Archive for the ‘Authentication’ Category

A Review of the Grizzly Steppe (Russian Hacking) Report

December 31, 2016 Leave a comment

I, like many, have heard the stories that the Russians hacked into sensitive applications/servers in an effort to compromise the US elections. That is a bold statement and if true, may justify the actions recently taken by the Obama administration. So it was with keen interest that I rushed to read the findings from the Joint Analysis Report (JAR-16-20296) between DHS and the FBI to see what evidence they had to substantiate these claims.

The full report may be found here:

The report makes the following claims:

“This document provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election…”

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

Based on this information the US felt like it had the smoking gun and definitive proof of the following:

  • The Who – the Russians were behind the attack
  • The Why – to affect the US elections in order to guide the outcome

With this information in hand, I continued reading to now learn about:

  • The How – how the attacks were performed
  • The Proof – the evidence to substantiate Who, Why, and How

The report describes the “How” in a two pronged attack as follows:

Hack #1 – Casting the Phish Net…

1. A general spearphishing attack was sent to more than 1,000 people which included (in addition to others) several people from the U.S. Government.
Note: The number “1,000” is very specific so it seems like the government has some knowledge of the recipients – but they stop short of specifying if that 1,000 was directed at a particular party or not. I would think that would be important to know if the purpose of the attack was to affect the US election.
2. The attack led to one person from a particular U.S. political party falling prey to the attack and opening an attachment containing malware. This led to a chain of events where the malware was able to:

  • Establish persistence on a “political party system”
  • “Escalate privileges”
  • “Enumerate Active Directory accounts”
  • “Exfiltrate email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure”

Note: This all sounds really impressive, but what does it all mean? If you remove all the jargon (enumerate, exfiltrate, etc.) and put this in layman’s terms, it sounds like the following occurred:

  • Someone installed malware on their PC when they opened a file that they shouldn’t have
  • Somehow the malware was able to gain privileged access to Active Directory
  • The malware was able to perform a search against Active Directory
  • The results of the search returned several email accounts


With this information on mind, there are a few things I am curious about.

First, the malware is only able to impersonate the user on the operating system on which it was installed. I’m not sure how a “normal user” can have escalated privileges in Active Directory unless that user is an administrator with escalated privileges (which brings up a whole different conversation about administrators knowing better). So I am curious how the malware was able to “escalate privileges” on its own.
Second, if the user (hence the malware) was not an administrator and they were able to perform an unauthorized search against Active Directory, then that indicates that Active Directory authorization and/or limitations were not configured properly. It has been my experience that Active Directory is (by default) pretty well locked down. Is it possible that the default settings were “relaxed” a bit and therefore may have opened up a hole?
Finally, would I really need “escalated privileges” just to troll email accounts? Couldn’t I simply scan the Outlook address book to obtain this information? It seems like the approach described in the report would take a lot of effort to code and would have a limited chance of success. Wouldn’t the malware have to land on an administrator’s computer for this approach to work?
3. Either way, the end result was that APT29 was able to get a list of email addresses from Active Directory.
Fast forward almost a year later (summer 2015 to spring 2016) and this takes us to the second part of our story.

Hack #2 – Hooking the Phish…

1. In the second hack, a targeted spearphishing attack was launched against the same political party that was compromised in the first attack.
Note: It should be noted that while the first attach was general (casting a net if you will), the second attack was targeted at a certain set of people using specific information to more easily trick those people. While the report doesn’t specifically say this, it is assumed that the attack targeted those email addresses that were obtained from the first attack.
Does this indicate that the political party in question was targeted because the end goal was to affect the election? If so, then this attack was planned almost a year in advance when we really didn’t have a clear picture as to who the candidates would be from either party. Were the Russians hedging their bets in case a certain party (or a certain candidate) was found to be leading? It seems more plausible that the second attack was launched more against a certain set of users more as a target of opportunity than anything else.
2. This spearphishing attack tricked multiple people into “changing their passwords through a fake webmail domain hosted by APT28”.
3. Upon initial login, APT28 was able to obtain the “real” credentials of users associated with the political party in question.
4. With these credentials in hand, APT28 was able to log into the real email server and access content (emails, attachments, etc.). The report goes on to say that this information was subsequently “leaked to the press and publicly disclosed.”

Where’s the Smoking Gun?

While the report is somewhat interesting, it does not provide the “smoking gun” that was anticipated. The report does provide a list of 48 hacker names of which APT28 and APT29 are included. The title of the table is “Reported Russian Military and Civilian Intelligence Services (RIS)” but there is nothing more than that to introduce the table and tell us anything about the names contained in the table. Am I supposed to jump to the conclusion that because APT28 and APT29 are listed that this is definitive proof that:

  • they are the ones behind these attacks
  • no one else has attempted to use these names as their hacking alias
  • they specifically targeted a particular political party
  • their intent was to affect the US election
  • and most importantly, they are “state sponsored”

The last item is one of the most important as the administration has chosen to take action against Russia (the state) as if they sanctioned the attacks. If that is true then the need for a smoking gun becomes infinitely more important and that information is simply not provided. Going back to a statement made early on in the report,

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

the government has made it clear that it is stepping outside of normal protocol by publicly naming the attacker in the JAR. But they don’t provide any information to back up their claim. Nor is there anything specifically that indicates that this had anything to do with an attempt to affect the outcome of the US election; in fact, the information presented may lead one to believe the contrary.
In general, the report lacks information and forces us to accept the government’s assertion of the Who (the Russians) and the Why (to affect the election) without providing the Proof. Maybe the government has more information that they are not sharing, but to ask me to simply trust without verifying is asking me to trust too much.

OpenDJ Attribute Uniqueness (and the Effects on OpenAM)

September 29, 2014 Leave a comment

In real life we tend to value those traits that make us unique from others; but in an identity management deployment uniqueness is essential to the authentication process and should not be taken for granted.


Case in point, attributes in OpenDJ may share values that you may or may not want (or need) to be unique. For instance the following two (different) entries are both configured with the same value for the email address:

dn: uid=bnelson,ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
uid: bnelson
[LDIF Stuff Snipped]
dn: uid=scarter,ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
uid: scarter
[LDIF Stuff Snipped]

In some cases this may be fine, but in others this may not be the desired effect as you may need to enforce uniqueness for attributes such as uid, guid, email address, or simply credit cards. To ensure that attribute values are unique across directory server entries you need to configure attribute uniqueness.

