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Identity Provider: what is it and why do you need it?

In the digital age, security and accessibility go hand in hand. An Identity Provider (IdP) is a pivotal component in this equation, ensuring that users can verify their identities confidently, either directly or through third-party platforms. Think of an IdP as the keymaster of the digital realm—validating users through credentials and mediating secure access to various services. By understanding the function and significance of Identity Providers, one can appreciate their essential role in both streamlining user experiences and fortifying online security.

What is an Identity Provider?

An Identity Provider (IdP) is a system that creates, stores, maintains, and manages digital identities so users can prove their identity. The IdP can authenticate the user directly or it can provide authentication services to third-party Service Providers (SPs) such as applications, websites, or other digital services. The role of an Identity Provider is crucial in the domain of Identity and Access Management. It serves as the central hub that authenticates users’ identities, based on credentials like usernames and passwords, and conveys this information to service providers to ensure secure access. The IdP effectively decouples the user from the service. This allows users to authenticate using an Identity Provider of choice, while Service Providers can also assign different authorization levels based on the Identity Provider that a customer used to authenticate. 

Identity Providers are a core element of enterprises’ security infrastructure, allowing organizations to provision, authenticate, and manage the identity of users. In larger organizations, the task of assigning accounts to users and managing authorization can be very complex. Using Identity Providers enables organizations to scale up the number of users, reduce overhead for IT teams, and ensure strong access control.

What different types of Identity Providers exist?

There are different types of IdPs which can be used in different circumstances and can complement each other.  

Social media Identity Providers

A social media Identity Provider is a service that allows users to authenticate their identity through existing social media accounts, instead of creating new credentials for each application or website. Using social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, X, and LinkedIn to authenticate creates a more seamless registration and login process. Users can log in with a single click using their preferred social media account, which not only streamlines the access but also enhances the user’s trust, as they’re engaging with known platforms. For businesses, this can increase registration conversion rates and reduce password-related support issues. The use of social media Identity Providers also often adds an extra layer of security through the underlying social media platform’s authentication protocols. This confluence of convenience, trust, and security contributes to delivering a good customer experience.

Social media Identity Providers are a great way for organizations to seamlessly onboard users without asking for too many details. If additional authentication is needed, for example to perform financial transactions, organizations can then require step-up authentication

Government-backed Identity Providers

A government-backed Identity Provider is a system that offers secure and authenticated digital identity verification using credentials that are validated and issued by a governmental entity, by a joint venture between government and other organizations or by organizations that have been accredited by a government. 

Many countries have one or more of this type of Identity Provider. Governments encourage the use of government-backed Identity Providers to foster a secure, efficient, and standardized system of identification that benefits citizens, businesses, and the administration itself. The system enhances the overall security and integrity of identity management, simplifies processes, and promotes trust and access to various essential services. Examples of this type of Identity Providers are itsme in Belgium, DigID, iDIN and eHerkenning in the Netherlands, France Connect in France, BankID and MitID in the Nordics, SwissID in Switzerland…

Enterprise Identity Providers

Enterprise Identity Providers (IdPs) are systems that manage identity information for users within an organization and provide that information to other systems where needed. They act as the authoritative source of information about users and their associated credentials, roles, and access permissions. The best-known Enterprise Identity Provider is Microsoft Active Directory. Active Directory is used to store user information and manage access to network resources within a Windows domain environment. It helps in authentication and authorization, group policy implementation, and ensuring that only authorized users can access specific resources. Its pendant in cloud environments is Azure AD. But also some Service Providers like Salesforce allow their user database to be used as an IdP. The benefit is that you can retrieve custom attributes, dedicated for those ecosystems. As an example, this allows you to use the profile in Salesforce to determine access to ERP or marketing systems.

What protocols are used by Identity Providers?

Identity Providers (IdPs) utilize several protocols to authenticate users, ensuring secure access to applications and services. Among the most commonly used protocols are:

  • OpenID Connect (OIDC): Built on top of the OAuth 2.0 authorization framework, OIDC enables clients to verify the identity of the user based on the authentication performed by an authorization server.
  • Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML): This XML-based standard enables the exchange of authentication and authorization data between parties. It’s commonly used for Single Sign-On (SSO) between a service provider and an Identity Provider.
  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP): LDAP is used to access and maintain distributed directory information services. It’s often used to authenticate users within an organization’s active directory.
  • Kerberos: A network authentication protocol that provides strong authentication through secret-key cryptography. It’s widely used in various systems for secure communication.

Protocols such as SAML, OpenID Connect, LDAP and Kerberos form the backbone of modern authentication systems, each playing a crucial role in the secure verification of users’ identities.

How does an Identity Provider workflow function?

An Identity Provider is part of an onboarding process that verifies a user’s identity. The workflow typically consists of the following steps:

  • User Request: The user tries to access a secure resource and is redirected to the IdP.
  • Authentication: The IdP prompts the user to enter credentials (e.g., username and password).
  • Verification: The IdP checks the credentials against its database.
  • Token Creation: If verified, the IdP creates a token that includes the user’s identity, and some optional attributes.
  • Redirection: The user is sent back to the original service, with the token.
  • Access Granted: The service verifies the token with the IdP and grants access if valid.

This flow ensures secure access by using the IdP as a trusted intermediary that handles authentication, thus isolating the service from direct handling of user credentials. What’s more, using Government IdPs allows checking further knowledge of the user (KYC) like sanction lists or Anti-money laundering (AML) checks.

What is the impact of Identity Providers on customer experience and on security?

IdPs play a crucial role in shaping both the customer experience and security in today’s increasingly digital landscape. On one hand, they enhance customer experience by enabling seamless and convenient access to various online services. 

On the other hand, the implementation of IdPs introduces an added layer of security. Advanced authentication methods such as Multifactor authentication (MFA) can be employed by IdPs to ensure the legitimacy of a user’s access request. This adds a robust shield against unauthorized access and potential breaches. However, not all IdPs have this MFA mechanism built in. In that case, it is wise to use an IdP for onboarding and add MFA on top for successive use. 

However, striking the right balance between customer experience and security remains a complex task. Too stringent security measures may hinder user convenience, leading to frustration and potential loss of engagement. Conversely, overly simplistic authentication processes may enhance usability but expose vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious entities. Step-up authentication is the best way to improve customer experience with frictionless authentication. 

Why rely on TrustBuilder for connectivity to Identity Providers?

TrustBuilder is widely regarded as the best IAM (Identity and Access Management) vendor for support of Identity Providers, a reputation earned through several outstanding characteristics.

  • Versatility: TrustBuilder offers support for an extensive array of Identity Providers, ranging from social logins to enterprise-level integrations. This enables businesses to connect with numerous platforms effortlessly, thus providing them with scalability and flexibility.
  • Ease of management: TrustBuilder offers connectivity to these Identity Providers in a cloud model. This means that by integrating TrustBuilder, you need not worry about upgrades or updates, this happens automatically. 
  • Document verification: on top of connectivity to a host of Identity Providers, TrustBuilder also offers document verification services with support for legal documents from over 200 countries globally. Document verification is an effective means of Identity Verification in countries where no government-backed Identity Providers are active. 
  • Security and Compliance: Security is paramount in Identity Management, and TrustBuilder excels in this area. They ensure stringent adherence to international security standards, employing robust encryption methods and Multifactor authentication. This guarantees that user information is protected while also assisting businesses in meeting regulatory compliance.

Eager to find out how TrustBuilder’s support for Identity Provides can help your organization? Contact us for a personalized demo.