HTTP signatures

May 6, 2013 | Leave a comment

It looks like I’m not the only person who likes the idea of signed HTTP requests as an authentication method.

Joyent and Digital Bazaar have co-written an Internet draft for cryptographically signed HTTP requests:

Several web service providers have invented their own schemes for signing HTTP requests, but to date, none have been placed in the public domain as a standard. This document serves that purpose. There are no techniques in this proposal that are novel beyond previous art, however, this aims to be a simple mechanism for signing these requests.

Signed HTTP requests are also a key feature of something I’ve been working on. It’s great to see the idea pick up momentum.

Decentralized social networking using web intents

August 11, 2011 | Leave a comment

Connect with meI believe that web intents are the last missing piece for decentralized social networking. (Previously I’ve talked about creating a social web architecture using Activity Streams and OAuth; this builds on that idea.)

Picture this chain of events:

  1. I visit your website, and see that you have a “connect to me” button[1].
  2. I click the button, launching the “social-connect” web intent.
  3. If I have web intents, my browser “logs me in” to your website via OpenID, silently passing the URL of my identity site[2]. I never have to manually log in with a URL, which has been the main criticism of OpenID. (If I prefer, I can have my browser log in via Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft Live ID, etc etc.)
  4. If I don’t have web intents, your website falls back to prompting me to connect using any of its supported schemes.
  5. In the handshaking process, your site assigns my identity a unique token, or a unique token is obtained from my identity (depending on authentication scheme). Either way, you end up with an internal token that represents my identity, which both your website and my identity site know.
  6. My identity site determines the locations of your Activity Streams, RSS feeds, etc, in the usual ways.
  7. You receive a notification that I’ve connected with you, and can now place me in an access group via a visual interface. Think Livejournal’s friends lists, Elgg’s friends collections, or Google+’s circles. When you post new content, to your site, you can restrict it to any combination of those groups.
  8. My identity site periodically makes requests to your website for new content, signing it with my token.
  9. I read new content and activity from a central reader panel attached to my identity site.

Of course, technologies like Portable Contacts, OAuth and even FOAF can have a place here: this simply provides a loose connection mechanism for nodes. I also feel like the “social-connect” intent could trigger an OStatus subscribe action, although I’d like to see signed requests so that access permissions can be enabled.

Needless to say, web intents can help a great deal for other parts of the process, for example clicking on “share” or “comment” on a piece of content. I also think Creative Commons licenses have a part to play here when it comes to sharing and resharing content across the decentralized social web, but that’s a story for another day.

The connect to me button should be distinctive. You should see it and automatically know that you can connect socially with this website. I’m thinking something obvious and instantly recognizable, akin to the RSS icons, or the star that now ubiquitously means “bookmark this”. I’ve illustrated this post with a quick Sharpie prototype, but it’s not really meant to be a recommendation. (Nonetheless, I’ve shared it under a Creative Commons license.)

Your identity site could be self hosted, or it could be a Google Profile, a WordPress.com site, or any commercial profile. Needless to say, everyone can have more than one identity site, and there’s no reason why your identity platform couldn’t support pseudonyms, alter egos and access-restricted profiles.

Direct messaging in a social web architecture

March 31, 2010 | 3 comments

This post is the third segment in my series on an architecture for the social web. Previously: How social networks can replace email, which is a non-technical approach to the issues, and my follow-up describing how to build a social web architecture using available technology today.

So what about direct messaging?

In my previous post, I described content notifications in the social web as being Activity Streams updates in response to requests signed with an OAuth key. Each individual contact would have his or her own OAuth key, and the system would adjust delivered content depending on access permissions I had assigned to them.

A private message in this architecture could just be represented as an item of content restricted to a small set of recipients (in the email use case, this is typically just one), with replies delivered using Salmon. The advantage of this approach is that the message doesn’t have to be text; it can be audio, video, a link to live software, or something else entirely.

However, while this is technically feasible, it may not always be desirable. We know from Google Wave, which also pushes the boundaries of person-to-person messaging, that an open definition of what a message contains can get very messy very quickly. Although I was one of the first people to have one, I no longer check my Wave account regularly. I believe this is mostly a user interface issue: Wave is an awesome collaborative document editor (what I’ve heard described as “a massively multiplayer whiteboard”), but not in any way the evolution of email that its development team claimed.

Therefore, I think it’s useful to think about the difference between a document and a message:

  • A message is the body of a communication.
  • A document is a bounded representation of some kind of information.

While in many ways they’re the same, I think it makes sense to make a separation on the UI level. As we’re discussing a decentralized architecture here, some kind of semantic marker in our activity stream feed to mark something as a message would be a useful feature.