UID Uniqueness Plug-In

OpenDJ has an existing plug-in that can be used to configure unique values for the uid attribute, but this plug-in is disabled by default.  You can find this entry in OpenDJ’s main configuration file (config.ldif) or by searching the cn=config tree in OpenDJ (assuming you have the correct permissions to do so).

dn: cn=UID Unique Attribute,cn=Plugins,cn=config
objectClass: ds-cfg-unique-attribute-plugin
objectClass: ds-cfg-plugin
objectClass: top
ds-cfg-enabled: false
ds-cfg-java-class: org.opends.server.plugins.UniqueAttributePlugin
ds-cfg-plugin-type: preOperationAdd
ds-cfg-plugin-type: preOperationModify
ds-cfg-plugin-type: preOperationModifyDN
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postOperationAdd
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postOperationModify
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postOperationModifyDN
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postSynchronizationAdd
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postSynchronizationModify
ds-cfg-plugin-type: postSynchronizationModifyDN
ds-cfg-invoke-for-internal-operations: true
ds-cfg-type: uid
cn: UID Unique Attribute

Leaving this plug-in disabled can cause problems with OpenAM, however, if OpenAM has been configured to authenticate using the uid attribute (and you ‘accidentally’ create entries with the same uid value). In such cases you will see an authentication error during the login process as OpenAM cannot determine which account you are trying to use for authentication.

Configuring Uniqueness

To fix this problem in OpenAM, you can use the OpenDJ dsconfig command to enable the UID Unique Attribute plug-in as follows:

./dsconfig set-plugin-prop --hostname localhost --port 4444  \
--bindDN "cn=Directory Manager" --bindPassword password \
--plugin-name "UID Unique Attribute" \
--set base-dn:ou=people,dc=example,dc=com --set enabled:true \
--trustAll --no-prompt

This will prevent entries from being added to OpenDJ where the value of any existing uids conflicts with the incoming entry’s uid.  This will address the situation where you are using the uid attribute for authentication in OpenAM, but what if you want to use a different attribute (such as mail) to authenticate? In such cases, you need to create your own uniqueness plug-in as follows:

./dsconfig create-plugin --hostname localhost --port 4444  \
--bindDN "cn=Directory Manager" --bindPassword password \
--plugin-name "Unique Email Address Plugin" \
--type unique-attribute --set type:mail --set enabled:true \
--set base-dn:ou=people,dc=example,dc=com --trustAll \

In both cases the base-dn parameter defines the scope where the the uniqueness applies. This is useful in multitenant environments where you may want to define uniqueness within a particular subtree but not necessarily across the entire server.


The uniqueness plug-in requires that you have an existing equality index configured for the attribute where you would like to enforce uniqueness.  The index is necessary so that OpenDJ can search for other entries (within the scope of the base-dn) where the attribute may already have a particular value set.

The following dscconfig command can be used to create an equality index for  the mail attribute:

./dsconfig  create-local-db-index  --hostname localhost --port 4444  \
--bindDN "cn=Directory Manager" --bindPassword password --backend-name userRoot  \
--index-name mail  --set index-type:equality --trustAll --no-prompt


OpenAM’s default settings (Data Store, LDAP authentication module, etc) uses the uid attribute to authenticate and uniquely identify a user.  OpenDJ typically uses uid as the unique naming attribute in a user’s distinguished name.  When combined together, it is almost assumed that you will be using the uid attribute in this manner, but that is not always the case.  You can easily run into issues when you start coloring outside of the lines and begin using other attributes (i.e. mail) for this purpose.  Armed with the information contained in this post, however, you should easily be able to configure OpenDJ to enforce uniqueness for any attribute.


Understanding OpenAM and OpenDJ Account Lockout Behaviors

April 22, 2014 4 comments

The OpenAM Authentication Service can be configured to lock a user’s account after a defined number of log in attempts has failed.  Account Lockout is disabled by default, but when configured properly, this feature can be useful in fending off brute force attacks against OpenAM login screens.

If your OpenAM environment includes an LDAP server (such as OpenDJ) as an authentication database, then you have options on how (and where) you can configure Account Lockout settings.  This can be performed in either OpenAM (as mentioned above) or in the LDAP server, itself.  But the behavior is different based on where this is configured.  There are benefits and drawbacks towards configuring Account Lockout in either product and knowing the difference is essential.

Note:  Configuring Account Lockout simultaneously in both products can lead to confusing results and should be avoided unless you have a firm understanding of how each product works.  See the scenario at the end of this article for a deeper dive on Account Lockout from an attribute perspective. 

The OpenAM Approach

You can configure Account Lockout in OpenAM either globally or for a particular realm.  To access the Account Lockout settings for the global configuration,

  1. Log in to OpenAM Console
  2. Navigate to:  Configuration > Authentication > Core
  3. Scroll down to Account Lockout section

To access Account Lockout settings for a particular realm,

  1. Log in to OpenAM Console
  2. Navigate to:  Access Control > realm > Authentication > All Core Settings
  3. Scroll down to Account Lockout section

In either location you will see various parameters for controlling Account Lockout as follows:


OpenAM Account Lockout Parameters

Configuring Account Lockout in OpenAM


Account Lockout is disabled by default; you need to select the “Login Failure Lockout Mode” checkbox to enable this feature.  Once it is enabled, you configure the number of attempts before an account is locked and even if a warning message is displayed to the user before their account is locked.  You can configure how long the account is locked and even the duration between successive lockouts (which can increase if you set the duration multiplier).  You can configure the attributes to use to store the account lockout information in addition to the default attributes configured in the Data Store.

Enabling Account Lockout affects the following Data Store attributes:  inetUserStatus and sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData.  By default, the value of the inetUserStatus attribute is either Active or Inactive, but this can be configured to use another attribute and another attribute value.  This can be configured in the User Configuration section of the Data Store configuration as follows:



Data Store Account Lockout Attributes


These attributes are updated in the Data Store configuration for the realm.  A benefit of implementing Account Lockout in OpenAM is that you can use any LDAPv3 directory, Active Directory, or even a relational database – but you do need to have a Data Store configured to provide OpenAM with somewhere to write these values.  An additional benefit is that OpenAM is already configured with error messages that can be easily displayed when a user’s account is about to be locked or has become locked.  Configuring Account Lockout within OpenAM, however, may not provide the level of granularity that you might need and as such, you may need to configure it in the authentication database (such as OpenDJ).

