Software // Enterprise Applications
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10/30/2001
10:18 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: The End Of Anonymous Surfing?

Microsoft's Passport and its competitors are making it harder than ever for computer users to keep a low profile, Fred Langa says.

AOL's 'Magic Carpet' And Sun's 'Liberty Alliance'
Sensing a danger in letting Microsoft set itself up as a primary gatekeeper of E-commerce, AOL Time Warner and Sun Microsystems each independently revealed their own versions of Passport: AOL's is called Magic Carpet and Sun's is called the Liberty Alliance.

There are differences among and between these services, but they share the same broad conceptual framework. And, to my mind, they all share the same fundamental flaws. They're asking us to entrust them with private data that has absolutely nothing to do with our specific dealings with these companies, and to place this data under their control in centralized locations that will surely be irresistible targets for crackers.

I have to ask why. Why should we trust them? Why should we trust that any of these companies can keep our personal information safe from bugs, hackers, incompetence, and malicious misuse?

Passport, Magic Carpet, and Liberty Alliance are marketing tools in search of an user problem where none really exists. There already are plenty of methods for automatically logging on to sites and automatically filling out forms. Nothing has to be stored in any offsite central database, nothing has to be entrusted to any remote third party. For example, you can employ a simple free tool such as Roboform, under your local control, behind your firewall, where you can monitor its safety and security and control exactly which sites get what information. It and other similar form fillers and password keepers are simple, safe, easy, and free.

Using a local password keeper/form filler also lets you have a different username/password combination at every site. That's a huge benefit, because a security problem with any one name or password won't affect a whole cluster of sites.

So, what's the problem here? Why do we need Microsoft, Sun, or AOL stepping in to take over this simple, yet sensitive, function?

Call me a cynic, but I can think of no significant user benefit from any of these centralized login services. In fact, the only real beneficiaries I see are Microsoft, AOL, and Sun.

What's your take? Is Fred too cynical? Does the benefit of a single login/password offset the potential problems? If you dislike Passport, what about Magic Carpet and Liberty Alliance? Will P3P solve the problems of login insecurity? Do you use a locally running form filler/password keeper; if so, which one, and what are its plusses and minuses? Join in the discussion!

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