User-centric SAML?

Let me first introduce user-centric identity (people who know this can skip to the second paragraph). Not so long ago OpenID en InfoCard where introduced as user centric identity standards, contrary to ‘old fashioned’ identity provider centric standard like SAML. Without going into details, user centricity boils down to providing user controlled privacy, i.e., providing informed consent. And I of course do not mean some legal disclaimer that you have to agree to as a user to be able to use some service. The idea to provide actual information on what information would be shared between an identity provider and a relying party, and asking the user for consent before sharing this. InfoCard inherently provides this, and does this with a piece of software on the client. OpenID provides this though a webpage.

We did a project for SURFnet, the Dutch NREN, to study if and if so how we could make their SURFfederatie (identity federation for higher education and research) provide user controlled privacy. The SURFfederation support different protocols, but is mainly SAML WebSSO based. We analyzed different options, focusing on providing user controlled privacy through InfoCards and doing this through SAML. The latter option is less used, but there are precedents, like uApprove (for Shibboleth) and the Consent module for SimpleSAMLphp. Ignoring lots of details, SAML WebSSO works roughly the same as OpenID (by redirecting the browser from relying party to the identity provider, and back), and user controlled privacy can be implemented in a similar fashion for SAML WebSSO as for OpenID.

The choice between InfoCards and what I’ll call user-centric SAML is not a trivial one, both have advantages and disadvantages. And besides, it was not clear if the users (students and employees of universities etc) even want to be bothered with user controlled privacy. We figured that the best way forward researcher user centricity was to simple ask users what they want. We considered doing this through some large-scale survey, but decided that a small-scale but in-depth user study would provide more useful results. My colleague Ruud Janssen, an experienced user researcher, did this user study. Using mockups he asked users if they wanted control, and if so, if they prefer user-centric SAML or InfoCards. Although the number were too small to be statistically significant, there was a surprisingly clear consensus on what the users preferred: user controlled privacy through user-centric SAML. This thus also is what we recommended to SURFnet.

Although I expected that they would like the card-like user interface that InfoCard offers, the user we interviewed did not. We think this is mostly because they were unfamiliar with it, and therefore did not really trust it.

The research outcomes were written down in two reports: the first report discusses the state-of-the-art, design guidelines for user-centric SAML and architectural analysis on using InfoCard vs user-centric SAML. The second report contains the outcomes of the user study. My apologies to non-Dutch speakers: both reports are in Dutch, as requested by our client.

We are continuing the research on user controlled privacy this year, focusing on the user interaction (prototyping, further user studies) and the architectural consequences of user-centric SAML for the SURFfederatie.

4 Responses to User-centric SAML?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Waddingham, Paul. Paul said: "Using mockups he asked users if they wanted control, and if so, if they prefer user-centric SAML or InfoCards" […]

  2. […] consent feature to their SURFfederatie identity federation service. See also this previous post on user-centric SAML that describes what we did last year. We continued this year, doing additional user studies, […]

  3. […] as Mike Jones puts it is it is not drop-dead simple to use. Lack of user acceptance is  also confirmed by the user study we did for SURFnet in 2009, where users basically distrusted Cardspace. Other reasons I think are lack of an easy migration […]

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