Identity Credentials and Web Login

In a previous blog post, I outlined the need for a better login solution for the Web and why Mozilla Persona, WebID+TLS, and OpenID Connect currently don’t address important use cases that we’re considering in the Web Payments Community Group. The blog post contained a proposal for a new login mechanism for the Web that was simultaneously more decentralized, more extensible, enabled a level playing field, and was more privacy-aware than the previously mentioned solutions.

In the private conversations we have had with companies large and small, the proposal was met with a healthy dose of skepticism and excitement. There was enough excitement generated to push us to build a proof-of-concept of the technology. We are releasing this proof-of-concept to the Web today so that other technologists can take a look at it. It’s by no means done, there are plenty of bugs and security issues that we plan to fix in the next several weeks, but the core of the idea is there and you can try it out.

TL;DR: There is now an open source demo of credential-based login for the Web. We think it’s better than Persona, WebID+TLS, and OpenID Connect. If we can build enough support for Identity Credentials over the next year, we’d like to standardize it via the W3C.

The Demo

The demonstration that we’re releasing today is a proof-of-concept asserting that we can have a unified, secure identity and login solution for the Web. The technology is capable of storing and transmitting your identity credentials (email address, payment processor, shipping address, driver’s license, passport, etc.) while also protecting your privacy from those that would want to track and sell your online browsing behavior. It is in the same realm of technology as Mozilla Persona, WebID+TLS, and OpenID Connect. Benefits of using this technology include:

  • Solving the NASCAR login problem in a way that greatly increases identity provider competition.
  • Removing the need for usernames and passwords when logging into 99.99% of the websites that you use today.
  • Auto-filling information that you have to repeat over and over again (shipping address, name, email, etc.).
  • Solving the NASCAR payments problem in a way that greatly increases payment processor competition.
  • Storage and transmission of credentials, such as email addresses, driver’s licenses, and digital passports, via the Web that cryptographically prove that you are who you say you are.

The demonstration is based on the Identity Credentials technology being developed by the Web Payments Community Group at the World Wide Web Consortium. It consists of an ecosystem of four example websites. The purpose of each website is explained below:

Identity Provider (identus.org)

The Identity Provider stores your identity document and any information about you including any credentials that other sites may issue to you. This site is used to accomplish several things during the demo:

  • Create an identity.
  • Register your identity with the Login Hub.
  • Generate a verified email credential and store it in your identity.

Login Hub (login-hub.com)

This site helps other websites discover your identity provider in a way that protects your privacy from both the website you’re logging into as well as your identity provider. Eventually the functionality of this website will be implemented directly in browsers, but until that happens, it is used to bootstrap the discovery of and login/credential transmission process for the identity provider. This site is used to do the following things during the demo:

  • Register your identity, creating an association between your identity provider and the email address and passphrase you use on the login hub.
  • Login to a website.

Credential Issuer (credential.club)

This site is responsible for verifying information about you like your home address, driver’s license, and passport information. Once the site has verified some information about you, it can issue a credential to you. For the purposes of the demonstration, all verifications are simulated and you will immediately be given a credential when you ask for one. All credentials are digitally signed by the issuer which means their validity can be proven without the need to contact the issuer (or be online). This site is used to do the following things during the demo:

  • Login using an email credential.
  • Issue other credentials to yourself like a business address, proof of age, driver’s license, and digital passport.

Single Sign-On Demo

The single sign-on website, while not implemented yet, will be used to demonstrate the simplicity of credential-based login. The sign-on process requires you to click a login button, enter your email and passphrase on the Login Hub, and then verify that you would like to transmit the requested credential to the single sign-on website. This website will allow you to do the following in a future demo:

  • Present various credentials to log in.

How it Works

The demo is split into four distinct parts. Each part will be explained in detail in the rest of this post. Before you try the demo, it is important that you understand that this is a proof-of-concept. The demo is pretty easy to break because we haven’t spent any time polishing it. It’ll be useful for technologists that understand how the Web works. It has only been tested in Google Chrome, versions 31 – 35. There are glaring security issues with the demo that have solutions which have not been implemented yet due to time constraints. We wanted to publish our work as quickly as possible so others could critique it early rather than sitting on it until it was “done”. With those caveats clearly stated up front, let’s dive in to the demo.

