Best Practices with Directed Identity

Given the current discussion happening right now around federal website cookie policies, and the good response I got from my last post, I wanted to continue talking about directed identity a little bit. In this post, I want to talk about how directed identity has actually been implemented in projects I’ve been involved with, and what lessons can be learned from that.

Shibboleth and SAML

Shibboleth is an open source web single sign-on product which is very popular with universities around the world. It is primarily an implementation of the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), but supports other identity protocols as well. SAML v2 defines a specific type of identifier that may be used to identify a user within a transaction known as a Persistent Identifier. The name itself does not convey it’s full meaning, but it is defined as “a persistent opaque identifier for a principal that is specific to an identity provider and a service provider or affiliation of service providers.” This is SAML’s directed identity.

Shibboleth’s implementation of persistent identifiers has matured a bit over the years, but the main algorithm remains the same. At it’s simplest, the identifier is simply a hash of three things: an identifier for the user, an identifier for the identity provider, and an identifier for the relying party. Using md5 as our hashing algorithm, and using a few made up values, this would look like:

md5( "jsmith" + "" + "" ) =

When a relying party receives the string “2f6bc52c7527747eff263f4183c7f402”, it is completely opaque and reveals nothing about the identity of the user.

Working with known algorithms

As I mentioned before, Shibboleth is open source software. All of our code is publicly available, including the way that we calculate persistent identifiers. So how could a relying party use this knowledge to take the above opaque identifier and decipher the identity of the user it belongs to? Pretty simply, if they have a list of possible usernames, or can reasonably guess them. A list of usernames is far easier to get than you might imagine from unprotected university LDAP directories. Then you simply iterate through the list and run the same algorithm until you find the matching hash value. And even given a population of 30,000 usernames (the approximate number of students at USC where I worked), the following shell script churns through them in about 90 seconds:

~$ date && for i in `head -n 30000 /usr/share/dict/web2`;
    do echo $i | md5 >/dev/null; done && date
Sun Aug  2 16:25:53 PDT 2009
Sun Aug  2 16:27:35 PDT 2009

To protect against such a brute-force attach to reveal the identity of a user, we added a secret salt to the hashing algorithm. That way, you can’t regenerate the hash without also knowing the salt value:

md5( "jsmith" + "" + ""
    + "my-secret-salt" ) = cf79282c587897fb733d8338fe7bc9c2

It’s worth pointing out that, while use of a secret salt prevents a relying party from brute forcing the hash, it in no way prevents the identity provider from doing so, since they do of course know the secret salt. Though we never ended up needing to do this at USC, we built the tools that would enable us to identify the user a persistent identifier belonged to. In the event that a relying party reported that a particular user was abusing their system, we wanted to make sure we could identify who it was.

The realities of deployment

The above algorithm actually works pretty well for generating unique and secure opaque values for tuples of user, identity provider, and service provider. But what happens when one of those values change? At USC, users could request that their username be changed for a variety of reasons, and approximately 300 such requests were made each year. So using the above algorithm, a username change would change every one of the user’s generated persistent identifiers. And the reality is, businesses are often bought out by other businesses. What happens when needs to change to That will effect the generated persistent identifier for every user. How do you deal with these realities? There are a number of ways, and I’ll outline just a few. There is no one right solution, as the policy and practices of a particular institution will greatly impact their decision of how to address these situations.

Perhaps the simplest option in some respects would be to simply not change which identifiers are used for generating the hash and instead map the new identifiers to the old values. Even if a user’s username has changed to “jjones”, you map it back to “jsmith” for the purposes of generated persistent identifiers. While this allows a deployment to continue using the same hashes, it does introduce the burden of maintaining this map of identifiers. And what is the institution’s policy with regards to re-issuing identifiers? If “jsmith” is allowed to be re-issued to a different user at some point in the future, that is going to create problems.

An alternate solution would be to simply use better identifiers. At USC, we had another user attribute called the “uscPVID” which we used instead of username. This was itself an opaque identifier that effectively served as the primary key within the enterprise directory. Even if all the other data for a user changed like their name and username, the uscPVID would remain the same. The same kind of persistent key can be obtained for relying parties by creating a lookup table that maps the relying party’s public ID to some more persistent internal ID. If and when a relying party changes their public ID, you simply modify, or add a new entry in your lookup table.

Finally, an identity provider could migrate from old to new identifiers, either with a one time update, or gradually. For a one time update, the identity provider would generate the old and new identifier for a user or set of users, and provide that information to the relying part out of band. The relying party would then be responsible for updating their database accordingly. Alternately, the new and old mapping could be provided gradually at the time of user login by using attributes. This was the technique used at USC for updating relying parties of changes to a different user attribute known as the USCID. For reasons I won’t bother explaining here, this 10 digit ID could change for a user when certain events occurred. To alert relying parties, we would include two attributes – the current USCID for the user, along with a list of “historical” USCIDs for that user. Relying parties were then responsible for updating any records they had for one of the historical USCIDs to the current USCID of the user.

Application to OpenID

The above hashing method could be used with little or no modification to create directed identity URLs for OpenID users. You could of course simply generate completely random IDs and store them in the database… that works too. In my next post however, I’ll be talking about a new kind of OpenID service I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about, an OpenID proxy which works to protect the privacy of OpenIDs that don’t support directed identity themselves. We’ll be using the above hashing algorithm, but doing some interesting things with the user identifier.

Comments and responses

Have you written a response to this? Let me know the URL: