OpenID Attribute Exchange

In my previous article on OpenID 2.0, I mentioned the new Attribute Exchange extension. To me this is one of the more interesting benefits of moving to OpenID 2.0, so it deserves a more in depth look.

As mentioned previously, the extension is a way of transferring information about the user between the OpenID provider and relying party.

Why use Attribute Exchange instead of FOAF or Microformats?

Before deciding to use OpenID for information exchange, it is worth looking at whether it is necessary at all.

There are existing solutions for transferring user data such as FOAF and the hCard microformat. As the relying party already has the user’s identity URL, it’d be trivial to discover a FOAF file or hCard content there. That said, there are some disadvantages to this method:

  1. Any information published in this way is available to everyone. This might be fine for some classes of information (your name, a picture, your favourite colour), but not for others (your email address, phone number or similar).
  2. The same information is provided to all parties. Perhaps you want to provide different email addresses to work related sites.
  3. The RP needs to make an additional request for the data. If we can provide the information as part of the OpenID authentication request, it will reduce the number of round trips that need to be made. In turn, this should reduce the amount of time it takes to log the user in.

Why use Attribute Exchange instead of the Simple Registration extension?

There already exists an OpenID extension for transferring user details to the RP, in the form of the Simple Registration extension. It has already been used in the field, and works with OpenID 1.1 too.

One big downside of SREG is that it only supports a limited number of attributes. If you need to transfer more attributes, you basically have two choices:

  1. use some other extension to transfer the remaining attributes
  2. make up some new attribute names to send with SREG and hope for the best.

The main problem with (2) is that there is no way to tell between your own extensions to SREG and someone else’s which will likely create interoperability problems if when an attribute name conflict occurs. So this solution is not a good idea outside of closed systems. This leaves (1), for which Attribute Exchange is a decent choice.

What can I do with Attribute Exchange?

There are two primary operations that can be performed with the extension:

  1. fetch some attribute values
  2. store some attribute values

Both operations are performed as part of an OpenID authentication request. Among other things, this allows:

  • The OP to ask the user which requested attributes to send
  • If the OP has not stored values for the requested attributes, it could get the user to enter them in and store them for next time.
  • The OP could use a predefined policy to decide what to send the RP. One possibility would be to generate one-time email addresses specific to a particular RP.
  • For store requests, the OP can ask the user to confirm that they want to store the attributes.

Fetching Attributes

An attribute fetch request is a normal authentication request with a few additional fields:

  • openid.ax.mode: this needs to be set to “fetch_request”
  • openid.ax.required: a comma separated list of attribute aliases that the RP needs (note that this does not guarantee that the OP will return those attributes).
  • openid.ax.if_available: a comma separated list of attribute aliases that the RP would like returned if available.
  • openid.ax.type.alias: for each requested attribute alias, the URI identifying the attribute type
  • openid.ax.count.alias: the number of values the RP would like for the attribute.
  • openid.ax.update_url: a URL to send updates to (will be discussed later).

The use of URIs to identify attributes makes it trivial to define new attributes without conflicting with other people (and as with XML namespaces, the attribute aliases are arbitrary). However, the extension is only useful if the OP and RP can agree on attribute types. To help with this, there is a collection of community defined attribute types at axschema.org.

As an example, imagine a web log that uses OpenID to authenticate comment posts. Rather than just printing the OpenID URL for the commenter, it could use attribute exchange to request their name, email, website and hackergotchi. The authentication request might contain the following additional fields:

openid.ns.ax=http://openid.net/srv/ax/1.0
openid.ax.mode=fetch_request
openid.ax.required=name,hackergotchi
openid.ax.if_available=email,web
openid.ax.type.name=http://axschema.org/namePerson
openid.ax.type.email=http://axschema.org/contact/email
openid.ax.type.hackergotchi=http://axschema.org/media/image/default
openid.ax.type.web=http://axschema.org/contact/web/default

In the successful authentication response, the following fields will be included (assuming the OP supports the extension):

  • openid.ax.mode: must be “fetch_response”
  • openid.ax.type.alias: specify the type URI for each attribute being returned.
  • openid.ax.count.alias: the number of values being returned for the given attribute alias (defaults to 1).
  • openid.ax.value.alias: the value for the given attribute alias, if no corresponding openid.ax.count.alias field was sent.
  • openid.ax.value.alias.n: the nth value for the given attribute alias, if a corresponding openid.ax.count.alias field was sent. The first attribute value is sent with n = 1.
  • openid.ax.update_url: to be discussed later.

For the web log example given above, the response might look like:

openid.ns.ax=http://openid.net/srv/ax/1.0
openid.ax.mode=fetch_response
openid.ax.type.name=http://axschema.org/namePerson
openid.ax.type.email=http://axschema.org/contact/email
openid.ax.type.hackergotchi=http://axschema.org/media/image/default
openid.ax.value.name=John Doe
openid.ax.value.email=john@example.com
openid.ax.count.hackergotchi=0

In this response, we can see the following:

  1. The user has provided their name and email
  2. They have not provided any information about their web site. Either the OP does not support the attribute or the user has declined to provide it.
  3. The use has explicitly stated that they have no hackergotchi (i.e. it is a zero-valued attribute).

Storing Attributes

Using the Attribute Exchange fetch request, it is possible to outsource management of pretty much all the user’s profile information to the OP. That said, the user will still need to update their profile data occasionally. Telling them to go to their OP to change things and then log in again is not particularly user friendly though.

Using the store request, the RP can let the user update their profile on site and then transfer the changes back to the OP. Like the fetch request, a store request is performed as part of an OpenID authentication request. The additional request fields are pretty much identical to a store response, except that openid.ax.mode is set to “store_request”.

