Mozilla launched the first beta version of its browser-independent website authentication system, Persona, on Thursday and hopes to convince the Web developer community to give it a try.
The Persona system was first launched as an experimental project called BrowserID in July 2011 with the goal of eliminating the need of creating and managing individual usernames and passwords for different websites.
Persona authenticates users against websites that support the system by using only their existent email addresses.
Users need to first create an account on Mozilla's persona.org website, define a password and add one or more email addresses to their accounts. The ownership of each individual email address is verified by clicking on a link sent to it.
After that, signing into a website that supports Persona authentication is only a two-click process. Users who are not already logged into persona.org will need to input both their email and Persona password during the sign-in process, while users who are already authenticated will only be asked to select which verified email address they want to use.
Persona is conceptually similar to other authentication systems like OpenID that also allow users to authenticate on different websites using verified identities.
However, Persona relies on public key cryptography operations performed at the browser level without the identity provider -- in this case the email provider -- being involved in the actual authentication process as with OpenID.
This means that Persona provides a greater level of privacy as the system doesn't track the activity of its users across the Web. "It creates a wall between signing you in and what you do once you're there. The history of what sites you visit is stored only on your own computer," Mozilla said on the persona.org website.
However, there are some drawbacks. While eliminating the need to remember separate usernames and passwords for every single website, Persona creates a single point of failure -- the persona.org password.
If a user's Persona password is stolen it can be used to impersonate them, Ben Adida, Persona project lead at Mozilla, said Thursday via email. "There is, of course, no way around this."
In this respect, Persona is not very different from password management applications that also rely on a master password to keep all of the user's identities protected. However, Mozilla plans to implement some additional protection mechanisms to tackle this issue.
"For improved protection, we are working on two-factor authentication in future beta versions," Adida said. Two-factor authentication requires something the user knows, like a password, and something the user has, like a hardware device or a mobile phone. Without having both of these elements, an attacker cannot gain access to an account.
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