The OpenDJ Approach

OpenDJ can be configured to lock accounts as well.  This is defined in a password policy and can be configured globally (the entire OpenDJ instance) or it may be applied to a subentry (a group of users or a specific user).  Similar to OpenAM, a user’s account can be locked after a number of invalid authentication attempts have been made.  And similar to OpenAM, you have several additional settings that can be configured to control the lockout period, whether warnings should be sent, and even who to notify when the account has been locked.

But while configuring Account Lockout in OpenAM may recognize invalid password attempts in your SSO environment, configuring it in OpenDJ will recognize invalid attempts for any application that is using OpenDJ as an authentication database.  This is more of a centralized approach and can recognize attacks from several vectors.

Configuring Account Lockout in OpenDJ affects the following OpenDJ attributes:  pwdFailureTime (a multivalued attribute consisting of the timestamp of each invalid password attempt) and pwdAccountLockedTime (a timestamp indicating when the account was locked).

Another benefit of implementing Account Lockout in OpenDJ is the ability to configure Account Lockout for different types of users.  This is helpful when you want to have different password policies for users, administrators, or even service accounts.  This is accomplished by assigning different password polices directly to those users or indirectly through groups or virtual attributes.  A drawback to this approach, however, is that OpenAM doesn’t necessarily recognize the circumstances behind error messages returned from OpenDJ when a user is unable to log in.  A scrambled password in OpenDJ, for instance, simply displays as an Authentication failed error message in the OpenAM login screen.

By default, all users in OpenDJ are automatically assigned a generic (rather lenient) password policy that is aptly named:  Default Password Policy.  The definition of this policy can be seen as follows:


dn: cn=Default Password Policy,cn=Password Policies,cn=config
objectClass: ds-cfg-password-policy
objectClass: top
objectClass: ds-cfg-authentication-policy
ds-cfg-skip-validation-for-administrators: false
ds-cfg-force-change-on-add: false
ds-cfg-state-update-failure-policy: reactive
ds-cfg-password-history-count: 0
ds-cfg-password-history-duration: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-allow-multiple-password-values: false
ds-cfg-lockout-failure-expiration-interval: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-lockout-failure-count: 0
ds-cfg-max-password-reset-age: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-max-password-age: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-idle-lockout-interval: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-java-class: org.opends.server.core.PasswordPolicyFactory
ds-cfg-lockout-duration: 0 seconds
ds-cfg-grace-login-count: 0
ds-cfg-force-change-on-reset: false
ds-cfg-default-password-storage-scheme: cn=Salted SHA-1,cn=Password Storage 
ds-cfg-allow-user-password-changes: true
ds-cfg-allow-pre-encoded-passwords: false
ds-cfg-require-secure-password-changes: false
cn: Default Password Policy
ds-cfg-require-secure-authentication: false
ds-cfg-expire-passwords-without-warning: false
ds-cfg-password-change-requires-current-password: false
ds-cfg-password-generator: cn=Random Password Generator,cn=Password Generators,
ds-cfg-password-expiration-warning-interval: 5 days
ds-cfg-allow-expired-password-changes: false
ds-cfg-password-attribute: userPassword
ds-cfg-min-password-age: 0 seconds


The value of the ds-cfg-lockout-failure-count attribute is 0; which means that user accounts are not locked by default – no matter how many incorrect attempts are made.  This is one of the many security settings that you can configure in a password policy and while many of these mimic what is available in OpenAM, others go quite deeper.

You can use the OpenDJ dsconfig command to change the Default Password Policy as follows:


dsconfig set-password-policy-prop --policy-name "Default Password Policy" --set 
lockout-failure-count:3 --hostname localhost --port 4444 --trustAll --bindDN 
"cn=Directory Manager" --bindPassword ****** --no-prompt


Rather than modifying the Default Password Policy, a preferred method is to create a new password policy and apply your own specific settings to the new policy.  This policy can then be applied to a specific set of users.

The syntax for using the OpenDJ dsconfig command to create a new password policy can be seen below.


dsconfig create-password-policy --set default-password-storage-scheme:"Salted 
  SHA-1" --set password-attribute:userpassword --set lockout-failure-count:3 
  --type password-policy --policy-name "Example Corp User Password Policy" 
  --hostname localhost --port 4444 --trustAll --bindDN cn="Directory Manager" 
  --bindPassword ****** --no-prompt


Note:  This example contains a minimum number of settings (default-password-storage-scheme, password-attribute, and lockout-failure-count).  Consider adding additional settings to customize your password policy as desired.

You can now assign the password policy to an individual user by adding the following attribute as a subentry to the user’s object:


ds-pwp-password-policy-dn:  cn=Example Corp User Password Policy,cn=Password 
  Policies, cn=config


This can be performed using any LDAP client where you have write permissions to a user’s entry.  The following example uses the ldapmodify command in an interactive mode to perform this operation:


$ ldapmodify -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** <ENTER>
dn: uid=bnelson,ou=People,dc=example,dc=com <ENTER>
changetype: modify <ENTER>
replace: ds-pwp-password-policy-dn <ENTER>
ds-pwp-password-policy-dn: cn=Example Corp User Password Policy,
  cn=Password Policies,cn=config <ENTER>


Another method of setting this password policy is through the use of a dynamically created virtual attribute (i.e. one that is not persisted in the OpenDJ database backend).  The following definition automatically assigns this new password policy to all users that exist beneath the ou=people container (the scope of the virtual attribute).


dn: cn=Example Corp User Password Policy Assignment,cn=Virtual 
objectClass: ds-cfg-virtual-attribute
objectClass: ds-cfg-user-defined-virtual-attribute
objectClass: top
ds-cfg-base-dn: ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
cn: Example Corp User Password Policy Assignment
ds-cfg-attribute-type: ds-pwp-password-policy-dn
ds-cfg-enabled: true
ds-cfg-filter: (objectclass=sbacperson)
ds-cfg-value: cn=Example Corp User Password Policy,cn=Password 


Note:  You can also use filters to create very granular results on how password polices are applied.

Configuring Account Lockout in OpenDJ has more flexibility and as such may be considered to be more powerful than OpenAM in this area.  The potential confusion, however, comes when attempting to unlock a user’s account when they have been locked out of both OpenAM and OpenDJ.  This is described in the following example.

A Deeper Dive into Account Lockout

Consider an environment where OpenAM is configured with the LDAP authentication module and that module has been configured to use an OpenDJ instance as the authentication database.



OpenDJ Configured as AuthN Database


OpenAM and OpenDJ have both been configured to lock a user’s account after 3 invalid password attempts.  What kind of behavior can you expect?  Let’s walk through each step of an Account Lockout process and observe the behavior on Account Lockout specific attributes.


