Home > Articles > Security > Network Security

Identity 2.0: How Attackers Break into Identity-centric Services

Identity management services such as OpenID, Microsoft's CardSpace, Sxip, YADIS, and others are here to improve the way we identify ourselves online and eliminate the necessity to register for every single service. But can we really trust them? Petko D. Petkov, a.k.a pdp, reveals the dangers of user-centric management systems.
Like this article? We recommend

When learning about Web 2.0, we stumble across several other terms such as Internet 2.0, Life 2.0, and (as the title of this article suggests) Identity 2.0. It is almost as if we want to move away from what we have here today and jumpstart a fresh new life without the old clutter.

This change affects almost every aspect of your life. The Internet—and more precisely the Web—brought that change a decade ago. Today, we cannot really live without it, but it has its challenges, which we will solve and move away from for version 3.0.

One problem that is almost essential to solve is the way we identify ourselves on the Web. Everyone will agree that the Web is the largest and most useful tool man has ever built. It does not make sense anymore to register for every single service out there. We are covered with tons of passwords to remember, which do not improve the situation but make it worse.

The average users usually reuse the same username/password pairs for most of their accounts. Why shouldn’t they when it makes life so much easier? But this only increases the chances of their entire online identities being compromised. The more people know your secret, the higher are the chances of it being leaked.

This introduces a huge dilemma in the Web 2.0 era. How do we identify ourselves? How can we say who we are and verify it in a secure and machine-sensible way?

In real life we have very decentralized identity management system in a form of national identity cards, driving licenses, and so on. To verify who we are, all we need to do is to show our ID; if the picture on the card matches our facial characteristics, the verification is successful. This does not work in the digital world in terms of availability of optical recognition systems.

Unfortunately, mainstream technology hasn’t reached that level of maturity yet, and even if it does some day, sooner or later someone will find a way to get around it—just like in the real world. Today’s physical identity management systems really work because their core authentication and authorization characteristics do not rely on what we have to say about ourselves; they rely on what others have to say about us. The authenticator in this case is a third-party organization or a person who matches our facial characteristics with the ones from the picture. Although this system seems to be very insecure and easy to bypass, the reality is that it works most of the time and it does scale very well.

In the Web 2.0 era, we notice several types of systems that cultivate similar types of functionalities but with a twist. Among them we have services such as OpenID, Microsoft’s CardSpace, Sxip, YADIS, and so on. To one degree or another, all are based on the idea that the identity verifier must be a third-party organization, also known as an identity provider.

In the Web 2.0 era, we talk about identity-centric architectures, in which users are in full control of their online selves. We also discuss the idea of using a single sign-on for all services that we visit. In simple words, the Web 2.0 era provides a mechanism for login only once, while having the ability to identify who we are as much as we want.

However, as the saying goes, "With great power comes great responsibility." There are problems with this approach, as there always will be. A centralized identity management system sounds good from administrative point of view, but this is not exactly how it is looked at when it comes to security and privacy issues. Single sign-on, identity-centric systems will be broken into in the future as easy as criminals break into social network profiles today. However, the impact is great for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that once a user-centric identity is lost, it may as well be lost forever. Call it identity theft on steroids. It is probably the worst thing can happen to your online self.

How do attackers break into identity-centric services? The truth is that the technology and the attacker vectors are here today, ready to be exploited. The most dangerous types of attacks that Identity 2.0 providers will soon face are also the ones that endanger Web 2.0 services today, including cross-site scripting, cross-site request forgeries, phishing attacks, and (last but not least) backend injection and simple dictionary attacks.

Cross-Site Scripting

Cross-site scripting, also known as XSS, is an attack vector that quickly got a lot of popularity with the rise of Web 2.0 and the AJAX technology. XSS works in situations in which attackers need to circumvent the browser security settings, also known as the same origin policies, to get access to unauthorized data using the browser as a proxy. The same origin policies prohibit sites that are retrieved from different domains/origins to access each other. This is done on purpose for several reasons.

In practice, every website that the user is authenticated with stores cookies within the current session that usually expire when the user shuts down the browser. These cookies are used to establish states with otherwise stateless web applications. If websites can access each other, they also can read the cookie and as such perform actions on behalf of the user.

Cross-site scripting is an injection attack in which attackers supply malicious code as part of a GET or POST request. It is sent to the attacked application and is then rendered as part of the remotely delivered HTML page. This attack is perfect for stealing session identifiers or creating massive worm outbreaks like the Sammy worm that crippled MySpace on October 4, 2005.

In terms of identity-centric services, cross-site scripting will still be the number one attack, especially with the introduction of single sign-on. Firefox 3, which is expected to be released soon, will introduce support for micro formats, among which is support for OpenID identity management systems. This means that users will be logged into their identity provider as soon as they open the browser. Unfortunately, if they happen to visit a malicious website that contains an exploit of cross-site scripting vulnerability found on a page from the identity provider origin that is used by the user, attackers could inject malicious code within that scope and hijack the user’s online identity.

Cross-site scripting holes are easy to find and almost as easy to cause. However, they are just one of the many things attackers are able to do.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020