Responding to criticisms about OpenID: convenience, security and personal agency

Twitter / Chris Drackett:  openID should be dead... its over-rated.

Chris Dracket responded to one of my tweets the other day, saying that “OpenID should be dead… it’s way over-rated”. I’ve of course heard plenty of criticisms of OpenID, but hadn’t really heard that it was “overrated” (which implies that people have a higher opinion of OpenID than it merits).

Intrigued, I replied, asking him to elaborate, which he did via email:

I don’t know if overrated is the right word.. but I just don’t see OpenID ever catching on.. I think the main reason is that its too complex / scary of an idea for the normal user to understand and accept.

In my opinion the only way to make OpenID seem safe (for people who are worried about privacy online) is if the user has full control over the OpenID provider. While this is possible for people like you and me, my mom is never going to get to this point, and if she wants to use OpenID she is going to have to trust her sensitive data to AOL, MS, Google, etc. I think that people see giving this much “power” to a single provider as scary.

Lastly I think that OpenID is too complex to properly explain to someone and get them to use it. People understand usernames and passwords right away, and even OAuth, but OpenID in itself I think is too hard to grasp. I dunno, just a quick opinion.. I think there is a reason that we don’t have a single key on our key rings that opens our house, car, office and mailbox, not that that is a perfect/accurate analogy, but its close to how some people I’ve talked to think OpenID works.

Rather than respond privately, I asked whether it’d be okay if I posted his follow-up and replied on my blog. He obliged.

To summarize my interpretation of his points: OpenID is too complex and scary, potentially too insecure, and too confined to the hands of a few companies.

The summary of my rebuttals:


OpenID should not be judged by today’s technological environment alone, but rather should be considered in the context of the migration to “cloud computing”, where people no longer access files on their local harddrive, but increasingly need to access data stored by web services.

All early technologies face criticism based on current trends and dominant behaviors, and OpenID is no different. At one time, people didn’t grok sending email between different services (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, people didn’t grok IMing their AOL buddies using Google Talk (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, you had one computer and your browser stored all of your passwords on the client-side (this is basically where we are today) and at one time, people accessed their photos, videos, and documents locally on their desktop (as is still the case for most people).

Cloud computing represents a shift in how people access and share data. Already, people rely less and less on physical media to store data and more and more on internet-based web services.

As a consequence, people will need a mechanism for referencing their data and services as convenient as the c: prompt. An OpenID, therefore, should become the referent people use to indicate where their data is “stored”.

An OpenID is not just about identification and blog comments; nor is it about reducing the number of passwords you have (that’s a by-product of user-centered design). Consider:

  • if I ask you where your photos are, you could say Flickr, and then prove it, because Flickr supports OpenID.
  • if I ask you where friends are, you might say MySpace, and then prove it, because MySpace will support OpenID.
  • if you host your own blog or website, you will be able to provide your address and then prove it, because you are OpenID-enabled.

The long-term benefit of OpenID is being able to refer to all the facets of your online identity and data sources with one handy — ideally memorable — web-friendly identifier. Rather than relying on my email addresses alone to identify myself, I would use my OpenIDs, and link to all the things that represent me online: from my resume to my photos to my current projects to my friends, web services and so on.

The big picture of cloud computing points to OpenIDs simplifying how people access, share and connect data to people and services.


I’ve heard many people complain that if your OpenID gets hacked, then you’re screwed. They claim that it’s like putting all your eggs in one basket.

But that’s really no different than your email account getting hacked. Since your email address is used to reset your password, any or all of your accounts could have their passwords reset and changed; worse, the password and the account email address could be changed, locking you out completely.

At minimum, OpenID is no worse than the status quo.

At best, combined with OAuth, third-parties never need your account password, defeating the password anti-pattern and providing a more secure way to share your data.

Furthermore, because securing your OpenID is outside of the purview of the spec, you can choose an OpenID provider (or set up your own) with a level of security that fits your needs. So while many OpenID providers currently stick with the traditional username and password combo, others offer more sophisticated approaches, from client-side certificates and hardware keys to biometrics and image-based password shields (as in the case of my employer, Vidoop).

One added benefit of OpenID is the ability to audit and manage access to your account, just as you do with a credit card account. This means that you have a record of every time someone (hopefully you!) signs in to one of your accounts with your OpenID, as well as how frequently sign-ins occur, from which IP addresses and on what devices. From a security perspective, this is a major advantage over basic usernames and passwords, as collecting this information from each service provider would prove inconvenient and time-consuming, if even possible.