Step 1:  Query Account Lockout Specific Attributes for the Test User


$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
inetuserstatus: Active


The user is currently active and Account Lockout specific attributes are empty.


Step 2:  Open the OpenAM Console and access the login screen for the realm where Account Lockout has been configured.



OpenAM Login Page


Step 3:  Enter an invalid password for this user



OpenAM Authentication Failure Message


Step 4:  Query Account Lockout Specific Attributes for the Test User


$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData:: PEludmFsaWRQYXNzd29yZD48SW52YWxpZENvdW50PjE8L0
inetuserstatus: Active
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125819.918Z


You now see that there is a value for the pwdFailureTime.  This is the timestamp of when the first password failure occurred.  This attribute was populated by OpenDJ.

The sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData attribute is populated by OpenAM.  This is a base64 encoded value that contains valuable information regarding the invalid password attempt.  Run this through a base64 decoder and you will see that this attribute contains the following information:




Step 5:  Repeat Steps 2 and 3.  (This is the second password failure.)


Step 6:  Query Account Lockout Specific Attributes for the Test User


$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData:: PEludmFsaWRQYXNzd29yZD48SW52YWxpZENvdW50PjI8L0
inetuserstatus: Active
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125819.918Z
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125913.151Z


There are now two values for the pwdFailureTime attribute – one for each password failure.  The sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData attribute has been updated as follows:




Step 7:  Repeat Steps 2 and 3.  (This is the third and final password failure.)



OpenAM Inactive User Page


OpenAM displays an error message indicating that the user’s account is not active.  This is OpenAM’s way of acknowledging that the user’s account has been locked.


Step 8:  Query Account Lockout Specific Attributes for the Test User


$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \ 
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData:: PEludmFsaWRQYXNzd29yZD48SW52YWxpZENvdW50PjA8L0
inetuserstatus: Inactive
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125819.918Z
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125913.151Z
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125944.771Z
pwdAccountLockedTime: 20140422125944.771Z


There are now three values for the pwdFailureTime attribute – one for each password failure.  The sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData attribute has been updated as follows:




You will note that the counters have all been reset to zero.  That is because the user’s account has been inactivated by OpenAM by setting the value of the inetuserstatus attribute to Inactive.  Additionally, the third invalid password caused OpenDJ to lock the account by setting the value of the pwdAccountLockedTime attribute to the value of the last password failure.

Now that the account is locked out, how do you unlock it?  The natural thing for an OpenAM administrator to do is to reset the value of the inetuserstatus attribute and they would most likely use the OpenAM Console to do this as follows:



OpenAM Edit User Page (Change User Status)


The problem with this approach is that while the user’s status in OpenAM is now made active, the status in OpenDJ remains locked.


$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData:: PEludmFsaWRQYXNzd29yZD48SW52YWxpZENvdW50PjA8L0
inetuserstatus: Active
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125819.918Z
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125913.151Z
pwdFailureTime: 20140422125944.771Z
pwdAccountLockedTime: 20140422125944.771Z


Attempting to log in to OpenAM with this user’s account yields an authentication error that would make most OpenAM administrators scratch their head; especially after just resetting the user’s status.



OpenAM Authentication Failure Message


The trick to fixing this is to clear the pwdAccountLockedTime and pwdFailureTime attributes and the way to do this is by modifying the user’s password.  Once again, the ldapmodify command can be used as follows:


$ ldapmodify -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** <ENTER>
dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com <ENTER>
changetype: modify <ENTER>
replace: userPassword <ENTER>
userPassword: newpassword <ENTER>
$ ldapsearch -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w ****** uid=testuser1 inetuserstatus \
  sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData pwdFailureTime pwdAccountLockedTime

dn: uid=testuser1,ou=test,dc=example,dc=com
sunAMAuthInvalidAttemptsData:: PEludmFsaWRQYXNzd29yZD48SW52YWxpZENvdW50PjA8L0
inetuserstatus: Active
pwdChangedTime: 20140422172242.676Z


This, however, requires two different interfaces for managing the user’s account.  An easier method is to combine the changes into one interface.  You can modify the inetuserstatus attribute using ldapmodify or if you are using the OpenAM Console, simply change the password while you are updating the user’s status.



OpenAM Edit User Page (Change Password)


There are other ways to update one attribute by simply modifying the other.  This can range in complexity from a simple virtual attribute to a more complex yet powerful custom OpenDJ plugin.   But in the words of Voltaire, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So go forth and wield your new found power; but do it in a responsible manner.

It’s OK to Get Stressed Out with OpenAM

March 7, 2014 1 comment

In fact, it’s HIGHLY recommended….

Performance testing and stress testing are closely related and are essential tasks in any OpenAM deployment.


When conducting performance testing, you are trying to determine how well your system performs when subjected to a particular load. A primary goal of performance testing is to determine whether the system that you just built can support your client base (as defined by your performance requirements).  Oftentimes you must tweak things (memory, configuration settings, hardware) in order to meet your performance requirements, but without executing performance tests, you will never know if you can support your clients until you are actually under fire (and by then, it may be too late).

Performance testing is an iterative process as shown in the following diagram:


Each of the states may be described as follows:

  1. Test – throw a load at your server
  2. Measure – take note of the results
  3. Compare – compare your results to those desired
  4. Tweak – modify the system to help achieve your performance results

During performance testing you may continue in this loop until such time that you meet your performance requirements – or until you find that your requirements were unrealistic in the first place.

Stress testing (aka “torture testing”) goes beyond normal performance testing in that the load you place on the system intentionally exceeds the anticipated capacity.  The goal of stress testing is to determine the breaking point of the system and observe the behavior when the system fails.


Stress testing allows you to  create contingency plans for those ‘worse case scenarios’ that will eventually occur (thanks to Mr. Murphy).

Before placing OpenAM into production you should test to see if your implementation meets your current performance requirements (concurrent sessions, authentications per second, etc.) and have a pretty good idea of where your limitations are.  The problem is that an OpenAM deployment is comprised of multiple servers – each that may need to be tested (and tuned) separately.  So how do you know where to start?

When executing performance and stress tests in OpenAM, there are three areas where I like to place my focus: 1) the protected application, 2) the OpenAM server, and 3) the data store(s). Testing the system as a whole may not provide enough information to determine where problems may lie and so I prefer to take an incremental approach that tests each component in sequence.  I start with the data stores (authentication and user profile databases) and work my way back towards the protected application – with each iteration adding a new component.