Creating an Identity

The first part of the demo requires you to create an identity for yourself. Do so by clicking the link in the previous sentence. Your short name can be something simple like your first name or a handle you use online. The passphrase should be something long and memorable that is specific to you. When you click the Create button, you will be redirected to your new identity page.

Note the text displayed in the middle of the screen. This is your raw identity data in JSON-LD format. It is a machine-readable representation of your credentials. There are only three pieces of information in it in the beginning. The first is the JSON-LD @context value, https://w3id.org/identity/v1, which tells machines how to interpret the information in the document. The second is the id value, which is the location of this particular identity on the Web. The third is the sysPasswordHash, which is just a bcrypt hash of your login password to the identity website.

Global Web Login Network

Now that you have an identity, you need to register it with the global Web login network. The purpose of this network is to help map your preferred email address to your identity provider. Keep in mind that in the future, the piece of software that will do this mapping will be your web browser. However, until this technology is built into the browser, we will need to bootstrap the email to identity document mapping in another way.

The way that both Mozilla Persona and OpenID do it is fairly similar. OpenID assumes that your email address maps to your identity provider. So, an OpenID login name of joe@gmail.com assumes that gmail.com is your identity provider. Mozilla Persona went a step further by saying that if gmail.com wouldn’t vouch for your email address, that they would. So Persona would first check to see if gmail.com spoke the Persona protocol, and if it didn’t, the burden of validating the email address would fall back to Mozilla. This approach put Mozilla in the unenviable position of running a lot of infrastructure to make sure this entire system stayed up and running.

The Identity Credentials solution goes a step further than Mozilla Persona and states that you are the one that decides which identity provider your email address maps to. So, if you have an email address like bob@gmail.com, you can use yahoo.com as your identity provider. You can probably imagine that this makes the large identity providers nervous because it means that they’re now going to have to compete for your business. You have the choice of who is going to be your identity provider regardless of what your email address is.

So, let’s register your new identity on the global web login network. Click the text on the screen that says “Click here to register”. That will take you to a site called login-hub.com. This website serves two purposes. The first is to map your preferred email address to your identity provider. The second is to protect your privacy as you send information from your identity provider and send it to other websites on the Internet (more on this later).

You should be presented with a screen that asks you for three pieces of information. Your preferred email address, a passphrase, and a verification of that passphrase. When you enter this information, it will be used to do a number of things. The first thing that will happen is that a public/private keypair will be generated for the device that you’re using (your web browser, for instance). This key will be used as a second factor of authentication in later steps in this process. The second thing that will happen is that your email address and passphrase will be used to generate a query token, which will be later used to query the decentralized Telehash-based identity network. The third thing that will happen is that your query token to identity document mapping will be encrypted and placed onto the Telehash network.

The Decentralized Database (Telehash)

We could spend an entire blog post itself on Telehash, but the important thing to understand about it is that it provides a mechanism to store data in a decentralized database and query that database at a later time for the data. By storing this query token and query response in the decentralized database, it allows us to find your identity provider mapping regardless of which device you’re using to access the Web and independent of who your email provider is.

In fact, note that I said that you use your “preferred email address” above? It doesn’t need to be an email address, it could be a simple string like “Bob” and a unique passphrase. Even though there are many “Bob”s in the world, the likelyhood that they’d use the same 20+ character passphrase is unlikely and therefore one could use just a first name and a complex passphrase. That said, we’re suggesting that most non-technical people use a preferred email address because most people won’t understand the dangers of SHA-256 collisions on username+passphrase combinations like sha256(“Bob” + “password”). In addition to this aside, the decentralized database solution doesn’t need to be Telehash. It could just as easily be a decentralized ledger like Namecoin or Ripple.

Once you have filled out your preferred email address and passphrase, click the Register button. You will be sent back to your identity provider and will see two new pieces of information. The first piece of information is sysIdpMapping, which is the decentralized database query token (query) and passphrase-encrypted mapping (queryResponse). The second piece of information is sysDeviceKeys, which is the public key associated with the device that you registered your identity through and which will be used as a second factor of authentication in later versions of the demo. The third piece of information is sysRegistered, which is an indicator that the identity has been registered with the decentralized database.

