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Agile Computing: Article

Social Login: The Right Solution for Your Business?

Social login is a way to use social network credentials to create accounts on other sites or applications

What have you done online today - checked LinkedIn? Facebook? Twitter? Opened and sent business emails? Used business apps? Every business employee also has a private life - and it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep the two separate. Rather than ignoring the growing role of social media in your customers' and employees' lives, many businesses are starting to take advantage of it. One way to do this is through social login.

Social login is a way to use social network credentials to create accounts on other sites or applications. From a business perspective, you may decide to offer social login to your customers. For this discussion, we'll call this the business-to-customer or B2C use case. There are also good reasons for offering employees the ability to access business applications using a social login. We'll call this the business-to-employee or B2E use case. Your employees are also consumers with social media accounts, and social login lets them use one set of credentials for multiple purposes.

Social login in a nutshell
Social login is a growing trend. While Facebook is the most popular social login identity provider (through Facebook Connect), others like Twitter, Google/Google Plus and Yahoo also offer social logins. See the research from Gigya on the fierce competition for social identity providers. It's popular because it solves a common problem - creating and remembering accounts and passwords for all of the various websites and applications we use.

You have most likely encountered social login when opening a new account on a website, if you are given an option of signing in with an existing social network account:

If you choose to login with your existing social network account, then you've opted in to social login. That decision has ramifications that you might not expect. Social networks are a mother lode of personal information - you may be sharing more than you realize.

Before you implement social login for your business' customers or employees, or choose to use it yourself, you should have an understanding of what's happening behind the scenes.

The social login: What happens behind the scenes
If your business wants to offer social login for customers on your website, you first need to choose which networks to link. Social login middleware or aggregators like Gigya and Janrain make it easy to offer social login through multiple social networks.

When a new user chooses the option of registering on a site with their social media credentials, they also grant permission to link your site with their account. You gain API-level access to personal data and contacts from the social network. The overall process is illustrated below:

Photo credit: Facebook

The process of granting permissions to your profile information is an "all or nothing" decision forced on you by the website you are trying to access. Without permission, the registration is canceled and the user must then create a new account directly with your website. But if the user grants permission, the social media account is linked to the website that you just registered at. Your website can now retrieve existing or new profile information without the user's future consent. The linked website can also post information to your social network. Of course, you must use care if you want to retain the customer.

From a business perspective, offering social login has many benefits:

  • Social login makes it easy for new customers or consumers on your website to create accounts - reducing friction and potentially increasing sign-ups. Beyond the initial sign-up, research by Janrain shows that many people are more likely to return to a site that welcomes them with social login, while they will abandon sites for which they have forgotten their passwords.
  • Consumer identity can be instantly verified; you have to use a real e-mail address to have ongoing use of your social media account. This verification dramatically reduces the number of bogus account registrations of people trying to remain anonymous and entering false information at account creation time.
  • The social networks provide a rich source of demographic and behavioral data about your customers that they may not want to provide if they were filling out forms during registration.

However, there are also risk factors. Because the social media identity provider maintains data about the customer and manages their credentials, any problem with their credentials affects their ability to connect to your site as well. Alexandra Samuel posted about an experience of being shut out of multiple sites over the Thanksgiving weekend online shopping time because of a problem with her Facebook login on the HBR blog.

Social login and your employees
When it comes to your employees, the decision to use social login involves a different thought process.

The B2E use case has security and compliance implications. Identity and profile information shared from social networks creates additional points of attack for hacking into business accounts through social engineering or spear-phishing attacks. Social login gives criminals more avenues into personal information and logins, especially if employees are in the habit of using weak passwords or reusing passwords across multiple sites

For example, a hacker who discovers that one of your employees is an avid stamp collector and that they work at XYZ Company. They could send them an invitation to create an account on a stamp collecting website. If the employee uses the same login for stamp collecting as other apps, the attacker is in and knows what company to target.

Depending on what your employees share on Facebook, a site using Facebook Connect has access to personal identity information, including: birth date, photos, email address, employer, address, and interests.

With social login, your own business accounts are only as secure as the employee's social media account. And your business has no visibility or control into how employees create and manage passwords for their personal accounts, or whether they share passwords between personal and work accounts.

For these reasons, you don't want to establish a direct link between the social media accounts and your business applications. However, social login can be useful for your employees, as it reduces the number of passwords they have to track. There are ways to mitigate the risks of offering employees social login to business applications.

Making social login work for B2E
One essential difference with employee logins is that you already know the information you need about the employee's identity and job role. You don't need profile information from the social network. The social login can simply provide the login credential.

To reduce the risks of social login, create a ‘firewall' between the social network and your business applications, so business applications are never linked to your employee's social network accounts. Use the social login as a login credential for business applications, but require additional authentication for those applications. Used in this way, your business maintains its role as the authority or curator of employee identities and business application access at all times.

An identity and Access Management (IAM) or Single Sign-on (SSO) solution can act as this firewall between the social network and your applications. Because social media credentials are created outside of the business, you cannot trust them alone to grant access to sensitive business applications. The IAM solution can require additional authentication factors before authenticating an employee as a trusted user with the authority to access business applications.

In this configuration, your applications themselves do not directly interact with the social networks. The process workflow is illustrated below:

Your business retains full control over all business application logins through the IAM or SSO solution. No personal data is exchanged between business applications and social media networks. If someone leaves the company, you can instantly remove access to those applications with their social media account by shutting off access in the IAM or SSO. This does not, however, affect the employee's ability to access their personal social media account. If someone manages to steal the employee's social login credentials, two-factor authentication means that the identity thief is shut out of your business applications.

Since social login is only one method that an employee could use to login to business apps, a problem with the employee's social credentials does not shut them out of their business applications if they can authenticate directly with the IAM.

This approach is feasible even for small companies without existing investments in IAM solutions.  A simple web-based single sign-on (SSO) solution with strong authentication capabilities can fill the role of social login secure bridge quickly and securely, offering employees the instant benefit of simpler logins and secure password management, while giving businesses the control and visibility needed for good governance and compliance.

Is it time to get social?
Businesses should look carefully at the potential benefits of social login. Using native social login on consumer-facing applications (your B2C websites) has many benefits: delegating the hard work of verifying identities, providing you with rich profile information, and reducing friction in the customer sign-up process.

In a business-to-employee context, social login can reduce the number of accounts and passwords employees have to remember. But never allow social media accounts to link directly to your business application - always use a secure intermediary IAM or SSO solution to control application access and manage additional authentication factors for sensitive business applications.

More Stories By Tom Smith

Tom Smith is the Vice President of Business Development & Strategy for CloudEntr at Gemalto. He has over 30-years of experience with security, mobile, and cloud technologies including founding executive roles at four technology companies. In his current role as VP Business Development and Strategy, CloudEntr at Gemalto, Tom is helping define and execute Gemalto’s identity and access initiatives in the cloud.

In his prior roles as CEO at both IronStratus and Countermind, he drove the strategy for the business and the go to market for their mobile and cloud offerings. Tom was also a founding executive of @hand Corporation, and has held various other positions including Dir. of Strategic Initiatives at Dazel Corporation, various Sales Management roles at Rational Software and at Hewlett-Packard. He has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Iowa State University.

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