Note:  It should go without saying that the testing environment should mimic your production environment as closely as possible.  Any deviation may cause your test results to be skewed and provide inaccurate data.

Data Store(s)

An OpenAM deployment may consist of multiple data stores – those that are used for authentication (Active Directory, OpenDJ, Radius Server, etc.) and those that are used to build a user’s profile (LDAP and RDBMS).  Both of these are core to an OpenAM deployment and while they are typically the easiest to test, a misconfiguration here may have a pretty big impact on overall performance.  As such, I start my testing at the database layer and focus only on that component.


Performance of an authentication database can be measured by the average number of authentications that occur over a particular period of time (seconds, minutes, hours) and the easiest way to test these types of databases is to simply perform authentication operations against them.

You can write your own scripts to accomplish this, but there are many freely available tools that can be used as well.  One tool that I have used in the past is the SLAMD Distributed Load Generation Engine.  SLAMD was designed to test directory server performance, but it can be used to test web applications as well.  Unfortunately, SLAMD is no longer being actively developed, but you can still download a copy from

A tool that I have started using to test authentications against an LDAP server is authrate, which is included in ForgeRock’s OpenDJ LDAP Toolkit.  Authrate allows you to stress the server and display some really nice statistics while doing so.  The authrate command line tool measures bind throughput and response times and is perfect for testing all sorts of LDAP authentication databases.

Performance of a user profile database is typically measured in search performance against that database.  If your user profile database can be searched using LDAP (i.e. Active Directory or any LDAPv3 server), then you can use searchrate – also included in the OpenDJ LDAP Toolkit.  searchrate is a command line tool that measures search throughput and response time.

The following is sample output from the searchrate command:

     Throughput                            Response Time                       
   (ops/second)                           (milliseconds)                      
recent  average  recent  average  99.9%  99.99%  99.999%  err/sec  Entries/Srch
 188.7    188.7   3.214    3.214  306.364 306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 223.1    205.9   2.508    2.831  27.805  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 245.7    219.2   2.273    2.622  20.374  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 238.7    224.1   2.144    2.495  27.805  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 287.9    236.8   1.972    2.368  32.656  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 335.0    253.4   1.657    2.208  32.656  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0
 358.7    268.4   1.532    2.080  30.827  306.364  306.364    0.0           0.0

The first two columns represent the throughput (number of operations per second) observed in the server. The first column contains the most recent value and the second column contains the average throughput since the test was initiated (i.e. the average of all values contained in column one).

The remaining columns represent response times with the third column being the most recent response time and the fourth column containing the average response time since the test was initiated. Columns five, six, and seven (represented by percentile headers) demonstrate how many operations fell within that range.

For instance, by the time we are at the 7th row, 99.9% of the operations are completed in 30.827 ms (5th column, 7th row), 99.99% are completed in 306.364 ms (6th column, 7th row), and 99.999% of them are completed within 306.364 ms (7th column, 7th row). The percentile rankings provide a good indication of the real system performance and can be interpreted as follows:

  • 1 out of 1,000 search requests is exceeding 30 ms
  • 1 one out of 100,000 requests is exceeding 306 ms

Note: The values contained in this search were performed on an untuned, limited resource test system. Results will vary depending on the amount of JVM memory, the system CPU(s), and the data contained in the directory. Generally, OpenDJ systems can achieve much better performance that the values shown above.

There are several factors that may need to be considered when tuning authentication and user profile databases.  For instance, if you are using OpenDJ for your database you may need to modify your database cache, the number of worker threads, or even how indexing is configured in the server.  If your constraint is operating system based, you may need to increase the size of the JVM or the number of file descriptors.   If the hardware is the limiting factor, you may need to increase RAM, use high speed disks, or even faster network interfaces.  No matter what the constraint, you should optimize the databases (and database servers) before moving up the stack to the OpenAM instance.

OpenAM Instance + Data Store(s)

Once you have optimized any data store(s) you can now begin testing directly against OpenAM as it is configured against those data store(s).  Previous testing established a performance baseline and any degradation introduced at this point will be due to OpenAM or the environment (operating system, Java container) where it has been configured.


But how can you test an OpenAM instance without introducing the application that it is protecting?  One way is to generate a series of authentications and authorizations using direct interfaces such as the OpenAM API or REST calls.  I prefer to use REST calls as this is the easiest to implement.

There are browser based applications such as Postman that are great for functional testing, but these are not easily scriptable.  As such, I lean towards a shell or Perl script containing a loop of cURL commands.

Note: You should use the same authentication and search operations in your cURL commands to be sure that you are making a fair comparison between the standalone database testing and the introduction of OpenAM.

You should expect some decrease in performance when the OpenAM server is introduced, but it should not be too drastic.  If you find that it falls outside of your requirements, however, then you should consider updating OpenAM in one of the following areas:

  • LDAP Configuration Settings (i.e. connections to the Configuration Server)
  • Session Settings (if you are hitting limitations)
  • JVM Settings (pay particular attention to garbage collection)
  • Cache Settings (size and time to live)

Details behind each of these areas can be found in the OpenAM Administration Guide.

You may also find that OpenAM’s interaction with the database(s) introduces searches (or other operations) that you did not previously test for.  This may require you to update your database(s) to account for this and restart your performance testing.

Note:  Another tool I have started playing with is the Java Application Monitor (aka JAMon).  While this tool is typically used to monitor a Java application, it provides some useful information to help determine bottlenecks working with databases, file IO, and garbage collection.

Application + OpenAM Instance + Data Store(s)

Once you feel comfortable with the performance delivered by OpenAM and its associated data store(s), it is time to introduce the final component – the protected application, itself.


This will differ quite a bit based on how you are protecting your application (for instance, policy agents will behave differently from OAuth2/OpenID Connect or SAML2) but this does provide you with the information you need to determine if you can meet your performance requirements in a production deployment.

If you have optimized everything up to this point, then the combination of all three components will provide a full end to end test of the entire system.  In this case, then an impact due to network latency will be the most likely factor in performance testing.

To perform a full end to end test of all components, I prefer to use Apache JMeter.  You configure JMeter to use a predefined set of credentials, authenticate to the protected resource, and look for specific responses from the server.  Once you see those responses, JMeter will act according to how you have preconfigured it to act.  This tool allows you to generate a load against OpenAM from login to logout and anything in between.