Messaging “out of the blue”

You know where you are with an email address. Mine is ben@benwerd.com. Anyone who encounters that string of characters, whether on a website like this one, a business card or a scribbled note on a piece of paper, is able to send me a message from anywhere in the world. In the 17 years I’ve had an email address, the list of friendships and business connections I’ve made, and opportunities I’ve received and developed, through this simple mechanism has been uncountable. It’s also likely to continue far into the future.

Compared to this, visiting someone’s social web profile and sending them a message from their web presence is a hassle. Compare these steps:

  1. Receive the address of someone’s profile
  2. Click the “follow” button either on the profile itself or on the toolbar of your social web compatible browser
  3. Wait for the contact to follow you back
  4. Send your message

To:

  1. Receive someone’s email address
  2. Send a message to that address

It’s simple, ubiquitous, decentralized and universally compatible. In fact, it seems hard to improve on, doesn’t it?

However, as this is a thought experiment about how social networking can replace email, let’s see if we can simplify this process somewhat. In my previous post, I discussed how a connection could be established with OpenID and OAuth through a web-based interface on a social web profile. How can we make this as simple as emailing someone, and cut out most of the steps I’ve listed above?

Connecting programmatically

I propose two additions to my previously discussed mechanism. The first is to expand the connection protocol to include a message. If someone connects to me on LinkedIn or Facebook, I receive some explanatory text from them, so it makes sense to include this feature in our decentralized social web architecture. It is likely that this would be an added parameter to the OAuth request token procedure.

The second is to allow connections to be made programmatically through a custom application. Just as we use email clients now, a social web client could automatically send a connection request. In keeping with our principle of using existing technology where possible, this is a simple OAuth connection request from the application, which includes a user message as described above. The application knows our details because we’ve set our preferences, so we’re never visibly redirected to a web browser to complete authentication. (In fact, this could take place using xAuth, a version of the OAuth protocol being developed for just these sorts of browser-free use cases.)

Whether we can send a follow-up message now depends on the receiving party. We have our OAuth token, and while it remains valid, the receiving social web node may choose to ignore any follow-up requests.

Our procedure has become:

  1. Obtain address of someone’s social web node (you could even infer it using WebFinger)
  2. Send a message to that node, bundled with a connection request

This is significantly better, and is comparable to the simplicity of email.

You may be wondering about the wisdom of adding everyone you contact as a connection. In fact, there’s some precedent for this already in applications like GMail. It’s important to note that not every connection need be a friend: in some ways, you can think of your total list of connections as your contact book. Some are important, some can be safely squirreled away until you need to contact them again. In this context (or any context where people you have a relationship with and people you’ve contacted are merged into one set), an adequate person management interface – or CRM to you and me – becomes important.

Next, and finally: let’s make our distributed social web architecture reliable enough to use in enterprise environments, using message queue protocols like ZeroMQ and AMQP.

Activity Streams and OAuth: a social web architecture

March 12, 2010 | 3 comments

My previous post was a response to Gartner’s prediction last month that social networking would replace email as the “primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users.” In it, I named some properties that would need to be held by any social networking system that would successfully replace email.

  • Ease of use
  • Ubiquity across devices
  • Platform, service and infrastructure independence

My argument boiled down to the following statement:

Email has succeeded because it’s open, standard and decentralized; for social networks to replace it, they must also be open, standard and decentralized.

Email is useful because just about everybody has an email address. I can get in touch with my clients in London, my friends here in Oxford or my grandfather in Austin, Texas, with equal ease, even though all of them are using different infrastructure and software provided by different companies. I use Gmail, but there doesn’t need to be any kind of formal agreement between Google and whoever’s providing my grandfather’s email, say. It just works; nobody owns email as a communications method, and anyone can set up an email server. The same is true with websites: anyone can set one up, and nobody owns the web.

For social communications to be as popular and ubiquitous as email, there must be one social web, and it must be owned by nobody. That means that each socially-aware site or application must implement the same social communication standards.

The best standards aren’t dictated: they evolve through common usage. If you look at HTTP (the protocol that the web relies on), SMTP (one of the protocols behind email) and file formats like RSS and HTML, the common thread behind them is that they’re simple. It turns out that through excellent work at companies like Google, Plaxo, SixApart, Twitter, JanRain and – perhaps incredibly – JPMorgan Chase & co, we already have a number of technologies that collectively embody the properties I listed above.

Notes and server architecture for one possible social web

These are my ideas about how these standards might be used. These aren’t intended as replacements for existing social networking platforms or services; rather, they could easily be added as additional features both to those and to many other types of application. The ability to share isn’t a uniquely required feature of social networking software – think about its usefulness in applications like Word or Google Docs, for example.

