying parties. Trust frameworks will be dealing with the complexity of having many IdPs (By the way: the Personal Data Stores John Fontana points to won’t help – Life Management Platforms, as described here  and in the related report at least provide some support but not directly for authentication). Clearly nothing of this is about a world without passwords. That might happen when you rely for some interactions and transactions only on IdPs, which assure the authentication based on n-factor-authentication with n>1 and not being pure knowledge. But it isn’t essential for any of these concepts – and as I stated: The fact that we will use more IdPs, moving away from an approach with “the central IdP everything relies on”, we will see a mix of authentication mechanisms.

You could “chain” such IdPs and rely on one strong, primary authentication. But then you are back at defining who that could be, setting up the entire “backend part” (between IdPs) of the Trust Framework, and by having one who is trusted by all AND accepted by the user.

So my view is that there is little hope for a world without passwords within a foreseeable period of time. We might reduce the number of passwords; we might use stronger technologies in many situations. But relying only on federation and Trust Frameworks and so on is not about getting rid of passwords.