Identity management heads for the cloud

The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange should simplify online credentialing of citizens, but systems that authenticate agency employees might be tougher.

face with clouds

The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange should simplify online credentialing of citizens, but systems that authenticate agency employees might be tougher.

Traditionally, the task of managing users' digital identities has involved maintaining an on-premise identity management system. The system enrolls users, manages information about their identities and keeps track of what resources they are authorized to access. It authenticates users by prompting them to provide credentials, such as a username and password or smart card.

Once that information is verified, the system authorizes the user to access certain resources in accordance with the user's identity and role in the organization.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which established the personal identity verification (PIV) card as a standard federal employee credential, has spawned numerous identity management systems at federal agencies.

Although in-house systems are still the norm, agencies have begun to explore cloud-based identity management. The Federal Cloud Credential Exchange, the first major test of the cloud approach, focuses on citizen access to agency resources and aims to provide an authentication service that spans all agencies. It will let people use third-party credentials to access multiple federal resources online, thereby freeing agencies from maintaining their own systems for authenticating users.

Naomi Lefkovitz, senior privacy policy adviser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said FCCX will help agencies avoid the expense of credentialing the same person multiple times, which also makes life easier for the user.

"Those are really the efficiencies — and the good customer experience — we are looking for," said Lefkovitz, who co-led the FCCX Tiger Team that identified the cloud system's requirements and technical architecture.

Cloud-based identity management could also be a boon for agencies that operate shared services and need to authenticate employees from multiple government organizations. The Interior Department, for example, issued a request for information earlier this year regarding a software-as-a-service (SaaS) identity management solution. The department's Interior Business Center, which provides human resources applications to some 40 agencies, would use the system to help its customers access those applications.

Agencies attracted to cloud-based identity management could avail themselves of commercially available SaaS identity management products from vendors such as CA Technologies, Centrify, Okta and Ping Identity.

The benefits of moving identity management to the cloud include speed of deployment, fewer maintenance needs, reduced costs and simplified upgrades, said Philip Kenney, CA Technologies' senior director for security.

Testing the waters with public users

FCCX could emerge as the most visible manifestation of cloud-based identity management in government. The project is an outgrowth of the White House's National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). That initiative, launched in 2011, seeks to create an identity ecosystem that would let individuals tap private or public identity providers for trusted credentials, which could be used to log into multiple resources.

Economics 101

The notion of setting up a service that multiple agencies can use for authentication is not exactly new, said John Bradley, senior technical architect at Ping Identity. He worked on the National Institutes of Health's iTrust identity solution, parts of which date back to 2003.

Still, Bradley said, he is uncertain how the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange will fare as a shared service run by the U.S. Postal Service.

"It still remains to be seen how much traction that actually gets across agencies," he said. "Most of the agencies are still sort of focused on doing it in-house."

The important barrier might be economic rather than technical: Who will pay the cost of credentialing users, and how will that cost be distributed across participating agencies?

The fate of FCCX might "hinge more on the...ability to distribute the load equally as opposed to any technology magic," Bradley said.

Today, people typically must create accounts with each agency's identity management system. This approach "creates a burden to the citizen to manage a username and password for each agency application they need to access — as well as a costly burden on each agency to issue and manage these usernames and passwords," the FCCX solicitation states.

FCCX will rely on third-party credentials, particularly those issued by identity providers certified by the Federal Identity, Credential and Access Management initiative. Accredited providers include Citibank, Google, Symantec and Verizon.

Lefkovitz offered this example of how FCCX would work: Someone who wanted to check his or her Social Security Administration benefits would visit the SSA website, which would present a list of the third-party credential types the site accepts. The user would choose one of the third-party providers and be redirected to the provider's login page to enter his or her credentials. The user would then be sent back to SSA's website.

Lefkovitz said FCCX provides the hub through which the redirection between third-party providers and agency websites takes place. The relationships among the parties are streamlined: Each participating identity provider and agency needs to do only one integration with the hub.

The SSA scenario is merely an example because the agencies and applications that will participate in the FCCX pilot are still to be determined, she added.

The hub is moving closer to reality, however. The FCCX Tiger Team began creating the conceptual foundation about a year ago. Now the General Services Administration provides the program office that handles policy and governance activities, while the U.S Postal Service runs the FCCX procurement. A USPS spokeswoman said the agency will select a vendor for the cloud hub this summer.

With FCCX on the way, that means many agencies' first exposure to cloud-based identity management will be on the public-facing side rather than an internally focused system that authenticates employees. That sequencing could prove popular because agencies that have already invested in on-premise identity management for employees might want to test the cloud on external users.

Kenney said the preference is especially likely among agencies with extensive identity management systems. "It is much easier to consider using a cloud service to take on new populations — citizens, for example — and comply with cloud-first directives," he said. "Most organizations maintain separate repositories for employees and customers/citizens today anyway."

That does not mean agencies will not use cloud-based systems to authenticate federal users. Interior's RFI states that the agency seeks a SaaS-based identity management system that lets subscribers use the same credentials to access multiple resources.

Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify, said he is seeing growing interest in the company's cloud-based identity services products. More than 60 federal customers have deployed the company's on-premise identity management products, and the cloud-based wares are also "starting to get some adoption in the federal government."

He said most of the company's discussions with agencies involve smaller-scale projects, but a few are considering enterprisewide deployments that would involve tens of thousands of users.

"They are...looking to move into some SaaS apps and wanted to have cloud ID as well," Kemp said.

Preserving users' anonymity

Moving identity management, or portions thereof, to the cloud entails clearing a few obstacles.

Kemp said adopters should consider whether an identity management solution stores usernames and passwords in the cloud. He said Centrify performs authentication in the cloud, but users' credentials are stored in an on-premise Active Directory system.

He said buyers should also check to see whether SaaS vendors support open standards and protocols such as OAuth, OpenID and Security Assertion Markup Language.

Lefkovitz, meanwhile, cited privacy as a key consideration for FCCX because sensitive credentials will be moving through the hub.

"We want this hub to know as little as possible about what citizens are doing," she said, adding that FCCX also needs to ensure that identity providers know as little as possible to protect user's privacy.

To preserve anonymity, FCCX will use numerical identifiers rather than usernames. The provider will send a numerical identifier to the hub so the hub does not know the user's identity. The hub then changes the number so the identity provider cannot determine the user's online destination and build a profile around the user's activity, Lefkovitz said.

She added that NIST is working with industry on a second layer of protection that involves a privacy-enhanced form of cryptography.

She called the cryptographic component the most challenging piece of FCCX's privacy component. But the project's pilot status means that the hub can be evaluated and improved before it is widely deployed.

"We are just trying to test it out and kick the tires," Lefkovitz said.

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