Beyond user-centric

User-centricity – often expressed in the “7 Laws of Identity” – has been a common theme in identity management for a while now. At the heart of these principles lies the desire to empower the end-users of a computer systems and enable them to negotiate with the provider of service the amount of PII data the users have to disclose for getting access. Beyond the initial authentication and authorization steps for resource access also lies an ocean of other problems such as delegation, pre-authorization, and emergency overrides. These issues play into a vast number of use cases in very different areas such as financials, health care, and social networking.

At the same time, a rather important aspect of identity has been completely ignored: the systems we interact with and their component services and devices do have identities as well, and these identities must be managed with the same details as person identities. The need for non-person identity management goes well beyond the realm of security sensitive environments such as various government services: we are getting ever more dependent on a growing number of devices and services including mundane things such as smart phones and ebook readers, but also critical items such as health monitors. In many cases, high-value or critical services rely on less valued service (such as a health monitors that use the mobile phone system for notification). Overall, we are seeing a polynomial growth of interdependencies of such services of devices.

With these problems looming, it becomes more and more urgent to extend the practices learned in identity management for persons to non-person entities. The solutions for this new class of identities will have to be significantly different, since devices and services will interact with the IdM systems in very different ways and might also have significantly different needs. For example, while privacy protection is important for end-users, devices and services and their operators will likely be more concerned with secrecy, which might borrow from some privacy best practices, but be different in other respects. 

Interestingly enough, PKI has had a notion of non-person identities already for some while. We are relying on the internet PKI for authenticating servers to users and services. At the same time, PKI has been very cumbersome to roll-out to end-users and edge devices. As such, there are some lessons that PKI can provide, so that the efficiencies and abstractions of SAML and related technologies can to go beyond simple user-centricity.

As a challenge, here are some questions that I have with regards to identity management of non-person entities:

  1. What identity can devices and services have? How are these identities different from human identities?
  2. What are the minimal requirements on machine identities?
  3. What new and different interaction patterns are required for enabling machine identities?
  4. How do concepts such as reputation translate into the machine world? 
  5. When machine and human identities interact, is there a need for disclosure that one party is non-human? Or human?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *