T 0527/10 (Distributed Credential Store/EMC) of 3.2.2015

European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2015:T052710.20150203
Date of decision: 03 February 2015
Case number: T 0527/10
Application number: 05100336.6
IPC class: G06F 1/00
Language of proceedings: EN
Distribution: D
Download and more information:
Decision text in EN (PDF, 327.806K)
Documentation of the appeal procedure can be found in the Register
Bibliographic information is available in: EN
Versions: Unpublished
Title of application: Techniques for establishing and managing a distributed credential store
Applicant name: EMC Corporation
Opponent name: -
Board: 3.5.06
Headnote: -
Relevant legal provisions:
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 56
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 84
Keywords: Inventive step - (no)
Claims - clarity (no)
Catchwords:

-

Cited decisions:
-
Citing decisions:
-

Summary of Facts and Submissions

I. The appeal lies against the decision of the examining division, with reasons dispatched on 11 November 2009, to refuse European patent application No.05100336.6 for lack of inventive step over the document

D1: WO 99/06900 A2.

II. A notice of appeal was received on 15 December 2009, the appeal fee being paid on the same day. A statement of grounds of appeal was received on 24 February 2010. The appellant requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and a patent be granted on the basis of claims 1-20 as filed on 18 September 2009 and as sub­ject to the refusal, the other application documents on file being description page 2 as received on 9 April 2008, and description pages 1 and 3-18 and drawings sheets 1-3 as originally filed.

III. The board issued a summons to oral proceedings, giving in an annex its preliminary opinion that the applica­tion did not comply with Article 84 EPC 1973 and lacked an inventive step vis-à-vis document D1, Article 56 EPC 1973. Objections under Article 123 (2) EPC were also raised.

IV. In response to the summons, the appellant did not file any arguments or amendments. Instead, with a letter dated 27 January 2015, the appellant informed the board that it would not attend and be represented at the oral proceedings.

V. Oral proceedings were held as planned on 3 Februa­ry 2015 in the absence of the appellant. At the end of the oral proceedings the chairwoman announced the decision of the board.

VI. Claim 1 reads as follows:

"1. A computer-implemented method, for estab1ishing and managing a distributed credential store comprising confidential information and identity information about one or more principals and authentication techniques or services associated with authenticating the principal vis-à-vis other principals, the method comprising:

an identity service creating an initial instance of a distributed credential store when requested from a principal, the initial instance representing local credential stores, which are maintained locally on a client of the principal, and selectively linked to portions of a remote credential store, the identity service and the remote credential store are external to the client over a network, the local credential stores including credentialing records and each credentialing record having particular authentication information, particular authentication techniques, attributes that define types of the authentication information, and policies that define how the attributes are processed in a given relationship between the principal vis-à-vis another different principal, each credentialing record includes a particular relationship for interaction between the principal and one of the different principals;

a principal managing (200) the distributed credential store by:

associating (110) the portions of the remote credential store to the principal credential stores by interacting (210) with the identity service over a network, wherein the association is achieved by linking the portions of the remote credential store to corresponding portions of the principal credential stores,

using a trust specification (211, 301) that dictates a type of secure communications and methods used during interactions between the identity service and the principal,

automatically linking the linked portions over the network to the remote credential store by using means to detect interactions with the identity service once the client is detected as being connected to the network and establishes communication with the identity service over the network;

selectively synchronizing (120) changes between the portions and the principal credential stores, by using means to evaluate the trust specification to determine the selective synchronization between the portions of the enterprise credential store and the principal credential stores, and wherein the synchronization is automatically processed when the client is detected as being connected to the network; and

managing (130) conflicts and the changes with a number of the portions and the corresponding credential store during selective synchronization in response to an evaluated synchronization policy (310, 320), and wherein the synchronization effects an automatic update to the principal credential stores, the remote credential store, or to both the principal credential stores and the remote credential store;

and wherein if the principal falls out of communication with the identity service and subsequently re-establishes communication, then the identity service uses the synchronization policy communicated from the principal to generate a new active instance of the remote credential store and re-synchronize the principal's local credential stores with the identity service generated remote credential store according to the synchronization policy, and whereby the principal can maintain personal entries in the local credential stores which are not communicated to and synchronized by the identity service into the remote credential store."

The claims also comprise corresponding independent system and computer program product claims 7 and 20.

Reasons for the Decision

The appellant's absence from oral proceedings

1. The appellant was duly summoned but chose not to attend the oral proceedings. According to Article 15 (3) RPBA the board is not obliged to delay any step in the pro­ceedings, including its decision, by reason only of the absence at the oral proceedings of any party duly summoned who may then be treated as relying only on its written case. The following reasons are based on the board's preliminary opinion as set out in the annex of the summons to oral proceedings to which the appellant chose not to respond in substance.

