In information technology, federated identity refers to a method for connecting an individual’s digital identity and characteristics across numerous distinct identity management systems.
In other words, when organizations deploy federated identity technologies, authorized users can access multiple domains, web apps, partner websites, Active Directory, and other applications with a single set of login credentials instead of logging in separately each time. This allows them to move faster between systems while ensuring security and productivity.
As federated identity has gained a lot of popularity in the digital environment lately, we decided it was time to have a look at it. In this article, I invite you to explore this practice, which improves user experience, secures system access, and adds to a more efficient workflow.
How Federated Identity Works
Federated identity, often referred to as Federated Identity Management (FIM), relies on relationships of mutual trust between a company or Service Provider (SP) and an external party or Identity Provider (IdP). These mutual trust relationships allow users to access a Service Provider’s apps by first verifying their credentials and privileges through the Identity Provider.
As I mentioned before, when a user attempts to access an application or domain, they are not required to enter their login credentials every time. Instead, the IDP’s database already has these credentials saved.
The user’s virtual identity is verified in the IdP’s database, they are authenticated, and their identity information is communicated to the SP. All of this enables the user to access several applications, systems, portals, websites, etc., without having to log in over and over again.
To recap, here’s how federated identity works:
A user requests access to an app that uses federated identity.
The app requests federated authentication from the user’s authentication server in order to ensure the user is who they claim to be.
The access and rights of the user are confirmed by the authentication server.
The server then validates the user’s identity to the application.
The user gets access to the application.
These operations are almost instantaneous and do not require any user input.
Why Use Federated Identity? Advantages
Ease of use
Users just need to save one set of credentials and log in once throughout a session to access different applications across connected enterprise systems. Users can move throughout the digital cabin with ease as long as they are federated.
Organizations save money by not having to manage multiple user identities or develop their own SSO (Single sign-on) solutions.
Companies that constantly deal with multiple application logins, re-entering passwords, and helpdesk requests for password resets may see a decline in productivity. Thanks to federated identity, employees will no longer have to waste time logging into systems over and over again.
Enhanced security/Better data protection
When federated identity is missing, a user must log into each system using a set of credentials. Each of these logins represents a point of vulnerability, thereby increasing the likelihood of unauthorized users trying to compromise the system. On the other hand, federated identity safely verifies a user to allow access to applications in multiple domains.
As we all know, traditional passwords pose a significant security risk. They are relatively easy to steal, guess, or crack. Fewer passwords mean a smaller attack surface and a reduced risk of breach.
Safe data sharing
Organizations that use federated identity technology can share resources and data effectively without jeopardizing user credentials or security. Data management made easy. Organizations use an IdP to store user data, which streamlines their data management operations.
It is a widely used and safe open federation standard that has been around for almost 20 years. In a federated system, SAML makes user authentication and password management simpler. It standardizes communications between various systems using Extensible Markup Language (XML).
Essentially, Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) makes it possible for an identity provider to authenticate users across domains on behalf of a service provider. SAML secures the transfer of identity data between an identity provider (IdP) and a service provider (SP). The identity provider is entrusted by the service provider to confirm a user’s identity and complete the authentication process.
Open Authentication (OAuth)
OAuth is an open protocol for access delegation that is frequently used as a means for online users to give websites or apps access to their information on other sites without revealing their login details. Businesses like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter use this framework to allow their users to share account information with third-party websites or apps. OAuth has two versions: OAuth 1.0a and OAuth 2.0. There is no backward compatibility between these standards because they are completely dissimilar from one another and can’t be used together.
But more on OAuth in our next article, make sure you return to our blog.
OpenID Connect (OIDC)
OIDC is also a type of open standard that enables users to log into their apps using an identity provider. Although it shares some similarities with the Security Access Markup Language mentioned above, the most important difference between the two is that the former is based on the OAuth 2.0 standard and sends data in JSON, not XML, as SAML does.
Federated Identity Examples
An example of federated identity is when someone uses their Gmail login information to access a third-party website. With FIM (Federated Identity Management), they can access numerous websites that have federated agreements with Google, like Blogger, YouTube, Waze, Picasa, and more, without having to enter new login credentials.
Similar to this, a user can log into multiple websites that are federated with Facebook, including Instagram, Netflix, Disney+, etc by using their Facebook credentials.
Federated Identity vs Single Sign-on
Federated Identity Management (FIM) and Single Sign-on (SSO) allow enterprises to reduce risks associated with passwords and protect their sensitive data while improving user experience. Both authentication services require only one set of login credentials in order to give the user access to multiple apps. Despite their similarities, these frameworks work differently:
SSO enables users to access various applications within the same enterprise or domain using a single set of login credentials.
Federated identity takes things to the next level. It allows users to access apps or platforms across various enterprise domains that are included in the federated configuration.
SSO is thus supported by FIM, which also allows SSO to extend to multiple domains. Besides that, SSO is a component of FIM, but its implementation does not always allow for FIM.
How Secure Is Federated Identity?
Federated identity management is a very safe method for user authorization, authentication, and online identity management. As we learned today, the user never gives their login information to anyone other than the IdP, which safely stores and manages it.
Many important organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo trust and use federated identity frameworks. If these companies lean on such technologies, it’s reasonable to assume they’re secure and reliable. However, every business must conduct its own risk and benefit analysis.
When it comes to the disadvantages of implementing federated access, there are some common misconceptions about it, including:
Potential security threats
No authentication protocol is completely secure, and certain federated solutions have known vulnerabilities. In general, a federated program created to typical standards is safer than just about any other program.
Federated identity management solutions comply with a determined set of guidelines and agreements. Some people are concerned that this means they will have less control, but this is not the case. SSO vendors typically offer different configuration options to allow systems to behave as needed.
Nowadays, digital users are expected to remember numerous passwords. Some people use the same simple and easy-to-guess password across numerous accounts to reduce the stress that comes with memorizing so many passwords. Unfortunately, this practice puts the company’s security at serious risk. Using distinct, strong passwords for every account enhances enterprise security. Nevertheless, users find it less convenient and more tiresome.
Federated identity is a great solution for both challenges. Thanks to federated identity, employees can access many accounts across various domains with a single set of login credentials. This improves the user experience. Additionally, the system minimizes security risks because it is built on mutual trust between federated organizations.
As a Senior Content Writer and Video Content Creator specializing in cybersecurity, I leverage digital media to unravel and clarify complex cybersecurity concepts and emerging trends. With my extensive knowledge in the field, I create content that engages a diverse audience, from cybersecurity novices to experienced experts. My approach is to create a nexus of understanding, taking technical security topics and transforming them into accessible, relatable knowledge for anyone interested in strengthening their security posture.