Other Considerations

Keep in mind that any time that you introduce a monitoring tool into a testing environment, the tool (itself) can impact performance.  So while the numbers you receive are useful, they are not altogether acurate.  There may be some slight performance degradation (due to the introduction of the tool) that your users will never see.

You should also be aware that the client machine (where the load generation tools are installed) may become a bottleneck if you are not careful.  You should consider distributing your performance testing tools across multiple client machines to minimize this effect.  This is another way of ensuring that the client environment does not become the limiting factor.


Like many other areas in our field, performance testing an OpenAM deployment may be considered as much of an art as it is a science.  There may be as many methods for testing as there are consultants and each varies based on the tools they use.  The information contained here is just one approach performance testing – one that I have used successfully in our deployments.

What methods have you used?  Feel free to share in the comments, below.

How to Configure OpenAM Signing Keys

February 9, 2014 5 comments

The exchange of SAML assertions between an Identity Provider (IdP) and a Service Provider (SP) uses Public-key Cryptography to validate the identity of the IdP and the integrity of the assertion.  

Securing SAML Assertions

SAML assertions passed over the public Internet will include a digital signature signed by an Identity Provider’s private key.  Additionally, the assertion will include the IdP’s public key contained in the body of a digital certificate.  Service Providers receiving the assertion can be assured that it has not been tampered with by comparing the unencrypted (hashed) message obtained from the digital signature with a hashed version of the message created by the Service Provider using the same hashing algorithm.

The process can be demonstrated by the following diagram where the Signing process is performed by the IdP and the Verification process is performed by the SP.  The “Data” referred to in the diagram is the assertion and the “Hash function” is the hashing algorithm used by both the Identity Provider and the Service Provider.


In order for an Identity Provider to sign the assertion, they must first have a digital certificate.

OpenAM includes a default certificate that can use for testing purposes.  This certificate is common to all installations and while convenient, should not be used for production deployments.  Instead, you should either use a certificate obtained from a trusted certificate authority (such as Thawte or Entrust) or generate your own self-signed certificate.

Note:  For the purposes of this article, $CONFIG refers to the location of the configuration folder specified during the installation process.  $URI refers to the URI of the OpenAM application; also specified during the installation process (i.e. /openam).

OpenAM’s Default Signing Key

OpenAM stores its certificates in a Java Keystore file located in the $CONFIG/$URI folder by default.  This can be found in the OpenAM Console as follows:

  1. Log in to the OpenAM Console as the administrative user.
  2. Select the Configuration tab.
  3. Select the Servers and Sites subtab.
  4. In the Servers panel, select the link for the appropriate server instance.
  5. Select the Security tab.
  6. Select the Key Store link at the top of the page.

You will see that the default location for the Java Keystore file, all passwords, and the alias of the default test certificate as follows:


Viewing the Contents of OpenAM’s Default Certificate

You can view the contents of this file as follows:

  1. Change to the $CONFIG/$URI folder.
  2. Use the Java keytool utility to view the contents of the file.  (Note:  The contents of the file are password protected.  The default password is:  changeit)

# keytool –list –keystore keystore.jks

Enter keystore password:   changeit

Keystore type: JKS

Keystore provider: SUN

Your keystore contains 1 entry

Alias name: test

Creation date: Jul 16, 2008

Entry type: PrivateKeyEntry

Certificate chain length: 1


Owner: CN=test, OU=OpenSSO, O=Sun, L=Santa Clara, ST=California, C=US

Issuer: CN=test, OU=OpenSSO, O=Sun, L=Santa Clara, ST=California, C=US

Serial number: 478d074b

Valid from: Tue Jan 15 19:19:39 UTC 2008 until: Fri Jan 12 19:19:39 UTC 2018

Certificate fingerprints:

MD5:  8D:89:26:BA:5C:04:D8:CC:D0:1B:85:50:2E:38:14:EF

SHA1: DE:F1:8D:BE:D5:47:CD:F3:D5:2B:62:7F:41:63:7C:44:30:45:FE:33

SHA256: 39:DD:8A:4B:0F:47:4A:15:CD:EF:7A:41:C5:98:A2:10:FA:90:5F:4B:8F:F4:08:04:CE:A5:52:9F:47:E7:CF:29

Signature algorithm name: MD5withRSA

Version: 1



Replacing OpenAM’s Default Keystore

You should replace this file with a Java Keystore file containing your own key pair and certificate.  This will be used as the key for digitally signing assertions as OpenAM plays the role of a Hosted Identity Provider.  The process for performing this includes five basic steps:

  1. Generate a new Java Keystore file containing a new key pair consisting of the public and private keys.
  2. Export the digital certificate from the file and make it trusted by your Java installation.
  3. Generate encrypted password files that permit OpenAM to read the keys from the Java Keystore.
  4. Replace OpenAM’s default Java Keystore and password files with your newly created files.
  5. Restart OpenAM.

The following provides the detailed steps for replacing the default Java Keystore.

1.  Generate a New Java Keystore Containing the Key Pair

a)      Change to a temporary folder where you will generate your files.

# cd /tmp

b)     Use the Java keytool utility to generate a new key pair that will be used as the signing key for your Hosted Identity Provider.

# keytool -genkeypair -alias signingKey -keyalg RSA -keysize 1024 -validity 730
-storetype JKS -keystore keystore.jks

Enter keystore password:   cangetin

Re-enter new password:   cangetin

What is your first and last name?


What is the name of your organizational unit?

  [Unknown]:  Security

What is the name of your organization?

  [Unknown]:  Identity Fusion

What is the name of your City or Locality?

  [Unknown]:  Tampa

What is the name of your State or Province?

  [Unknown]:  FL

What is the two-letter country code for this unit?

  [Unknown]:  US

Is, OU=Security, O=Identity Fusion, L=Tampa, ST=FL, C=US correct?