In the positive authentication response, the RP can see whether the data was successfully stored by checking the openid.ax.mode response field. If the data was stored, then it will be set to “store_response_success”. If the data was not stored it will be set to “store_response_failure” and an error message may be found in openid.ax.error.

Asynchronous Attribute Updates

One downside of the Simple Registration extension is that it only transferred user details on login. This means that it is only possible to get updates to attribute values by asking the user to log in again. The Attribute Exchange extension provides a way to solve this problem in the form of the openid.ax.update_url request field.

When a “fetch_request” is issued with the openid.ax.update_url field set, a compliant OP will record the following:

  1. the claimed ID and local ID from the authentication request
  2. the list of requested attributes
  3. the update_url value (after verifying that it matches the openid.realm value of the authentication request).

The OP will then include openid.ax.update_url in the authentication response as an acknowledgement to the RP. When any of the given attributes are updated the OP will send an unsolicited positive authentication response to the given update URL. This will effectively be the same as the original authentication response (i.e. for the same claimed ID and local ID), but with new values for the changed attributes.

As there is no mention of unsolicited authentication responses in the main OpenID authentication specification, it is worth looking at what checking the RP should do. This includes:

  • Is this OP still authoritative for the claimed ID? This is checked by performing discovery on the claimed ID and verifying that it results in the same server URL and local ID as given in the response.
  • Did the message come from the OP? As with a standard response, there should be a signature for the fields. Since the OP does not know what association to use for the signature, a new private association will be used. By issuing a “check_authentication” request to the OP, the RP can verify that the message originated from the OP.

If these checks fail the RP should respond with a 404 HTTP error code, which tells the OP to stop sending updates. If the message is valid, the RP can update the user’s profile data.

Caveats

While the Attribute Exchange extension provides significant features above those provided by Simple Registration, but it still has its limitations:

  1. Any attribute values provided to the RP are self-asserted.
  2. Related to the above, there is no way for a third party to make assertions about attribute values.

For (1), the solution is to perform the same level of verification on the attribute value as if the user had entered it directly. So an OpenID enabled mailing list manager should verify the email address provided by attribute exchange before subscribing the user. In contrast, an OpenID enabled shop probably doesn’t need to do further verification of the user’s shipping address (since it is in the user’s best interest to provide correct information).

The exception to this rule is when there is some other trust relationship between the OP and RP. For instance, if the RP knows that the OP will only send an email address if it has first been validated, then it may decide to trust the email address without performing its own validation checks. This is most likely to be useful in closed systems that happen to be using OpenID for single sign-on.

4 Comments

  1. Posted 27 November, 2007 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Excellent explanation of AX, James. I’m quite curious to see how RP will try to use attribute storage down the road… I imagine there will need to be some best practices from the community as to what is and is not appropriate to push back to the OP to store. I can easily imagine an RP going crazy with it and basically treat the OP as its database. I would also be careful about limiting the scope of AX, particularly your first caveat — “Any attribute values provided to the RP are self-asserted.” I’ve been doing some work on bringing OpenID to college campuses, and initially I imagine that *none* of the attributes will be self-asserted unless the campus has alternate means for modifying the data… they will all come for the university’s enterprise data store. AX is just a format for carrying attributes on the wire… it says nothing about where the data came from. But I guess your point is that if there isn’t a pre-existing trust relationship, the attributes may as well be self-asserted because you simply don’t know.

  2. Johnny Bufu
    Posted 27 November, 2007 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    James,

    This is a great review of Attribute Exchange, thanks for taking the time to write it up! A few comments:

    Re: unsolicited positive assertion

    They are mentioned in the spec in a couple of places:

    10. Responding to Authentication Requests
    “Relying Parties SHOULD accept and verify assertions about Identifiers for which they have not requested authentication. OPs SHOULD use private associations for signing unsolicited positive assertions.”
    http://openid.net/specs/openid-authentication-2_0-12.html#responding_to_authentication

    11.2. Verifying Discovered Information
    “If the Claimed Identifier was not previously discovered by the Relying Party (the “openid.identity” in the request was “http://specs.openid.net/auth/2.0/identifier_select” or a different Identifier, or if the OP is sending an unsolicited positive assertion), the Relying Party MUST perform discovery on the Claimed Identifier in the response to make sure that the OP is authorized to make assertions about the Claimed Identifier.”
    (this clarification was added after draft12, so it’s only in SVN, not yet published)

    Re: verified attributes

    Attribute Exchange deals only with the transport of the attributes, not with their content, acquisition, source, trust. There’s a separate extension proposal that deals exactly with the trust issue for attributes:

    OpenID Signed Assertions
    http://www.mail-archive.com/specs@openid.net/msg00907.html

    A demonstrative implementation of this (using verification of emails as the example) is available at:

    https://verify.sxip.com/email/
    (retrieve a signed assertion saying that Sxip has verified your email address)

    https://verify.sxip.com/demorp/
    (present the signed assertion to an OpenID 2.0 RP using Attribute Exchange, which trusts Sxip with the verification process)

    Johnny

  3. LionsPhil
    Posted 27 November, 2007 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that 404 is the most applicable HTTP status code to use here. 403 might be clearer.

  4. Posted 28 November, 2007 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Will: one thing to keep in mind is that some OPs may only have limited support for attribute exchange: they may support a set of well known attributes, but not arbitrary attributes. Furthermore, it is going to be a while before RPs can depend on the presence of this extension (outside of closed systems, that is).

    Johnny: that looks pretty interesting. Including enough information in the value to perform verification does partially solve the problem. It pushes the need for a special RP ↔ OP trust relationship and changes it to an RP ↔ attribute signer trust relationship. It still isn’t clear how to handle these trust relationships on the open internet.

    LionsPhil: the specification mentions the 404 status code. If you think 403 is better, consider joining the OpenID specs mailing list and suggesting the change.