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The devil is in the legals

Many of the identerati campaign on Twitter and on the blogosphere for a federated new order, where banks in particular should be able to deal with new customers based on those customer’s previous registrations with other banks. Why, they ask, should a bank put you through all that identity proofing palava when you must have already passed muster at any number of banks before? Why can’t your new bank pick up the fact that you’ve been identified already? The plea to federate makes a lot of sense, but as I’ve argued previously, the devil is in the legals.

Funnily enough, a clue as to the nature of this problem is contained in the disclaimers on many of the identerati’s blogs and Twitter accounts:

"These are personal opinions only and do not reflect the position of my employer".

Come on. We all know that’s bullshit.

The bloggers I’m talking about are thought leaders at their employers. Many of them have written the book on identity. They're chairing the think tanks. What they say goes! So their blogs do in fact reflect very closely what their employers think.

So why the disclaimer? It's a legal technicality. A company’s lawyers do not want the firm held liable for the consequences of a random reader following an opinion provided outside the very tightly controlled conditions of a consulting contract; the lawyers do not want any remarks in a blog to be taken as advice.

And it's the same with federated identity. Accepting another bank's identification of an individual is something that cannot be done casually. Regardless of the common sense embodied in federated identity, the banks’ lawyers are saying to all institutions, sure, we know you're all putting customers through the same identity proofing protocols, but unless there is a contract in place, you must not rely on another bank's process; you have to do it yourself.

Now, there is a way to chip away at the tall walls of legal habit. This is going to sound a bit semantic, but we are talking about legal technicalities here, and semantics is the name of the game. Instead of Bank X representing to Bank Y that X can provide the "Identity" of a new customer, Bank X could provide a digitally notarised copy of some of the elements of the identity proofing. Elements could be provided as digitally signed messages saying "Here's a copy of Steve’s gas bill" or "Here's a copy of Steve’s birth certificate which we have previously verified". We could all stop messing around with abstract identities (which in the fine print mean different things to different Relying Parties) and instead drop down a level and exchange information about verified claims, or "identity assertions". Individual RPs could then pull together the elements of identity they need, add them up to an identification fit for their own purpose, and avoid the implications of having third parties "provide identity". The semantics would be easier if we only sought to provide elements of identity. All IdPs could be simplified and streamlined as Attribute Providers.

See also An identity claims exchange bus and Identity is in the I of the beholder.

Posted in Trust, Internet, Federated Identity