The invention

2. The application relates to a method of establishing and managing what is called a distributed credential store.

2.1 A "credential store" is described as a file, database, directory or combinations of them containing confiden­tial informa­tion and identity information about one or more princi­pals (p. 5, l. 21-23), where a "principal" is "an elec­tronic repre­sen­tation of an entity" such as a resource, a user, an agent, an application, a system, a group, a department, [or] an object (p. 4, l. 3-6). It is dis­closed that ­identity information as stored in the cre­den­tial store may be "a legacy identifi­ca­tion and a pass­word pair" or "a certificate or an asser­tion" (p. 5, l. 27-31). The credential store may fur­ther include "au­thentication techniques or ser­vi­ces" (l. 25-27) and "po­licies that define how attri­butes", which define confi­dential data (l. 23-25), "can or cannot be pro­cessed in a given principal-to-princi­pal relation­ship" (l. 33-34).

2.2 The credential store is distributed in terms of a re­mote credential store (303 in fig. 3; 411 in fig. 4; also called "enterprise credential store", e.g. p. 9, l. 15-16) and local credential stores (302 in fig. 3; 425 in fig. 4; also called "principal credential store", e.g. p. 9, l. 13).

2.3 An "identity service" (410 in fig. 4) authenticates the principal and establishes a secure communication with the principal (p. 7, l. 4-6) which operates accor­ding to a "trust specification" (p. 7, l. 17-23; p. 8, l. 22-25; p. 11, l. 18-23; p. 17, l. 20-24). Secure commu­nication typically involves encryption and signing of communication with public and private key pairs (p. 7, l. 6-10).

2.4 A local credential store is created either on re­quest of the principal according to a "pull model" (p. 7, l. 28-29; p. 8, l. 1-2; p. 16, l. 20-22) or by the iden­­tity service or a third party according to a "push model" (p. 8, l. 2-5; p. 16, l. 22-23). Portions of the local credential store are "associated" with or "linked" to portions of the remote credential store (p. 9, l. 17-19).

2.5 The local and the remote credential stores are synch­ro­nized when changes to the credential stores are detec­ted, according to a synchronization policy (p. 11, l. 7-16; and p. 12, l. 31 - p. 13, l. 8) which defines which portions of the local credential store are to be synch­ro­nised with which portions of the remote creden­tial store (p. 10, l. 2-5). The principal may decide to keep some personal credential information private, i.e. separate from and not to be synchronised with the remote credential store (p. 10, l. 30 - p. 11, l. 5; p. 13, l. 21-28; and p. 17, l. 14-18). If communication between the prin­ci­pal and the identity service is in­terrupted for a period of time, ­any changes made during that period will be automati­cally syn­ch­ronised as soon as the communication is re-estab­lished (p. 14, l. 4-13; p. 15, l. 15-23; and p. 16, l. 25-29).

Prior art

3. Document D1 discloses a method of managing the synch­ro­nisation of so-called "workspace data" (p. 3, l. 14-16; 163 and 180 in fig. 1) of a roaming user in a client-server system ("clients" 165 and 167 in fig. 1; "glo­bal ser­ver" 115 in figure 1).

3.1 Workspace data may include, for instance, e-mail or ca­lendar da­ta, bookmarks or "other types of data such as appli­­­ca­tion programs" (p. 10, l. 14-18; p. 18, l. 17 - p. 19, l. 5). The description refers to "por­tions of [...] work­station da­ta" being synchro­nised, copies of which are "indepen­dently modifi­able" (p. 3, l. 15-16; p. 6, l. 12-14; p. 11, l. 22 - p. 12, l. 1).

3.2 The copies of the workspace data on clients and server are not necessarily identical: A user may prefer to store certain confidential or private information or part of it on the client and not on the server and vice versa (p. 6, l. 4-9; p. 7, l. 7-10).

3.3 The server maintains the workspace data in a so-called "global format", whereas clients may use different local for­mats. The translation between the different formats is performed by a so-called "global transla­tor" (150 in fig. 1; p. 11, l. 4-6; p. 12, l. 6-12; p. 18, l. 17 - p. 19, l. 1).

3.4 The synchronisation may be initiated by the "synchro­ni­sation-start module" of a client (820 in fig. 8; p. 5, l. 1-4; p. 6, l. 14-15) and according to predetermined criteria such as upon user request, after a prede­ter­mined number of changes or after a user action such as user log-off (p. 6, l. 14-18; p. 22, l. 3-8). The syn­chronisation-start mo­dule instructs a "general synchro­nisation module" (825 in fig. 8; p. 22, l. 8-10) to be­gin the synchronisa­tion. This module requests ver­sion information from the synch­ro­ni­sation agent of the ser­­ver (145 in fig. 1), compares the remote and local ver­sions and performs the appropriate synch­ro­nisation (p. 22, l. 14 - p. 23, l. 1). If conflicts occur, re­con­­ci­liation may be needed (see p. 23, l. 1-4; p. 23, l. 13 - p. 24, l. 2; and 830 in fig. 8).

