Federal Digital Identity Proposal Lacking in Usability

The White House announced The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) proposal and a NSTIC Fact Sheet on The White House blog. The NSTIC proposal (PDF) describes a plan to implement a federated online identity system with strong authentication. The document states the President expects to sign a final version in October 2010 and the strategy will likely significantly influence the government’s identity management efforts. In this post I will discuss the usability aspects of the proposal.

One of my primary concerns is that the proposal barely mentions usability factors within the identity system, even though they will be crucial for gaining public acceptance and critical to its effectiveness. Researchers studying usability and security have repeatedly shown that people are likely to resist or circumvent security in a system with poor usability. One of the guiding principles for the strategy is that “Identity Solutions will be Cost-Effective and Easy To Use.” However, the section is only a half a page long and largely discusses the potential benefit derived from reducing the number of username and password combinations individuals must remember. The section includes a few sentences that state that the new identity system should take advantage of as many existing widely used of infrastructure as possible and that service providers should conduct usability studies. The section leaves the reader with the impression that usability in actually unimportant even the proposal lists ease of use as listed as a major goal.

I would argue that most modern identity systems have been overly complicated for individuals to use and have required too much cognitive overhead for routine transactions. This is in no small part why it has been so difficult to move beyond the much-criticized username and password combination for user authentication. In order for a new identity system to provide significant improvements in reliability, assurance, security, and privacy, we must make significant improvements in usability. This is not a new problem. In his 1992 paper Observing Reusable Password Choices, Eugene Spafford, published research detailing problems with reusing weak passwords on multiple sites (Spafford 1992). In their 1999 paper Users are not the enemy, Adams and Sasse investigated compliance with security policies and in particular password management policies in several companies and found that compliance rates were substantially lower when policies conflicted with or prevented common work practices. In their 2006 paper Why Phishing Works, Rachna Dhamija and colleagues showed how individuals consistently fail to detect fraudulent web sites even when security indicators provided notifications that something was amiss.

Another component of usability is accessibility. The proposal made no mention of how the new identity systems will accommodate the less technically savvy and less able-bodied segments of the population. The strategy should consider those with limited vision, limited mobility, or other disabilities. The American Foundation for the Blind provides the following statistics of adult Americans with limited vision. Ages 18-44 8.0 million, ages 45-64 10.7 million, ages 65-74 2.8 million, ages 75 and older 3.7 million. This is a total of 25.2 million adults who have trouble seeing even with glasses or contact lenses.

The proposal promotes a federated and user-centric identity system. The common definition of a federated identity system is one that allows one service to accept authentication from another service. User-centric identity systems allow individuals some measure of control over their identities–typically a username or other unique identifier–and the attributes–age, email address, citizenship–attached to that identity. The usability problems for federated identities, user-centric-identities, and attribute exchange are neither trivial nor solved. OpenID is arguably the first widely adopted federated authentication mechanism for the internet with a user-centric model.

The history of OpenID is an excellent illustration of the usability challenges. Early incarnations required that users enter their OpenID URL to begin the authentication process. Their browser session was then redirected to the OpenID provider they used for authentication, which was often a different domain than the one they were attempting to log in to. Finally, after a successful authentication, the user would be redirected back to the original site. The change from the traditional username and password combination combined with a confusing authentication flow with multiple redirects left many users confused. OpenID specifications and implementations have evolved to mitigate and eliminate many of the usability problems. In many current deployments, most users will not even realize they are using OpenID for authentication, as they simply will click on a Google or Yahoo logo and then log in with familiar credentials.

This post is a revised version of the usability portion of the comments I submitted to the official NSTIC submission site. I based the critique on research from my dissertation Online Identifiers in Everyday Life, where I examined at the ways that social, technical and policy factors affect individual’s behavior with online identifiers.

2 thoughts on “Federal Digital Identity Proposal Lacking in Usability

  1. The Government tends to focus on high-assurance use cases, because they tend to deal with those sorts of applications: large amounts of money, access to sensitive information, or entry to a sensitive facility. What I think they’re not paying attention to is the many low-value transactions that take place, like buying a [license to a] song on iTunes or similar service.

    Low-value transactions are much more frequent, and more subject to abandonment if the system isn’t easy to use. This is the whole premise behind one-click ordering: the participants in the transaction have determined that the potential for loss due to fraud is less than the potential for lost business due to friction, and are willing to trade off security for ease of use. NSTIC needs to accommodate that.

    To put it another way, I don’t mind if the authentication required to refinance my house is onerous, but I’m going to do that very rarely. It’s the common transactions for which ease of use is most important.

  2. Hi Jim. I agree with you. Usability (ease of use in the document) is listed as a priority in the NSTIC proposal, but it is not seriously discussed, leading me to think that the authors do not really consider it important. I hope I am wrong and that the final version includes substantive consideration of usability, overall user experience, and accessibility.

    More to your point, the proposal should take into account that the usability considerations for low assurance credentials for low value transactions will likely be very different from high assurance credentials for high value transactions.

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