Given this benefit, it’s worth considering that identity technologies
are being pushed on the government. If you’re worried about putting all your eggs in one basket, would you think differently if the government owned that basket?

OpenID won’t force anyone to change their current behavior, certainly not right away. But wouldn’t it be better to have the option to choose an alternative way to secure your accounts if you wanted it? OpenID starts with the status quo and, coupled with OAuth, provides an opportunity to make things better.

We’re not going to make online computing more secure overnight, but it seems like a prudent place to start.

Personal agency for web citizens

Looking over the landscape of existing social software applications, I see very few (if any) that could not be enhanced by OpenID support.

OpenID is a cornerstone technology of the emerging social web, and adds value anywhere users have profiles, accounts or need access to remote data.

Historically, we’ve seen similar attempts at providing a universal login account. Microsoft even got the name right with “Passport”, but screwed up the network model. Any identity system, if it’s going to succeed on the open web, needs to be designed with user choice at its core, in order to facilitate marketplace competition. A single-origin federated identity network will always fail on the internet (as Joseph Smarr and John McCrea like to say of Facebook Connect: We’ve seen this movie before).

As such, selecting an identity provider should not be relegated to a default choice. Where you come from (what I call provenance) has meaning.

For example, if you connect to a service using your Facebook account, the relying party can presume that the profile information that Facebook supplies will be authentic, since Facebook works hard to ferret out fake accounts from its network (unlike MySpace). Similarly, signing in with a Google Account provides a verified email address.

Just like the issuing country of your passport may say something about you to the immigration official reviewing your documents, the OpenID provider that you use may also say something about you to the relying party that you’re signing in to. It is therefore critical that people make an informed choice about who provides (and protects) their identity online, and that the enabling technologies are built with the option for individuals to vouch for themselves.

In the network model where anyone can host their own independent OpenID (just like anyone can set up their own email server), competition may thrive. Where competition thrives, an ecosystem may arise, developed under the rubric of market dynamics and Darwinian survivalism. And in this model, the individual is at the center, rather than the services he or she uses.

This the citizen-centric model of the web, and each of us are sovereign citizens of the web. Since I define and host my own identity, I do not need to worry about services like Pownce being sold or I Want Sandy users left wanting. I have choice, I have bargaining power, and I have agency, and this is critical to the viability of the social web at scale.

Final words

OpenID is not overrated, it’s just early. We’re just getting started with writing the rules of social software on the web, and we’ve got a lot of bad habits to correct.

As cloud computing goes mainstream (evidenced in part by the growing popularity of Netbooks this holiday season!), we’re going to need a consumer-facing technology and brand like OpenID to help unify this new, more virtualized world, in order to make it universally accessible.

Fortunately, as we stack more and more technologies and services on our OpenIDs, we can independently innovate the security layer, developing increasingly sophisticated solutions as necessary to make sure that only the right people have access to our accounts and our data.

It is with with these changes that we must evaluate OpenID — not as a technology for 2008’s problems — but as a formative building block for 2009 and the future of the social web.

Coworking survey and vote on the Net Squared Innovation Fund

I don’t normally cross-post, but seeing as how my blogs are starting to converge a bit, I don’t mind throwing this one in there…

First, Tara’s been collecting survey data on coworking trends — as well as what common experiences, expectations and desires are. We’ve received about 50 responses so far and would love to have more — especially from the LifeHacker and WebWorkerDaily communities.

If you’re interested, come fill out the survey, shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, and we’ll be sharing the data with everyone at the end.

Vote for my Project on NetSquaredSecond, I just blogged over on Citizen Agency about getting your vote out for the Net Squared Innovation Fund. We’re donating a good chunk of consulting time to the effort to help equip non-profits with the skills, technology and “2.0 know-how” that they need to stay competitive and be even more effective in their advocacy using modern tools.

I invite you to read through and familiarize yourself with the slate of proposals that are all in the running for a chunk of the $100,000 that’s been set aside specifically for 20 community-selected projects and then go vote!

Oh, and if you’re in the area tomorrow night, we’re hosting Gina Bianchini, the co-founder and CEO of Ning and Benjamin Rattray the CEO of at Net Tuesday on the topic of “How Nonprofits Can Use and Build Online Social Networks: and Ning at Net Tuesday”, starting at 6pm at Citizen Space. Should be an excellent event.