Acquiring an Email Credential

At this point, you can’t really do much with your identity since it doesn’t have any useful credential information associated with it. So, the next step is to put something useful into your identity. When you create an account on most websites, the first thing the website asks you for is an email address. It uses this email address to communicate with you. The website will typically verify that it can send and receive an email to that address before fully activating your account. You typically have to go through this process over and over again, once for each new site that you join. It would be nice if an identity solution designed for the Web would take care of this email registration process for you. For those of you familiar with Mozilla Persona, this approach should sound very familiar to you.

The Identity Credentials technology is a bit different from Mozilla Persona in that it enables a larger number of organizations to verify your email address than just your email provider or Mozilla. In fact, we see a future where there could be tens, if not hundreds, of organizations that could provide email verification. For the purposes of the demo, the Identity Provider will provide a “simulated verification” (aka fake) of your email address. To get this credential, click on the text that says “Click here to get one”.

You will be presented with a single input field for your email address. Any email address will do, but you may want to use the preferred one you entered earlier. Once you have entered your email address, click “Issue Email Credential”. You will be sent back to your identity page and you should see your first credential listed in your JSON-LD identity document beside the credential key. Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes a credential in the system.

The EmailCredential is a statement that a 3rd party has done an email verification on your account. Any credential that conforms to the Identity Credentials specification is composed of a set of claims and a signature value. The claims tie the information that the 3rd party is asserting, such as an email address, to the identity. The signature is composed of a number of fields that can be used to cryptographically prove that only the issuer of the credential was capable of issuing this specific credential. The details of how the signature is constructed can be found in the Secure Messaging specification.

Now that you have an email credential, you can use it to log into a website. The next demonstration will use the email credential to log into a credential issuer website.

Credential-based Login

Most websites will only require an email credential to log in. There are other sites, such as ecommerce sites or high-security websites, that will require a few more credentials to successfully log in or use their services. For example, a ecommerce site might require your payment processor and shipping address to send you the goods you purchased. A website that sells local wines might request that you provide a credential proving that you are above the required drinking age in your locality. A travel website might request your digital passport to ease your security clearing process if you are traveling internationally. There are many more types of speciality credentials that one may issue and use via the Identity Credentials technology. The next demo will entail issuing some of these credentials to yourself. However, before we do that, we have to login to the credential issuer website using our newly acquired email credential.

Go to the credential.club website and click on the “Login” button. This will immediately send you to the login hub website where you had previously registered your identity. The request sent to the login hub by credential.club will effectively be a request for your email credential. Once you’re on login-hub.com, enter your preferred email address and passphrase and then click “Login”.

While you were entering your email address and passphrase, the login-hub.com page connected to the Telehash network and readied itself to send a query. When you click “Login”, your email address and passphrase are SHA-256′d and sent as a query to the Telehash network. Your identity provider will receive the request and respond to the query with an encrypted message that will then be decrypted using your passphrase. The contents of that message will tell the login hub where your identity provider is holding your identity. The request for the email credential is then forwarded to your identity provider. Note that at this point your identity provider has no idea where the request for your email credential is coming from because it is masked by the login hub website. This masking process protects your privacy.

Once the request for your email credential is received by your identity provider, a response is packaged up and sent back to login-hub.com, which then relays that information back to credential.club. Once credential.club recieves your email credential, it will log you into the website. Note at this point that you didn’t have to enter a single password on the credential.club website, all you needed was an email credential to log in. Now that you have logged in, you can start issuing additional credentials to yourself.

Issuing Additional Credentials

The previous section introduced the notion that you can issue many different types of credentials. Once you have logged into the credential.club website, you may now issue a few of these credentials to yourself. Since this is a demonstration, no attempt will be made to verify those credentials by a 3rd party. The credentials that you can issue to yourself include a business address, proof of age, payment processor, driver’s license, and passport. You many specify any information that you’d like to specify in the input fields to see how the credential would look if it held real data.

Once you have filled out the various fields, click the blue button to issue the credential. The credential will be digitally signed and sent to your identity provider, which will then show you the credential that was issued to you. You have a choice to accept or reject the credential. If you accept the credential, it is written to your identity.

