Part Two: Insurance Authorization Scenarios with James McGovern

The conversation with James McGovern continues… here is the next installment in a series of posts on the applicability of XACML-based authorization for the insurance industry:

JM: We had a great discussion covering basic entitlement scenarios and how they can be applied to the insurance vertical. Are you ready for some scenarios that are more challenging?

GG: Absolutely…

JM: Let’s dive into two additional insurance-oriented use cases. First, let’s talk about the concept of relationships and how they challenge the traditional notions of authorization and role-based access controls. Imagine you are a vacationing in sunny Trinidad and have left your nine-year old child home alone. Your son having been raised by responsible parents decides to renew your automobile registration in order to avoid paying a late penalty but realizes he needs to also get an automobile insurance card first. How does the insurance carrier determine that your son is authorized to request an insurance card for your policy, the answer is via relationships.

Relationships in an insurance context may be as simple as confirming whether the subject is listed as a named insured on a policy or could be more complicated in scenarios where there is a power of attorney in place where someone with a totally different name, address and otherwise unrelated may be authorized to conduct business on your behalf.

GG: This is an excellent case where the PIP interface of the policy server can call out to a directory, customer database, or web service to determine if the requestor has a relationship with the policy holder. Having the policy server, the PDP in XACML parlance, make the query simplifies things for the PEP and application. Instead, the PDP figures out what additional attributes are necessary to satisfy a particular policy.

JM: Relationships can be modeled in a variety of manners but generally speaking can be expressed in either a uni-directional or omni-directional manner. For example, a husband and wife have a bi-directional relationship to each other than can be named as a spouse while an elderly person may have a uni-directional relationship where the person holding the power of attorney can take actions on behalf of the individual but not vice versa.

GG: Again, XACML policies and the PDP can evaluate relationships between entities to resolve access requests. In this example, a person with power of attorney for a parent’s account can make changes to that account because a condition in the XACML rule can dynamically validate access. Spouses can have common access to update insurance policies that they co-own because each is named on the insurance policy – again the XACML condition easily evaluates the relationship: user_attempting_access == named_insured. In this example, named_insured could be a multi-valued attribute that lists parents and children on the insurance policy. The PDP must be able to parse through the multiple values when evaluating access policies. To add another layer of context, each of the persons in the named_insured list could have different privileges where children are allowed to view the insurance policy, but not able to update or cancel it.

JM: In the model of delegation, the power-of-attorney may have a specified scope whereby the person holding the power-of-attorney can do actions such as make bill payments or make endorsement changes but may not have the right to cancel.

GG: The flexibility of XACML policy is evident for this case as well. For example, Policies can have a “target” so that particular effects can be implemented in each scenario. In the above example, a policy with a target of “action=cancel” can have a rule that denies the action, while other actions are permitted. Alternatively, policies could be created for each action and combining algorithms resolve any conflicting effects. Combining algorithms are defined for deny overrides, permit overrides, first applicable, and several other results.

JM: Let’s look at another insurance scenario. Within the claims administration process, you can imagine that the need for a workflow application (BPM) along with a content management application (ECM) would be frequently used. From a business perspective, you may have a process known as First Notice Of Loss (FNOL) whereby a claimant can get the claim’s process started. The BPM process would handle tasks such as assigning a claims handler to adjudicate the claim while the ECM system would capture all the relevant documentation such as the police reports, medical records if there were injuries and photos of the car you just totaled.

Now, let’s imagine that a famous person such as Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett is out driving their Lamborghini and get’s into an accident. For high-profile people, you may want to handle claims a little differently than for the general public and so you may define a special business process for this purpose. The big question then becomes, how do you keep the security models of the BPM and ECM systems in sync? More importantly, what types of integration would be required between these two platforms.

GG: First, access policies should be designed to restrict claims processors to only handle claims that are assigned to them, or their team. This can be accomplished dynamically through the use of conditions, independent of what users get assigned to teams or groups. As noted earlier, the PIP interface is able to look up group or team membership at runtime. In addition, the insurance company may choose to implement an extra policy to further restrict access to celebrity or VIP clients. An example of where this would have been useful is the “Octo-mom” case where employees were found to have inappropriately accessed her records. The “celebrity” policy can be targeted to resources associated with an individual or they can be tagged with metadata indicating a special handling policy applies. In the PDP, results from multiple policies are resolved with the combining algorithms defined in XAMCL – first applicable, deny overrides, permit overrides, etc.

