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Microsoft's Geneva Server: Hailstorm done right

Hard lessons for Google, Facebook and Microsoft

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PDC Microsoft's notorious Hailstorm project, announced in 2001 but scrapped before it was launched, sought to make Passport the core of the whole world's web identity. In 2008, major web properties like Google and Facebook are still fighting identity wars.

"Microsoft just gave that up," Microsoft's chief architect of identity Kim Cameron said at Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference (PDC). "That's the importance of the announcements we gave yesterday. Microsoft said 'no'."

Those announcements, made at the show, were about the identity product codenamed Geneva, which includes a server, a code library for applications, and the CardSpace client buried in Internet Explorer 7 and 8.

Let's start with CardSpace. It was released in 2006 and widely ignored, even by Microsoft. I had assumed it was destined to join Bob in the Microsoft graveyard. That would be a shame, because CardSpace is damn clever, and reflects Cameron's work on the Laws of Identity, which like Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are intended to prevent technology from doing us harm.

CardSpace has its own user interface, built into the browser, so it is hard for a phishing site to fake it and steal credentials. When you log in, the server that wants to know who you are - Relying Party, in identity lingo - requests a security token. CardSpace passes on the request to the identity provider, normally a directory of some sort, and at this point, the user gives credentials such as username and password, or something better, to the identity provider.

The directory issues the token, complete with the requested information in encrypted form, and sends it back to CardSpace, which then forwards it to the Relying Party. Wins: no phishing, only the information requested is sent, no actual credentials are sent to the Relying Party, and the user is in control. The security token cannot easily be faked, since only the real identity provider can sign it with the right digital certificate.

If the technology is so great, why has nobody used it? One reason is that Microsoft only delivered the client. Creating the necessary Security Token Service (STS) for an identity provider was hard.

"We've tortured developers," said Cameron. "We ourselves didn't have any server software that would work with it. There was no product on the back end. Now our whole marketing team is going to take this out.

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