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8/26/2010
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Trusted Identities In Cyberspace

Federal IT and security pros have a role in the development of an "identity ecosystem" in cyberspace that spans the government and business sectors.

The federal government's draft National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, or NSTIC, outlines a strategy for creating an "identity ecosystem" that would let the public make credit card purchases, retrieve medical records, file taxes, and conduct all manner of business online with a portable, secure electronic identity. Users would be able to complete these transactions with minimal exchange of personal information. A service provider could leverage the identification and authentication previously done by a like-minded business. Transactions could even be made via cell phones because all parties involved would have their digital identities authenticated by an authoritative third party of their choice. The NSTIC document outlines a step-by-step plan to establish and cultivate the identity ecosystem.

In support of this effort, IT and security pros in government will be called on to help establish a trusted identity infrastructure in their agencies and to tie those systems into the ecosystem. This vision is built on identity management policy and technology standards developed by both the government and private sector over the last two decades.

Similar to the way the driver's license is used by "relying parties," the administration seeks to create an environment in which online credentials issued by trusted private or public identity providers are used to access online applications outside the domain of their intended use. For example, a user ID and password, one-time password device, or PKI issued by your cell phone provider could be used to make online purchases, retrieve medical information, or conduct other business because the original entity--in this case, your cell phone provider--is trusted.

Opt In Or Out

Use of the ecosystem would be voluntary, and users could determine whether or not the identity provider releases their information. Communities of interest and technology-specific profiles would be used and interactions performed based on needs and risk tolerances of the relying party and permissions granted by the end users.

By creating a user-centric electronic world, characterized by interoperability and easy-to-use, risk-based authentication and authorization, the ecosystem will promote many benefits, including increased security, efficiency, and privacy, and opportunities for innovation.

The identity ecosystem has roots in the previous two administrations' policies and practices for doing business online (see timeline, p. 26). Many private sector companies have built on this policy foundation to implement technologies that comply, creating mini ecosystems or federations, but the capability to deploy a full identity ecosystem has never materialized. NSTIC seeks to thrust the ecosystem to the next level.

Keys To Success

NSTIC states that an agency lead should be assigned, with a goal of ensuring that the approach embraces both public and private entities. The first challenge for the agency lead is to identify the stakeholders, as well as the diverse drivers and benefits that appeal to each. The NSTIC document calls for the agency lead to work closely with the federal cybersecurity coordinator and participate in the federal CIO Council.

Before anyone joins a federation, questions around liability arise. The government will have to weigh different approaches, such as letting each ecosystem member set its own liability policy or creating baseline liability tolerance and risk levels for all members. Getting that right is key, as no private sector organization will play in a world where its liability isn't fully understood.

Each agency--unique in its requirements, customers, employees, and risk tolerance--will need to figure out how to apply NSTIC guidance to issues such as authentication, authorization, and access control. A good place to start is to look at the ecosystem holistically. Here, an organization examines each of the entities with which it interacts (employees, contractors, and customers), assesses the risks associated with the business processes these people perform, and determines the most effective way to control associated risks.

In general, transactions performed by employees and contractors involve more risk than those performed by customers, so they require stronger authentication credentials. This means that an enterprise-wide identity management system that operates within the identity ecosystem must be able to accommodate authentication credentials, and their associated technologies, of high and low assurance levels. The process of defining the roles of everyone involved is critical.

NSTIC recommends that the federal government, working in collaboration with the private sector, tailor outreach campaigns to educate end users on the benefits of participating in the identity ecosystem.

A secure cyberspace is vital to the U.S. economy and national security. The identity ecosystem, if executed properly, will help on both of those fronts.

Myisha Frazier-McElveen is identity management practice manager for systems integrator Truestone and has a background in business process reengineering and public sector identity management. You can write to us at iweekletters@techweb.com.

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