Regarding integration between BPM and ECM systems, it appears there are multiple options here. In one example, the ECM system can defer access decisions to the BPM layer, which can be effective if the only access to records is through the BPM layer. If access to ECM records flows through different applications, then both ECM and BPM should use the same authorization policies/system. If they use the same authorization system, BPM and ECM are using the same policies by definition and can therefore implement access controls consistently.

JM: It is a good practice to not only assign the claim to a team but for people outside of that team to not have access (in order to respect privacy). The challenge is that teams aren’t static entities and may not be statically provisioned. This model doesn’t just occur within business applications but is a general challenge in many enterprise systems. As you are aware, the vast majority of enterprise directory services tend to have a view of the organization and its people through the lens of reporting relationships and not team composition and how work actually gets done. The notion of the matrixed organization can further blur authorization models.

GG: I agree that directories are not always able to easily represent matrixed relationships within an organization. Ad hoc groups can be created for projects or teams, but can be difficult to manage and keep current. In some cases, virtual directories can provide a more flexible way to surface different views of directory data. The bottom line is that you can’t implement dynamic policies if the necessary relationship data is not available.

JM: Are there practices you recommend that enterprises should consider while modeling directory services to support authorization scenarios described so far?

GG: Yes, there are a number of things to consider regarding directory services when dealing with attribute based access control systems. In general, here are some key points:

  • We tend to prefer using existing, authoritative attribute sources – rather than force any kind of directory service re-design. In typical organizations, this means that privilege-granting attributes could be stored in several repositories that include directories, as well as databases or web services. At some point, the organization may choose to implement a virtual directory product, which gives them a lot of flexibility in aggregating attributes and providing custom schemas for the various consuming applications – including ABAC systems.
  • When constructing XACML policies, the policy author does need to think about where attributes are stored because of performance implications. Attributes may be local to the application or possibly remotely stored in another security domain. Even local attribute lookups can be an expensive operation if the repository does not operate efficiently. There are many techniques to deal with performance, but they must be dealt with in order to achieve adequate response times for interactive users.
  • A corollary to the previous point is the question of what component does the attribute lookup, the PEP or PDP? The PEP will naturally have access to several attributes, such as userID, action, target resource, and some environmental variables. The PEP could look up additional attributes, but it does not necessarily know which policies will be evaluated. Therefore, it is normally better for the PDP to do attribute lookup after it determines what policy(ies) to evaluate.
  • Data quality is always an issue in directory services. As a former colleague, Larry Gauthier, was fond of saying, “Even if you admit your directory data is dirty, it is most likely filthy.” Once an organization starts writing access policies that utilize dirty data, it’s possible that incorrect decisions could be the result. The solution isn’t necessarily technical, but could impact processes that are responsible for updating and maintaining user data – whether that’s in the HR system, enterprise directory, CRM database, or other repositories.

JM: Are you aware of any BPM or ECM vendors that are currently supporting the XACML specification? If not, what do you think enterprise customers can do to help vendors who remain blissfully ignorant to the power of XACML to see the light?

GG: I am not aware of any BPM or ECM vendors that support XACML today. Documentum has published how to add an XACML PEP to their XDB, but I don’t know of their broader plans, if any, to support XACML.

I think customers need to continue pressing vendors to externalize authorization and other identity management functionality from their applications. Customers can do this directly via their product selection process and by proxy through their industry analyst resources. ISVs should not expect to operate in a silo any more because applications have to interact with each other. It is extremely difficult to implement consistent access policy across multiple policy domains and you would think that application vendors have gotten this message by now. Further, XACML is a very mature standard that can be easily integrated into new application development and also feasible for retrofitting many existing applications. Again, the key is for customers and analysts to force the issue with application and infrastructure vendors.

Stay tuned for Part Three…

 

Explore posts in the same categories: Architecture, Authorization, Standards, XACML

2 Comments on “Part Two: Insurance Authorization Scenarios with James McGovern”


  1. [...] the lead Enterprise Architect for HP focused on insurance and I held several discussions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on using entitlements management within the insurance vertical. Now that we are in a new [...]


  2. [...] the lead Enterprise Architect for HP focused on insurance and I held several discussions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on using entitlements management within the insurance vertical. Now that we are in a new [...]


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