  [no]:  yes

Enter key password for <signingKey>

        (RETURN if same as keystore password):  cangetin

Re-enter new password:  cangetin

You have now generated a self-signed certificate but since it has been signed by you, it is not automatically trusted by other applications.  In order to trust the new certificate, you need to export it from your keystore file, and import it into the cacerts file for your Java installation.  To accomplish this, perform the following steps:

2.      Make the Certificate Trusted

a)      Export the self-signed certificate as follows:

# keytool -exportcert -alias signingKey -file idfSelfSignedCert.crt -keystore keystore.jks

Enter keystore password:  cangetin

Certificate stored in file <idfSelfSignedCert.crt>

b)     Import the certificate into the Java trust store as follows:

# keytool -importcert -alias signingKey -file idfSelfSignedCert.crt -trustcacerts
-keystore /usr/lib/jvm/java-7-oracle/jre/lib/security/cacerts

Enter keystore password:   changeit

Owner:, OU=Security, O=Identity Fusion, L=Tampa, ST=FL, C=US

Issuer:, OU=Security, O=Identity Fusion, L=Tampa, ST=FL, C=US

Serial number: 34113557

Valid from: Thu Jan 30 04:25:51 UTC 2014 until: Sat Jan 30 04:25:51 UTC 2016

Certificate fingerprints:

         MD5:  AA:F3:60:D1:BA:1D:C6:64:61:7A:CC:16:5E:1C:12:1E

         SHA1: 4A:C3:7D:0E:4C:D6:4C:0F:0B:6B:EC:15:5A:5B:5E:EE:BB:6A:A5:08

         SHA256: A8:22:BE:79:72:52:02:6C:30:6E:86:35:DA:FD:E0:45:6A:85:2C:FE:AA:FB:69:EA:87:30:65:AF:2E:65:FB:EB

         Signature algorithm name: SHA256withRSA

         Version: 3


#1: ObjectId: Criticality=false

SubjectKeyIdentifier [

KeyIdentifier [

0000: 12 3B 83 BE 46 D6 D5 17   0F 49 37 E4 61 CC 89 BE  .;..F….I7.a…

0010: 6D B0 5B F5                                        m.[.



Trust this certificate? [no]:  yes

OpenAM needs to be able to open the truststore (keystore.jks) and read the key created in step 1.  The private key and truststore database have both been locked with a password that you entered while configuring the truststore and signing key, however.  For OpenAM to be able to read this information you need to place these passwords in files on the file system.

3.      Generate Encrypted Password Files

Note:  The passwords will start out as clear text at first, but will be encrypted to provide secure access.

a)      Create the password file for the trust store as follows:

# echo “cangetin”  >  storepass.cleartext

b)     Create the password file for the signing key as follows:

# echo “cangetin”  >  keypass.cleartext

 c)      Prepare encrypted versions of these passwords by using the OpenAM ampassword utility (which is part of the OpenAM administration tools).

# ampassword –encrypt keypass.cleartext > .keypass

# ampassword –encrypt storepass.cleartext > .storepass

Note:  Use these file names as you will be replacing the default files of the same name.

4.      Replace the Default OpenAM Files With Your New Files

a)      Make a backup copy of your existing keystore and password files.

# cp $CONFIG/$URI/.keypass $CONFIG/$URI/

# cp $CONFIG/$URI/.storepass $CONFIG/$URI/

# cp $CONFIG/$URI/keystore.jks $CONFIG/$URI/

b)     Overwrite the existing keystore and password files as follows:

# cp .keypass $CONFIG/$URI/.keypass

# cp .storepass $CONFIG/$URI/.storepass

# cp keystore.jks $CONFIG/$URI/keystore.jks

5.      Restart the container where OpenAM is currently running. 

This will allow OpenAM to use the new keystore and read the new password files.

Verifying Your Changes

You can use the keytool utility to view the contents of your Keystore as previously mentioned in this article.  Alternately, you can log in to the OpenAM Console and see that OpenAM is using the new signing key as follows:

  1. Log in to OpenAM Console.
  2. Select the Common Tasks tab.
  3. Select the Create Hosted Identity Provider option beneath the Create SAMLv2 Providers section.


Verify that you now see your new signing key appear beneath the Signing Key option as follows:


You have now successfully replaced the default OpenAM Java Keystore with your own custom version.

Single Sign-On Explained

December 17, 2011 3 comments


So what is SSO and why do I care?


SSO is an acronym for “Single Sign-On”.  There are various forms of single sign-on with the most common being Enterprise Single Sign-On (ESSO) and Web Single Sign-On (WSSO).

Each method utilizes different technologies to reduce the number of times a user has to enter their username/password in order to gain access to protected resources.


Note: There are various offshoots from WSSO implementations – most notably utilizing proxies or portal servers to act as a central point of authentication and authorization.


Enterprise Single Sign-On


In ESSO deployments, software typically resides on the user’s desktop; the desktop is most commonly Microsoft.  The software detects when a user launches an application that contains the username and password fields.  The software “grabs” a previously saved username/password from either a local file or remote storage (i.e. a special entry in Active Directory), enters these values into the username and password fields on behalf of the application, and submits the form on behalf of the user.  This process is followed for every new application that is launched that contains a username and password field.  It can be used for fat clients (i.e. Microsoft Outlook), thin clients (i.e. Citrix), or Web-based applications (i.e. Web Forms) and in most cases the applications themselves are not even aware that the organization has implemented an ESSO solution.  There are definite advantages to implementing an ESSO solution in terms of flexibility.  The drawback to ESSO solutions, however, is that software needs to be distributed, installed, and maintained on each desktop where applications are launched.  Additionally, because the software resides on the desktop, there is no central location in which to determine if the user is allowed access to the application (authorization or AuthZ). As such, each application must maintain its own set of security policies.

The following diagram provides an overview of the steps performed in ESSO environments.


A user launches an application on their desktop.   An agent running in the background detects a login screen from a previously defined template.  If this is the first time the user has attempted to access this application, they are prompted to provide their credentials.  Once a successful login has been performed, the credentials are stored in a credentials database.  This database can be a locally encrypted database or a remote server (such as Active Directory).  Subsequent login attempts do not prompt the user for their credentials.  Instead, the data is simply retrieved from the credentials database and submitted on behalf of the user.

Container-Based Single Sign-On


Session information (such as authenticated credentials) can be shared between Web applications deployed to the same application server.  This is single sign-on in its most basic and limited fashion as it can only be used across applications in the same container.

The following diagram provides a high level overview of the steps performed in container-based single sign-on environments.


A user accesses a Web application through a standard Web browser.  They are prompted for their credentials which can be basic (such as username and password) or can utilize other forms of authentication (such as multi-factor, X.509 certificates, or biometric).  Once the user has authenticated to the application server, they are able to access other applications installed in the same J2EE container without having to re-authenticate (that is, if the other applications have been configured to permit this).

Traditional Web Single Sign-On


In contrast, WSSO deployments only apply to the Web environment and Web-based applications.  They do not work with fat clients or thin clients.  Software is not installed on the user’s desktop, but instead resides centrally within the Web container or J2EE container of the Web application being protected.  The software is often times called a “policy agent” and its purpose is to manage both authentication and authorization tasks.

