If you tell enough stories, perhaps the moral will show up.


Insourcing Authentication

It's appraisal time and the focus is on the performance management system. That's outsourced -- Internet delivered and hosted somewhere in Florida.

The issue that was brought to me was concern that users might be saving their performance management password in the Internet Explorer credential cache. It's never something that's worried me very much -- if you lose control of your workstation session, you've lost a lot more than the right to express an opinion on that annoying support guy with the awkward questions....

But it tied up some ideas that have been rather weakly formed in my mind.

We're outsourcing more and more, and the result is that our users do their jobs with accounts on this system and accounts on that, and I have no real confidence that there's even a consistent list. I'm certain that there are some systems a leaver will retain indefinite access to, simply because the whole service was set up by the business with no IT involvement and the helpdesk will never know to cease the account. This is pretty galling when we've recently put so much work into the Joiners/Leavers/Absentees process and the unused account purge. We're actually getting on top of this, but it's slipping away though a side door. There's certainly no hope of enforcing a consistent account name or password complexity policy.

At the same time, to deal with the many sites like Blogger, Delicious and others that I use all the time from loads of PCs, I've been looking at OpenID, a public authentication system, that allows the administrators of an Internet hosted application to securely trust a logon completed at a different site. I've gone so far as to set up an OpenID on the Verisign test site, even though I've nothing to log in to it with.

So I've been toying with the idea that authentication was a service we could outsource -- to Verisign or perhaps a two-factor supplier. In fact, I had that exactly wrong. Authentication is the one service we can always do better than anyone else because no-one can know better than we do, who works for us. This is true even if we don't know very well ourselves....

So we shouldn't outsource -- we should insource. We should provide an OpenID service as part of our infrastructure support for application outsourcing. Then we become the authority on who works for us, and what tests they have to pass to prove it:

  • Log on from inside, and you just need a logged-on Windows session; log on from the Internet and it'll ask for your RSA token.
  • The helpdesk can cease your OpenID when you leave, so terminating access to services they don't even know exist.
  • The authenticator could decline to recognise remote applications completely or on a per user basis.
  • Choices about access to the dodgier stuff like the password reset tool, or remote access can all be made here.
So it would all be fabulous. Just a couple of problems:
  • There doesn't seem to be OpenID software with the flexibility and convenience I need, and
  • The chances that application hosts can be persuaded to recognise their customers' OpenIDs seems close to zero.
So this frankly rather wonderful approach, which ought by rights be standard, is dead. But I think I'll put OpenID support on the qualification form just to watch them squirm.

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