You may repeat this process as many times as you would like. Note that on the passport credential how there is an issued on date as well as an expiration date to demonstrate that credentials can have a time limit associated with them.

Known Issues

As mentioned throughout this post, this demonstration has a number of shortcomings and areas that need improvement, among them are:

  • Due to a lack of time, we didn’t setup our own HTTPS Telehash seed. Since we didn’t setup the HTTPS Telehash seed, we couldn’t run login-hub.com secured by TLS due to security settings in most web browsers related to WebSocket connections. Not using TLS results in a gigantic man-in-the-middle attack possibility. A future version will, of course, use both TLS and HSTS on the login-hub.com website.
  • The Telehash query/response database isn’t decentralized yet. There are a number of complexities associated with creating a decentralized storage/query network, and we haven’t decided on what the proper approach should be. There is no reason why the decentralized database couldn’t be NameCoin or Ripple-based, and it would probably be good if we had multiple backend databases that supported the same query/response protocol.
  • We don’t check digital signatures yet, but will soon. We were focused on the flow of data first and ensuring security parameters were correct second. Clearly, you would never want to run such a system in production, but we will improve it such that all digital signatures are verified.
  • We do not use the public/private keypair generated in the browser to limit the domain and validity length of credentials yet. When the system is productionized, implementing this will be a requirement and will protect you even if your credentials are stolen through a phishing attack on login-hub.com.
  • We expect there to be many more security vulnerabilities that we haven’t detected yet. That said, we do believe that there are no major design flaws in the system and are releasing the proof-of-concept, along with source code, to the general public for feedback.

Feedback and Future Work

If you have any questions or concerns about this particular demo, please leave them as comments on this blog post or send them as comments to the public-web-payments@w3.org mailing list.

Just as you logged in to the credential.club website using your email credential, you may also use other credentials such as your driver’s license or passport to log in to websites. Future work on this demo will add functionality to demonstrate the use of other forms of credentials to perform logins while also addressing the security issues outlined in the previous section.

4 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Identity has non-payment use cases. Personal Computing is shifting to wearable mobiles & household devices from Wintel clones of IBM “PC” compatibles, rather than dying. Like the internet is network of networks, monopoly over PC-networking is held by family houses, schooling organizations, … Such devices will be behind firewall+IoT end-point+internet gateway as unhacked device may have reason to attempt unsupervised internet access only upon exceptions. Even laptops can share 3G, camera, and so on… with mobiles(peer-to-peer) without global clouds intervening. Allowing self-signing as WebID does is suited for automated CMS of PC-networking, IMHO. Its good to have in-depth descriptions of newer developments, but all the standardization stuff is pretty overwhelming when as software architect one has to work on whole systems along-with development schedules.
    The point I’m trying to make is there should be dedicated W3 wiki page to lookup SWOT of all the different identity techniques.
    Also where I am, India, e-Aadhar UID led by former Infy CEO Nandan Nilekani is an identity system based on non-voluntary forensic techniques ,except DNA test( on massive scale it’s cost prohibitive). Profiling everybody by central agency, that too more strictly than criminals are! UN never questioned Nilekani, so certainly its within permissible human privacy threshold. It aims to be wholesome by providing services like OTP. Surely W3 can extend this standard to help with DRM, etc. Besides Aadhar every govt. dept. issues its own ID, such as ration card, PAN, voter ID, drivers license, (the list goes on) rather than single card with authenticated features such as ration, IT, driving listed, so India’s NIC- National Informatics Center may make agreement to help W3..
    Here, web payments was integrated into eProcurement/eTender by the NIC 5 to 10 years ago. So its silly if W3 continues struggling on solved problems. :p

  2. tOM Trottier says:

    What about using https://www.grc.com/sqrl/sqrl.htm for identifying yourself securely to a website – without depending on some 3rd party.

    tOM

  3. Congratulations!

    Looking forward to leave my next comment here using EmailCredential :)

    Will try to ping #IndieWeb community to check this out…

Trackbacks for this post

  1. Read Write Web — Q2 Summary — 2014 | Read Write Web Community Group

Leave a Comment

Let us know your thoughts on this post but remember to play nicely folks!