The following diagram provides a high level overview of traditional Web Single Sign-On.


A user first attempts to access a Web resource (such as ADP) through a Web browser.  They are not authenticated to the domain so they are directed to the central authentication server where they provide their credentials.  Once validated, they receive a cookie indicating that they are authenticated to the domain.  They are then redirected back to the original Web resource where they present the cookie.  The Web resource consults the authentication server to determine if the cookie is valid and that the session is still active.  They also determine if this user is allowed access to the Web resource.  If so, they are granted access.  If the user were to attempt to access another Web resource in the same domain (i.e. Oracle eBusiness Suite), they would present the cookie as proof that they are authenticated to the domain.  The Web resource consults the authentication server to determine the validity of the cookie, session, and access rights.  This process continues for any server in the domain that is protected by WSSO.


Portal or Proxy-Based Single Sign-On


Portal and proxy-based single sign-on solutions are similar to Standard Web Single Sign-On except that all traffic is directed through the central server.


Portal Based Single Sign-On


Target-based policy agents can be avoided by using Portal Servers such as LifeRay or SharePoint.  In such cases the policy agent is installed in the Portal Server.  In turn, the Portal Server acts as a proxy for the target applications and may use technologies such as SAML or auto-form submission.  Portal Servers may be customized to dynamically provide access to target systems based on various factors.  This includes the user’s role or group, originating IP address, time of day, etc.  Portal-based single sign-on (PSSO) serves as the foundation for most vendors who are providing cloud-based WSSO products.  When implementing PSSO solutions, direct access to target systems is still permitted.  This allows users to bypass the Portal but in so doing, they need to remember their application specific credentials.  You can disallow direct access by creating container-specific rules that only allow traffic from the Portal to the application.

Single Sign-On Involving Proxy Servers


Proxy servers are similar to PSSO implementations in that they provide a central point of access.  They differ, however, in that they do not provide a graphical user interface.  Instead, users are directed to the proxy through various methods (i.e. DNS, load balancers, Portal Servers, etc.).  Policy agents are installed in the proxy environment (which may be an appliance) and users are granted or denied access to target resources based on whether they have the appropriate credentials and permission for the target resource.

The following diagram provides a high level overview of centralized single sign-on using Portal or Proxy Servers.




Federation is designed to enable Single Sign-On and Single Logout between trusted partners across a heterogeneous environment (i.e. different domains).  Companies that wish to offer services to their customers or employees enter into a federated agreement with trusted partners who in turn provide the services themselves.  Federation enables this partnership by defining a set of open protocols that are used between partners to communicate identity information within a Circle of Trust.  Protocols include SAML, Liberty ID-FF, and WS-Federation.

Implementation of federated environments requires coordination between each of its members.  Companies have roles to play as some entities act as identity providers (IDP – where users authenticate and credentials are verified) and service providers (SP – where the content and/or service originate).  Similar to standard Web Single Sign-On, an unauthenticated user attempting to access content on a SP is redirected to an appropriate IDP where their identity is verified.  Once the user has successfully authenticated, the IDP creates an XML document called an assertion in which it asserts certain information about the user.  The assertion can contain any information that the IDP wishes to share with the SP, but is typically limited to the context of the authentication.  Assertions are presented to SPs but are not taken at face value.  The manner in which assertions are validated vary between the type of federation being employed and may range from dereferencing artifacts (which are similar to cookies) or by verifying digital signatures associated with an IDP’s signed assertion.

The interaction between the entities involved in a federated environment (user, SP and IDP) is similar to the Web Single Sign-On environment except that authentication is permitted across different domains.

A major difference between federated and WSSO environments involves the type of information generated by the authenticating entity to vouch for the user and how it is determined that that vouch is valid and had not been altered in any way.

The following table provides a feature comparison between Web SSO and Enterprise SSO.

Features WSSO / PSSO / Proxy ESSO
Applications Supported: Web Only Web Applications and Fat Clients
“Agent” Location: Target System User Desktop
Technologies: SAML, Form Submission, Cookies Form Submission
Internal Users? Yes Yes (through portal)
External Users? Yes No
Central Authentication? Yes No
Central Authorization? Yes No
Central Session Logoff? Yes No
Global Account Deactivation? Yes (through password change) No

Opinions About the Federal Government’s Identity Initiative

September 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Interesting read. This is essentially a WebSSO initiative with authentication based on CAC type ID cards or OpenID.

The CAC type of implementation (ID Cards) are not practical as they require everyone to have a card reader on their PC in order to do business with the government. I don’t see this happening anytime too soon.

I understand that there are several holes in the OpenID initiative. I wonder if they have been fixed (I wonder if it matters).

Either way, Sun’s openSSO initiative is well positioned as it allows OpenID as a form of authentication. The fact that the government is looking at open source for this (OpenID) bodes well for openSSO.

Link to article on

Text version of the article:

Federal Government Starts Identity Initiative

As part of a general effort of the Obama administration to make government more accessible through the web, the Federal government, through the GSA (Government Services Administration), is working to standardize identity systems to hundreds of government web sites. The two technologies being considered are OpenID and Information Cards (InfoCards). The first government site to implement this plan will be the NIH (National Institutes of Health).

OpenID is a standard for “single sign-on”. You may have noticed an option on many web sites, typically blogs, to log on with an OpenID. This ID would be a URI such as, which would be John Smith’s identifier on VeriSign’s Personal Identity Portal. Many ISPs and other services, such as AOL and Yahoo!, provide OpenIDs for their users. When you log on with your OpenID the session redirects to the OpenID server, such as This server, called an identity provider, is where you are authenticated, potentially with stricter measures than just a password. VeriSign is planning to add 2-factor authentication for example. Once authenticated or not, the result is sent back to the service to which you were trying to log in, also known as a relying party.

Information Cards work differently. The user presents a digital identity to a relying party. This can be in a number of forms, from a username/password to an X.509 certificate. IDs can also be managed by service providers who can also customize their authentication rules.

The OpenID Foundation and Information Card Foundation have a white paper which describes the initiative. Users will be able to use a single identity to access a wide variety of government resources, but in a way which preserves their privacy. For instance, there will be provision for the identity providers to supply each government site with a different virtual identity managed by the identity provider, so that the user’s movements on different government sites cannot be correlated.

Part of the early idea of OpenID was that anyone could make an identity provider and that everyone will trust everyone else’s identity provider, but this was never going to work on a large scale. For the government there will be a white list of some sort that will consist of certified identity providers who meet certain standards for identity management, including privacy protection.