With email, you use a software client (Outlook, say, or the Gmail web interface) that speaks to an email server which does the hard business of sending and receiving messages to and from the wider Internet. Here, I will be describing a system where everyone has their own node on the social web, which effectively acts as a client and server. Mine might be here at benwerd.com, for example. It’s my website – my profile on the social web – and it’s where I send social communications. That’s the server side. However, it also acts as the client when I’m accessing resources stored on other peoples’ servers.

Establishing connections and granting permissions

Let’s say I want to make a resource available to my clients. With email, I’d send them each a separate copy. This is both insecure and inefficient: I have no control over what happens to that copy, and each time I send it I create a new version. With some back-and-forth, there could easily be ten or twenty individual copies of a document floating around. (I often bounce software specifications – typically Word documents – around with my clients, and this is something that happens to me regularly. Google Docs is probably a better solution, but not everybody has a Google account.)

With the social web, only one version needs to exist, which I own. If my clients have established a connection with me, I can restrict that resource so that only they may see it. The tricky bit is that in order to know if it’s really them, they must be authenticated in some way.

In monolithic systems like Facebook, where everyone uses the same website, that’s easy: my client must be logged in, and we must have established a friend connection. In a decentralized system, that’s a much harder problem, but not insurmountable. Two technologies will help us:

  • OpenID: the open, decentralized authentication standard, which currently uses a website address as a kind of universal username
  • OAuth: an open protocol that “allows users to share their private resources (e.g. photos, videos, contact lists) stored on one site with another site without having to hand out their username and password.” OAuth provides a secret token to applications that they can use to access authenticated services and resources behind the scenes

Specifically, we’ll need OpenID Connect (or, until that’s up and running, the OpenID / OAuth hybrid protocol), because we’ll be using OpenID to authenticate, OAuth to power our decentralized access permissions, and a number of other protocols and endpoints along the way. It’s much neater if these are all established at once.

Making friends and getting updates

The process would work in the following way. Let’s say I want to make a connection with my friend Marcus Povey.

  1. I visit his site, and see that he is displaying a “connect to me” icon, indicating that it is a node on the social web. Later on, perhaps my browser would detect that this was a social web node in the same way that most browsers detect RSS feeds today, and light up an icon. Chris Messina has started a five part series on the browser as a social agent, which is worth a read.
  2. Either way, I click on “connect to me”. Marcus’s site prompts me for the address of my profile, which I enter. (Later on, my browser does this bit for me.)
  3. My profile address is an OpenID, and through the authentication process my social web node receives an OAuth token from him. No further authentication is required.
  4. On his social web node dashboard, Marcus sees that I’ve established a connection with him. He can ignore it, in which case nothing happens, or he can mark me as a friend (or any other arbitrary designation, which could be unique to the software he’s using).
  5. My social web node periodically checks for activity updates from Marcus’s, signing each request with that OAuth token so it knows who I am. This may be at my direct request; through repeated polling, RSS-style; or the update may be pushed to me through a PubSubHubbub ping.
  6. Depending on the assignation he’s given me, Marcus’s node either responds with just a feed of public activity (if he’s ignored the request), or with additional activity he’s allowed me to see, in Activity Streams format.
  7. Marcus can change my assignation or withdraw my OAuth token at any time from his dashboard. (Of course, throughout all this, the OAuth token mechanism is invisible to both users: it’s simply presented as a social connection.)

Embedded content and interacting directly on other social web nodes

Activity Streams is based on Atom, so content for items like blog posts (and resources like photos, using Atom Media) can be embedded directly in the activity feed. (Rob Dolin from Windows Live has some great examples.)

However, not all content is standard enough to be embeddable. In those cases, I can simply click through from Marcus’s activity update to his site, possibly log in again using OpenID, and interact with the content there. Additionally, by allowing users to log directly into his site via OpenID, Marcus can show selected people restricted content even if they don’t have the full range of social web software.

Friends lists and commenting

Further standards help us add extra functionality. If Marcus gives me permission, I might be able to download his contacts via Portable Contacts. Salmon is a protocol for commenting on distributed resources and allowing those comments to find their way upstream to the original, which is compatible with Activity Streams. Using this, I might be able to comment on Marcus’s activity items from within my dashboard and have them show up in his. Through this mechanism, all his friends could have a conversation on his activity stream items.

Reliability

So far, so good: we have a simple technological basis for permissive social communications. But if the social web is really going to replace email, we have to address one of the most important features for enterprise users: reliability. Businesses will not accept their critical communications being subject to fail whales.

In my next posts in the series, then, I’ll discuss person-to-person messaging and the thorny issue of guaranteed delivery.

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