Around the time of the industrial revolution, there was a problem—too many ships were sinking. So in 1891, the Bulkhead Committee proposed a "Grade I subdivision" that, among other things, required passenger liners longer than 425 feet to be able to float even if two compartments were compromised. Accidents will always happen, but the committee wanted to minimize any loss of life when they did.
It was a simple idea: that a single hull breach should not sink a vessel.
Jump ahead 118 years to the month in which my son started kindergarten. It's going pretty well for him. But yesterday, a notice came home asking us to supply his social security number to identify him in a longitudinal data system in order to comply with federal funding requirements. While I appreciate the future value such data will have, I am not at all comfortable giving away that secret number.
If you are anything like me, you think twice before giving out your social security number. I've had mine compromised before (I still have the Secret Service letter describing how it was discovered by customs in a briefcase along with other people who had worked for the same employer, but that's another story). This totally sucked, and I now hesitate even more than I did before when presented with a rental application / insurance form / school form / etc.
- Every time I give out my social security number, I increase the chances of it being compromised.
- Every time I build ships without compartmentalization, I compromise the safety of its passengers.
- Every time I give out my username and password for a web service, I increase the chances of it being compromised.
… And Baskets
By now you can probably see where I'm going… because at Apigee we're obsessed with APIs (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction but without all the psychosis). Smart people are going to going to build web services. To grow those services, they're going to build APIs. And those APIs need to have some way to authenticate users.
Since the username/password is still the primary way in which people identify themselves to a web service, you might think that securing your API with usernames/passwords makes a lot of sense. But you are only as strong as your weakest link… and once that password is compromised, the whole ship sinks.
There are perfectly good ways to deal with this, of course, API tokens for example, usually a custom token passed as a query or header parameter. These make most sense when sent over SSL to keep them safe. Some providers, like 37signals's API for Highrise, expect them to be using HTTP basic authentication in lieu of the username or password.
The OAuthpocalypse & The Unsinkable
Of course there are other ways. OAuth 1, popularized by Twitter as much as anyone, is a great example. At it's best, it works like valet keys that users can give to applications to access their accounts on their behalf while retaining the option to revoke those permissions app by app. An additional benefit is that API analytics can be organized by application.
But OAuth has it's own problems. It's harder to understand conceptually. It's harder to implement. Perhaps worst of all, it can disenfranchise users who must use proxies to get around the censorship walls put in place by governments like China and Iran.
OAuth 2 is different in some important ways. Facebook is already using a version of it with their Graph API, despite the spec still being in draft. Twitter appears to be using OAuth 2 draft for @Anywhere. The best benefit is that it's simpler and easier for developers to start using, since, among other things, it does away with the signing of base strings.
So OAuth does away with the password anti-pattern. But transitioning away from an authentication system like basic authentication to one like OAuth isn't ever easy. Change is hard—just look how much complaining follows every Facebook redesign. And things will break… and with the OAuthpocalypse, they did.
The Titanic was famously built to exceed the Bulkhead Committee's Grade I requirements. But that alone wasn't enough to save it. The hubris of excessive speed for the conditions meant the ship couldn't turn in time, and following the subsequent impact, five compartments flooded. It was an unprecedented disaster.
Twitter, on the other hand, knew up front that things were going to break. And when it became obvious that the deadline was coming too fast, they slowed down, delaying the event for two months. It was certainly painful for developers—though we still don't know the full extent to which this broke applications (though apparently not their own, thanks to a basic auth back door).
Overall, Twitter did an excellent job of handling the migration. They gave developers lots of time, and then they gave them more. As the date approached, they shut off basic auth for short periods—an iceberg ahead alarm bell, if you will. They slowly lowered the rate limits over two weeks. And most importantly, they communicated and coordinated well—Developer Advocates Taylor Singletary and Matt Harris, and other members of the Twitter API team worked tirelessly to provide tools and support devs as they struggled with the migration.
So far, things are looking pretty good for their great experiment. But only history will tell the full extent of the damage.