MacWorld events and Citizen Central

A bunch of upcoming events this week during MacWorld… many at Citizen Space, our coworking space. As usual, you can add these events to your calendar by clicking here.

Bonus next month:

Oh, and don’t forget to use Twitter to catalog your exploits by prepending your messages with macworld! Let’s annoy Buzz!

Blah blah blah — we talk a lot!

Heh. Two videos (tag:) from our trip to Europe taken during our final night in Paris.

The wine must’ve made us loquacious. Or inebriated. Or both.

Quotes: “Embrace chaos.” “Fail early and fail often.” “Nichefication of media.” “Architecture of collaboration.” “I can’t get enough fois gras.” “I’m Joe, the man of the ice cream.”

Oh, and don’t forget to get your own Nabaztag.

Goplan supports microformats

Goplan loves microformats

I’ve been playing around with Goplan and really like the feature set so far. One of the invisible features that is now visible thanks to a post by Fred Oliveira is their support for microformats — namely :

I’d like to take some time to highlight the icalendar integration and microformats support. We’ve been fans of the Microformats project for quite a while, and are working on bringing Microformat compability for events (in the calendar, as well as due tasks) and people. This allows us to provide developers with more ways to export project-related data. For more information on microformats, see the microformats project homepage.

This is smart development. Though it might not seem entirely obvious how Goplan users can take advantage of this small addition, over time I think we’ll see excellent integration with tools like Greasemonkey, browser scripts and user styles or rendering engines. Can OpenID support be far off?

magnoliciousWow. Ma.gnolia is so rockin’ lately.

I mean, I’m biased, but that’s ok.

I have a longer post coming soon that I’ve been saving up, but I wanted to get this out ASAP so all you folks out there with tools can port your apps to work with my favorite social bookmarking service

Why now?

Because Ma.gnolia now supports the API. Oh yes. Check it out. And let crew know what you think!

A declaration of independents

Ben Metcalfe

And then there were three.

I’m tickled positive to announce the third addition to the Citizen Agency team: Ben “bullshit” Metcalfe. Tara’s got most of the details, but it’s important to spell out a bit about where we’re going with this thing we’re creating (because there’s where we are and where we’re going and yes, they are two different things)…

Ben will be filling out the technical side of Citizen Agency, serving as our Grassroots Architect & CTO (a title he chose for himself). This is, of course, in addition to my experience with product development, experience design and strategic visioning and Tara’s awesome chops at grassroots cultivation and community marketing.

From the standpoint of services offered, we’re aiming squarely at the next generation breed of startups and organizations that “get it” — or have fixed desires to “get with it”. Not only will we be literally building out tools to support startups, but we’re also going to be kicking off a developer network, spearheaded by Ben (owing to his experience at the BBC), along with other services and surprises along the way.

So there’s three of us so far, and I’d like to top it off with two more to round out the team, keeping it small but having enough talent to make a real difference regardless of the challenges that confront us. And what we’re doing long term (remember I mentioned where we’re going?) is building out the environment, the conditions, the tools and the situation that will allow us, as independents, to do the work that is most satisfying, most gratifying and most of all, most meaningful to us. This won’t happen overnight, but we’ve already got a good jump on the competition, and with tremendous advisors and an excellently small group of agents, I think we’re well on our way to setting the stage for the real Declaration of Independents.

The State of the Agency

Citizen Agency markIt’s been a mad dash these past couple weeks getting things sorted and started out on , the startup that Tara and I founded just about two weeks ago.

We’ve incorporated (in Delaware, of course), had four tremendous individuals agree to be our advisors, found a third agent, begun to work on the underpinnings of our Developer Network (aka CA DevNet) and already have signed up a number of clients and a very cool project that we’ll be talking about over on the new blog (working on a theme for that as well). Oh, we found a lawyer (as Ted said, the only thing that still hasn’t changed in business).

We’ve had some help with our identity and are still working out the kinks, but the business cards that we produced a day before seem to have gone over pretty well so far.

So there’s much more to come and much more to get ideas and advice on, but at least the foundation is beginning to solidify… oh, and if you’re not sure what we’re going to do, y’know, to make money and stuff, well, hold tight, we’re still figuring that one out too. “Go after what you love doing and the rest will follow” seems to be our operating assumption at the moment. We’ll see how it goes.