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OpenID goes to the White House

Created: 22 Sep 2009 • Updated: 08 Aug 2012
nicolas_popp's picture
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Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to join the OpenID foundation and Information Card boards for a meeting with CIO, Vivek Kundra and his staff at the Whitehouse. The goal was to discuss the forthcoming OpenID pilot and better understand the government commitment to enabling distributed identity on the Web. Undeniably, this was a very interesting and spirited discussion.

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A key take home for me was the recognition of identity as the lynchpin to new citizen-centric services, governmental IT cost reduction, and stronger cyber security. For key Obama initiatives such as citizen participation or electronic health records, identity management was described as foundational. Equally impressive was the sense of a holistic and consensual approach towards the broad deployment of trusted digital services across federal, state and local Web sites.

In particular, there is a clear view that the deployment of low level assurance identities is only a critical first step, not an end in itself. With the initial OpenID pilot, the administration is seeking to teach Internet users how to conveniently and confidently re-use their identities across multiple sites. Federation is a new behavior and as such, it requires training. Federal and State web sites will provide an important training ground of relying parties. The government endorsement of OpenID is likely to prove significant. After all, if OpenID is good and secure enough for the government, it should be good and secure enough for most Web sites. Beside, once consumers are comfortable using distributed identities, it becomes possible to alter the login experience by introducing stronger security and identity assurance. This is the ultimate end game since high assurance identity services are pre-conditions to new strategic initiatives.

Consider health care reforms for example. To counter balance the $900B expense that the new Obama plan calls for, electronic health records must come to reality. However, eHealth requires access control across a large and complex ecosystem. Users must be able to register, login and access private data across physicians, hospital, pharmacies, labs, insurance, and employers Web sites. Privacy and security concerns are high on the list. Without high assurance, clear liability models and robust shared identity services, eHealth is a non-starter.

The crawl, walk run approach to identity services that our federal government is taking may prove insightful. By restricting initial interaction to pseudonymous and low assurance level identities, federal web sites instantly provides the industry with a simple test bed to iron out the trust and privacy frameworks necessary to the deployment of large federated identity networks. User experience, privacy policy and security approach that can work for millions of consumers will have to be standardized. The liability elephant that has been haunting the identity discussion rooms will have to be tamed. No doubt that the OpenID foundation, the Information Card foundation and many other have their work cut out for the next few months.

So, keep an eye on the pilot. If all the planets keep aligning, and federated identity can prove to significantly increase user registration, an important chapter in the book of distributed identity systems may be just about to open in front of us.