Why is online identity such a hot subject? Thoughts on current trends.

Interesting trends are emerging in the Online Identity circles I travel. One trend is the shift away from formalized, enterprise, centrally-regulated Federations towards ad-hoc, consumption-driven, transaction-oriented architectures and policies.
On one hand, I see advancement in ‘formal Federation’, which I will loosely define as a pre-evaluated structuring of centrally defined requirements and criteria, realized as a collection of entities who share common policy, technology and security domain boundaries. It’s the ‘classic’ use case where one enterprise accepts a business partner enterprise’s user authentication.
On the other hand, there is a large thought-community emerging where the central concern is the ‘transaction’: the interaction between online service provider and online service recipient. The transaction-oriented requirements dictate that risk, qualifications and identification should be evaluated at ‘run time’ rather than at ‘design time’. Themes include Attributed Based Access Control, User-managed access, electronic consent notices, step-up authentication and other ‘assertion’ evaluation schemes.
This is a ‘frothy’ situation – there are no pervasive solutions and everyone is attempting to locate the critical problem space which needs fixing. Arguments and philosophical approaches erupt frequently – which is stimulating more energy and effort. A good thing.
One challenge that ‘pure’ Federation cannot address is the ad-hoc nature of online interactions. Predicting which identification authorities and policy enforcers are needed in advance is a wicked problem and is likely to be intractable. However, establishing common protocols and information sharing processes could possibly allow transaction participants to discover enough about their opposite number to do the risk/cost/benefit analysis that us purist security/identity practitioners claim that they always do. (of course nobody actually does this – they do stuff based on past experience and retain the right to investigate suspicious activity.)
OK, so what’s my point?
Simply the axiom that centralization is good for creating the nucleus of common practices required to build critical mass; but the scale and rapid expansion seen in internet-scale technologies and approaches can only occur when the common practices are subsumed into standards and the innovators are thus freed to do unexpected things upon a solid, standardized foundation.
A somewhat strange post, but I think the ‘identity’ industry is currently in the throes of transitioning from ‘central’ to ‘standardized’ even before fully developing what those common practices must be: and that’s why it is such an interesting space to be engaged.

2 thoughts on “Why is online identity such a hot subject? Thoughts on current trends.

  1. Interesting Post Andrew.. I think I get the idea, and I think I agree. But I am left wondering if ‘standardized’ is the right word for that process… I’ll try to apply more subconscious pondering:-).


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