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OpenID pilot project for identity management starting up at NIH

As I reported last month, the U.S. federal government will try using OpenID as a federated identity framework for .gov authentication.

“The OpenID and .gov project’s goal is to make government more transparent to citizens,” said Don Thibeau, executive director of the OpenID Foundation at the OASIS Identity Management 2009 conference, referring the audience to

There are now more than 1 billion OpenID-enabled accounts, according to Thibeau, with more than 40,000 websites supporting the framework, including technology companies Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, MySpace, Novell and Sun Microsystems.

The OpenID identity management pilot at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be limited to conference registration, wiki authorization and library access, which require only Level of Access (LOA) 1 authentication.

Debbie Bucci, the integration services center program lead at the Center for Information Technology at NIH, talked about the success of existing identity management frameworks for authentication at the institute.

Bucci is cautious about implementing OpenID but sees utility in federated identity, given the success of InCommon, an identity framework at NIH. She expressed support for the “idea that you could take the same username and password and spread it around the business units.”

According to Bucci, NIH’s systems have more than 35,000 users, 250 service-level agreements and handle over 1 million transactions every day, 83% of which are external. Current user participation for InCommon is 21%, focused on higher education and research. The NIH’s electronic research administration supports more than 9,500 institutions and agencies, according to Bucci. By contrast, InCommon includes 165. More information about these identity management programs can be found at

According to Peter Alterman, senior advisor for strategic initiatives at NIH, the institute is continuing to work toward implementation of the Electronic Signatures in Global & National Commerce Act, also known as E-SIGN.

According to Thibeau, the core design principle for the trust framework is “openness,” meaning it will be open to all identity providers, qualified auditors, provider certification and evolution. He says that both the OpenID and Identity Card Foundations are working to collaborate with Harvard University’s Berkman Center and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to further expand the open trust framework.

That latter relationship may be important, as the CDT’s Schwartz said that “at Level 3 , we have a lot of concerns. If you don’t have limitations there, there will be a drive to ask for as much information as you can get.” Many high-priority citizen-to-government transactions are classified as LOA 3 or higher, including IRS tax filing, Social Security and Medicare. Given that limitation, there may be some roadblocks to address before government agencies that must address compliance under the Privacy Act implement this federated identity management framework.

Questioned about time frames and implementation metrics, Thibeau said in an email interview to “remember the effort under way is a pilot; a very deliberate beta test of new technology protocols, new integration and interoperability task. We don’t know when we will finish, but we do know we will make mistakes and wrestle with usability and security issues.

”Given all the players involved, it’s hard to say what will be completed and when. The most valuable new piece is how many people and many organizations are coalescing around a practical and far-reaching solution set for the challenges of identity from a user perspective. This goes beyond the tired truisms that often characterize privacy versus security debates. There is a real hunger for real solutions in identity authentication. Whether you frame it as open government, open source or open identity, there are powerful political, public and commercial drivers at work involving identity on the Web. The legal and policy discussions around open identity trust frameworks are a leading-edge indication that practical solutions are in play and
pragmatic (private and public sectors) organizations are involved.”

Thibeau was clear about the stage that the pilot is currently in. “We are at the beginning of a shakedown cruise on two tracks,” he said, referring to both the open source identity technologies and the open trust framework itself. “Both are parts of the GSA ICAM schema and both are on the agenda of the OpenID Foundation and Identity (IDF and ICF) boards to consider. They still have a review of and decision making around certification requirements, operations and strategy. As we begin technical testing of government pilots, we are also finalizing the certification of a trust framework process that is a critical element in government adoption and seen by some industry leaders as applicable for high value commercial applications.

Thibeau went on to explain that “the U.S. government is still finalizing requirements for credible, independent and industry standards-based identity certification.” The process holds interest beyond the borders of the U.S. as well, according to Thibeau. “Many international governments as well as U.S. state and local governments are studying the U.S. ICAM test of its ‘schema’ of technology protocols combined with industry self certification models. Identity provider certification of Open Trust Framework models have gained momentum after recent meetings with the Center for Democracy in Technology and feedback from various government agencies, including the GSA ICAM leadership, NIST, NIH and the national security staff in the White House.”

John Bradley, the chief security officer at ooTao Inc, serves on the OASIS XRI, XDI and ORMS Technical Committees and fielded questions about the details of the OpenID pilot at NIH. For more information, Bradley’s blog includes many useful links on the OpenID in government project.

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