Should government sites use social media login?

I’ve been thinking about how the public sector model for identity has changed in recent years from one where the government body controls the credential AND acts as an identity provider, to one where the credential management is delegated to a service provider. Social media login and, at the premium end, SecureKey’s briidge.net are examples of this model.

Social media credentials from Twitter, Facebook and Google are used everyday by millions of Canadians.  Why not leverage these existing accounts to access government services?

The problem I have when talking to clients about these solutions is the assumption that any credential service provider (CSP) will do.  That is, a public organization can (and should) readily accept any common credential, add a layer of identity proofing, create a link back to the credential (for future access) and start counting the costs saved. After all, it is all about citizen choice isn’t it?

This isn’t as simple issue.  There are some fundamental problems with using low-end credentials, such as social media logins, that need to be carefully considered when delegating authentication to a third party:

  • Operational Disruptions — There was a great post from the Basecamp blog a few years ago (since deleted) that described how difficult it was to maintain the link between a credential provider and the site. This post talked specifically to OpenID and how changes to the credential may not be properly shared with relying parties, resulting in support calls and manual fixes. Users would also forget which OpenID account they used, and Basecamp had no automated way to reconnect them.  In the end, disruptions were common for OpenID users, support costs spiked, and Basecamp discontinued its use.
  • Longevity — Which social media credential providers are going to be around for the long run? What consolidations of login services or outright mergers are coming? How might the protocols for social media login change? For a public-sector service wanting to provide stable, long-term services, picking the right credential service providers is extremely difficult.
  • Wrong Message — Social media companies (Google, Facebook, even LinkedIn) often misbehave when it comes to privacy. They routinely run afoul of privacy commissioners and even irritate their user bases when ever-invasive features are introduced.  Given the poor privacy records, should a  public-sector website be encouraging the use of social media login to access government services? What are the downstream risks?
  • Convenience — Social media login can certainly save time when it comes to authentication. I use my Twitter account to access Level 1 (low value) services frequently. I’ll admit it is convenient and I like that blogs, news websites and the like offer this option. But convenience is far less important to me when accessing my personal information on a government website. First of all, security and privacy protection matter a lot more. Further, I don’t access these sites all that often so if I have to login (or request an automated password reset) it isn’t that big of a deal to me. What would be more useful would be a common credential for all of a particular government’s services, so that I can experience single sign-on.

So what are the benefits of leveraging a social media credential for government websites? Well, for those more trusting than me, convenience and the benefit of having fewer passwords to remember is a definite plus. And cost savings can be significant for large websites, although keep in mind that a full IAM stack is still required — the public sector website will still need to provide their own login service as not all citizens will trust an alternate credential.

Ultimately, social media login for services won’t meet government privacy and security requirements for access to sensitive information. Existing in-house systems and credential solutions (like SecureKey) that specifically address the trust issue will likely prevail.

Mike

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