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Credential and Attribute Providers in the NSTIC

This is part of an ongoing series on the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. The introduction to this series can be found here.

The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) describes two types of intermediaries between subjects (users) and relying parties: identity providers and attribute providers. This is a separation not frequently found in identity systems. In order to emphasize this distinction, I often use the term “credential provider” or “authentication provider” rather than identity provider to refer to a service that provides authentication services and makes assertions resulting from authentication but does not directly provide attributes about the subject.

A credential provider can be thought of as a key cabinet. The subject authenticates to the credential provider in order to “unlock” the cabinet of credentials. As with a physical key cabinet where different keys inside are used for different things, the credential provider serves different credentials to different services. Ideally, the identifiers used for each of these services would be different; a good identifier is also opaque, meaning that the identifier itself provides no additional information about the subject. Provided that the choice of credential provider itself does not reveal significant information about the subject, a subject can be generally pseudonymous with respect to the relying party until the subject authorizes the release of identifying attributes.

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Unsociable: Social Media Brings a New Wave of Threats

Last year brought a surprising, and seemingly positive, change in the number of security threats: it was the first year we saw spam volumes drop. That decrease was a significant change from the previous decade, in which spam volumes roughly doubled every year, compounding to yield a dirty Internet where about 90 percent of the email flowing over the backbone is spam. So does the drop in spam volume mean spam is suddenly less of a problem? Have spammers given up and gone home, or maybe developed a conscience and let up a little?

Unfortunately, no. Spam has just changed. It’s become more sophisticated. We are seeing a massive shift away from the spray-and-pray tactics of the past to much more targeted and complex attacks. One consistent trait of attackers: they always follow the money. Therefore, as social media sites such as Facebook have experienced explosive growth (and explosive valuations), it’s no surprise that threat writers are exploring ways to tap into these networks to deliver the next generation of attacks.

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The Gap Between Policy and Implementation

Mark Twain once wrote, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” Security policy is a lot like that. Creating a security policy is at the top of the list for anyone looking to really secure their network. But the devil is in the details.

Among the things a security policy needs to cover are:

  • All users
  • All physical and virtual devices
  • All access methods
  • All resource classifications and locations
  • All compliance requirements
  • All of the OSI layers, from the physical layer up the stack to the application layer
  • AND the policy needs to be applied uniformly across the entire distributed enterprise

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Identity Intermediaries and the NSTIC

This is part of an ongoing series on the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace.  The introduction to this series can be found here.

A couple of months ago, I spoke with a security researcher at a conference about the NSTIC.  He questioned the need for an intermediary to manage users’ identity information; he asked why we don’t just do this at the user’s endpoint, eliminating the need for the user to trust an external party.  This is a good place to begin a discussion about the NSTIC architecture.

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It Crawled Out of the Sandbox

Security and functionality have lived on opposite ends of the spectrum since the dawn of time. The door with no lock has always been easier to use than something with multiple chains and dead bolts. Of course, the unlocked door has always been easier to open for those who may want to do bad things.

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