Usually at security events like the RSA Conference there isn’t much buzz about Identity and Access Management. Actually, identity is rarely thought of as a security technology; instead it is largely lumped in with general IT operational stuff. But 2013 feels different. Over the past year our not-so-friendly hacktivists (Anonymous) embarrassed dozens of companies by exposing private data, including account details and password information. Aside from this much more visible threat and consequence, the drive towards mobility and cloud computing/SaaS at best disrupts, and at worst totally breaks, traditional identity management concepts. These larger trends have forced companies to re-examine their IAM strategies. At the same time we see new technologies emerge, promising to turn IAM on its ear.

We will see several new (start-up) IAM vendors at this year’s show, offering solutions to these issues. We consider this is a very positive development – the big lumbering companies largely dominating IAM over the past 5 years haven’t kept pace with these technical innovations.

IDaaS = IAM 2.0

The most interesting of the shiny new objects you will see at RSAC is identity-as-a-service (IDaaS), which extend traditional in-house identity services to external cloud providers and mobile devices. These platforms propagate and/or federate identity outside your company, providing the glue to seamlessly link your internal authoritative source with different cloud providers – the latter of which generally offer a proprietary way to manage identity within their environment. Several vendors offer provisioning capabilities as well, linking internal authorization sources such as HR systems with cloud applications, helping map permissions across multiple external applications. It may look like we are bolting a new set of capabilities onto our old directory services, but it is actually the other way around. IDaaS really is IAM 2.0. It’s what IAM should have looked like if it had originally been architected for open networks, rather than the client-server model hidden behind a network firewall.

But be warned: the name-brand directory services and authorization management vendors you are familiar with will be telling the same story as the new upstart IDaaS players. You know how this works. If you can’t innovate at the same pace, write a data sheet saying you do. It’s another kind of “cloud washing” – we could call it Identity Washing. They both talk about top threats to identity, directory integration, SSO, strong authentication, and the mobile identity problem. But these two camps offer very different visions and technologies to solve the problem. Each actually solves distinctly different problems.

When they overlap it is because the traditional vendor is reselling or repackaging someone else’s IDaaS under the covers. Don’t be fooled by the posturing. Despite sales driod protestations about simple and easy integrations between the old world and this new stuff, there is a great deal of complexity hiding behind the scenes. You need a strong understanding of how federation, single sign-on, provisioning, and application integration are implemented to understand whether these products can work for you. The real story is how IDaaS vendors leverage standards such as SAML, OAuth, XACML, and SCIM to extend capabilities outside the enterprise, so that is what you should focus on.

Unfortunately managing your internal LDAP servers will continue to suck, but IDaaS is likely the easier of the two to integrate and manage with this new generation of cloud and mobile infrastructure. Extending what you have to the cloud is likely easier than managing what you have in house today.

Death to Passwords

Another new theme as RSAC will be how passwords have failed us and what we should do about it. Mat Honan said we should Kill The Password. Our own Gunnar Peterson says Infosec Slowly Puts Down Its Password Crystal Meth Pipe. And I’m sure Sony and Gawker are thinking the same thing. But what does this mean, exactly?

Over time it means we will pass cryptographic tokens around to assert identity. In practice you will still have a password to (at least partially) authenticate yourself to a PC or other device you use. But once you have authenticated to your device, behind the scenes an identity service that will generate tokens on your behalf when you want access to something. Passwords will not be passed, shared, or stored, except within a local system. Cryptographic tokens will supplant passwords, and will transparently be sent on your behalf to applications you use. Instead of trusting a password entered by you (or, perhaps, not by you) applications will establish trust with identity providers which generate your tokens, and then verify the token’s authenticity as needed. These tokens, based on some type of standard technology (SAML, Kerberos, or OAuth, perhaps), will include enough information to validate the user’s identity and assert the user’s right to access specific resources. Better still, tokens will only be valid for a limited time. This way even if a hacker steals and cracks a password file from an application or service provider, all its data will be stale and useless before it can be deciphered.

The “Death to Passwords” movement represents a seismic shift in the way we handle identity, and seriously impacts organizations extending identity services to customers. There will be competing solutions offered at the RSA show to deal with password breaches – most notably RSA’s own password splitting capability, which is a better way to store passwords rather than a radical replacement for the existing system. Regardless, the clock is ticking. Passwords’ deficiencies and limitations have been thoroughly exposed, and there will be many discussions on the show floor as attendees try to figure out the best way to handle authentication moving forward.

And don’t forget to register for the Disaster Recovery Breakfast if you’ll be at the show on Thursday morning. Where else can you kick your hangover, start a new one, and talk shop with good folks in a hype-free zone? Nowhere, so make sure you join us…