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Identity CrisisPassport may not fill the need for a global identity service

Identity CrisisPassport may not fill the need for a global identity service

Do you have a .NET Passport identity? You may not realize it, but chances are reasonably high that you do. If you have a HotMail or MSN account, Microsoft assigned a Passport identity to you automatically. Microsoft claims to have more than 160 million users registered in the Passport identity service.

Pretty soon you'll need a Passport ID to have any interaction with Microsoft. In December 2001, quite a few gamesters were surprised to discover that their old accounts at the Microsoft Zone gaming site wouldn't work without a Passport ID. Microsoft also requires a Passport ID to join MSDN, to register for a Microsoft seminar, or to access Microsoft's node in the UDDI public registry. The new Windows XP Product Activation (WPA) system uses Passport by default. You can also use your Passport ID to log in to your XP system.

So just what does a Passport identity do for you? Obviously, it lets Microsoft track your activities, but that's not a particularly strong incentive for most users. Most consumers view Passport as an electronic wallet. You can associate a credit card with your Passport ID and use it to buy things at any site that supports Passport Express Purchase. This sounds pretty useful, except that Microsoft hasn't been especially successful in recruiting e-tailers to support Passport (there are less than 100 participating sites so far). Even so, Passport can fill in Web forms for you, alleviating the need to type in your name and address at every site.

But Passport has a much more useful role to play in the future, particularly in the realm of Web services. Passport provides a cross-corporate single-signon service, which is critical to allow Web services to work together.

Today most Web services work alone, but in the future we want to be able to assemble multiple Web services to create more powerful business services. First we need to provide a way to let Web services share information.

Consider how most Web services implement security today. Each business that offers a secure Web service maintains a list of authorized users, who authenticate themselves using a userid and password. When we start assembling Web services, we don't want to force the user to type in a userid and password for every Web service involved in the aggregate business service, and we don't want to force Web service providers to develop point-to-point security connections for each Web service assembly effort. Instead, we need a facility that enables single sign-on across any number of Web services operated by any number of businesses. What we need is a global identity service.

Passport could be used as a global identity service but there is one serious impediment. Passport isn't open. Microsoft intends to collect revenue from businesses that use Passport for authentication. While I will grant that Microsoft has the right to make money from its innovations, I suspect that not every business wants to pay Microsoft to manage its authentication process. And many businesses won't be inclined to let Microsoft own their customer information. Hence, I doubt that Passport will ever become the de facto global identity service.

In September Microsoft announced plans to "open up" Passport by adding support for Kerberos V5, but this feature still won't make Passport open. What it means is that Passport will be able to access your internal user management system (such as Active Directory) to retrieve user identity information, assuming, of course, that it supports Kerberos V5.0. (I probably don't need to tell you that Active Directory supports Kerberos V5.0.) Keep in mind that although you would be managing and maintaining your own list of authorized users, all identity and authentication requests still need to go through Microsoft's Passport service, allowing Microsoft to collect a toll.

It would be a lot better if there were standards associated with Identity that would allow anyone to set up an Identity Service so that any Web service could authenticate users using any Identity Service. This approach would allow users a wide choice of Identity options. Personally, I'd feel much more comfortable giving control of my financial information to my bank than to Microsoft.

Standards for Identity would include an XML format that represents user information and an API that is used to access any compliant Identity Service. The Liberty Alliance Project, which is working to define Identity standards, says it intends "to create an open, federated solution for network identity - enabling ubiquitous single sign-on, decentralized authentication, and open authorization from any device connected to the Internet." Liberty was started by Sun Microsystems and is backed by a plethora of consumer, financial, telco, security, and technology companies. Even AOL has joined up. Given the animosity between Microsoft and Sun, it's probably unlikely that Microsoft will join the alliance. But we can only hope.

More Stories By Anne Thomas Manes

Anne Thomas Manes is a Research Director at Burton Group, a research, consulting, and advisory firm. Anne leads research for the Application Platform Strategies service. Named one of NetworkWorld's "50 Most Powerful People in Networking," in 2002 and one of Enterprise Systems Journal's "Power 100 IT Leaders," in 2001, Anne is a renowned technologist in the Web services space. Anne participates in standards development at W3C and OASIS. She is a member of the editorial board of Web Services Journal. She is a frequent speaker at trade shows and author of numerous articles and the book, Web Services: A Manager's Guide, published by Addison Wesley.
Prior to joining Burton Group, Anne was chief technology officer at Systinet, a Web services infrastructure company, and before that she pioneered Sun's Web services strategy. A 24-year industry veteran, Anne developed her expertise working at a number of the world's leading hardware and software companies. You can reach Anne via e-mail at or through her Web site at

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Most Recent Comments
JP Morgenthal 03/17/02 07:03:00 PM EST

Just my $0.02, but I've been trying to get the attention of Liberty Alliance for an Associate membership, but no-go. The doors are closed to anyone not willing to fork over $120K US. Hey, Microsoft may not be a standard, but I have a little more in my pocket at the end of the day using Passport right now.