Clarity, Article 84 EPC 1973

4. The board considers the independent claims to be unclear in a number of respects, Article 84 EPC 1973.

4.1 Independent claims 1 and 7 specify that the "local cre­den­tial stores are selectively linked to portions of a remote credential store". The board considers unclear the meaning of "selective linking" and the suggestion that entire "stores" are linked to "portions", Article 84 EPC 1973. In view of the description the board con­siders the intended mea­ning of that phrase to be that data stores are "linked" so that corresponding portions can be identi­fied and set up so that selective synchro­nisation is possible, i.e. so that some portions of the remote credential store are subject to synch­ro­ni­sation, whereas some portions of it are not.

4.2 Claim 1 specifies that a principal "associates the portions of the remote credential store to the prin­cipal credential store, wherein the association is achieved by linking the portions". In the board's view the diffe­rence between "associating" and "linking" portions of credential stores is unclear.

4.3 Claim 1 comprises a further step of "automatically linking the linked portions" although the portions should have already been linked in the course of "associating the portions". This apparent redundancy also renders the claim unclear.

4.4 Independent claims 1 and 7 both specify that "each credentialing record includes a particular relationship for interaction between the principal and one of the different principals" (last sentence of the first me­thod step in claim 1; last sentence of "a principal service (420) ... " in claim 7). The board considers this wording to be unclear. While it is typical for creden­tials to make reference to - i.e. "include" - relation­ships between principals such as the owner of a creden­tial, the issuing entity and the object to which the creden­tial relates, it is unclear what is meant by the relationship being "for interaction". Moreover, the board considers this feature to be redundant over the feature directly preceding it in the claim which re­quires each "credentialing record [to] hav[e] policies that define how attributes are processed in a given relationship between the principal vis-à-vis another different principal".

Inventive Step, Article 56 EPC 1973

5. Despite the clarity issues raised above the board deems it appropriate in the present case to give its assessment of inventive step as well.

6. The examining division considered D1 to disclose that "workspace data also comprises credentials, e.g. keys and digital certificates" (see decision under appeal, p. 2, last line), based on a short passage in D1 men­tio­ning some sort of synchronisation of credentials (p. 7, l. 21 - p. 8, l. 5). The appellant challenged this finding of the decision, arguing that "workspace data" according to D1 was "essentially user-created da­ta", as was illustrated on page 10, lines 14-18, and thus did not comprise creden­tial information (grounds of appeal, point 2.6). Instead, so the appellant's argument, all credential information in D1 was stored in keysafe 365 at the global server (fig. 3; see grounds of appeal, point 2.3).

6.1 Although the board does not regard the examining divi­sion's interpretation of D1 to be unreasonable, it con­siders any speculation as to whether the "workspace da­ta" in D1 comprises credentials immaterial to the con­clusion that the claimed invention lacks an inventive step. In particular, the present invention is not con­cerned with any characteristic of credential informa­tion which pro­vides for improved security. Credential information of the invention is merely the object of a data synchronisation method. The board considers the type of the synchronised data being of a par­ti­cular type, i.e. credentialing records, not to necessi­tate the solution of a technical problem. The board further does not consider any speculation on the "keysafe 365" of D1 to be relevant.

6.2 The appellant emphasises several times in the grounds of appeal that the invention is more than mere data synchroni­za­tion. As the credential records also defined "a given relationship of inter­action between one prin­cipal vis-à-vis other prin­cipals", the invention provi­ded for synchronisation of relationships whereas D1 did not (see grounds of appeal, points 2.9 and 2.12). In view of the above (see point 4.4 supra), the signi­fi­cance given by the appellant to the term "relation­ship" is not apparent to the board. Thus the board takes ­­the appellant's considerations in this regard not to go be­yond its argument mentioned above that the synchro­nised data in D1 does not include cre­dentials.

6.3 The decision under appeal (reasons 2.3) considered claim 1 to differ from D1 in the use of a trust speci­fi­cation dictating a type of secure communication be­tween the identity ser­vice and the principal. The board does not concede this diffe­rence, rather considering that D1 discloses that the clients and the server commu­nicate in a secure manner and according to mul­tiple levels of access based on the level of identi­fi­cation and authentication (p. 11, l. 11-15; p. 16, l. 14 - p. 17, l. 7). In the board's view, the skilled per­son would consider this to constitute a "trust spe­ci­fication".

6.4 In its grounds of appeal, the appellant argues that D1 is different from the claimed invention in a number of ways, in particular it alleges that D1 described a cen­tralized system managed from the server side whereas the present inven­tion related to "distributed systems, managed locally from the client side" (see grounds of appeal, points 2.4 and 2.5), that D1 did not disclo­se the linking of portions of the client and server data (see grounds of appeal, points 3.2 and 3.3), and that D1 did not disclose personal entries in the local store (see grounds of appeal, point 3.6). The board disagrees. D1 indeed discloses a distributed client-server archi­tecture (115, 165, 167 in fig. 1). Some "lin­king" between portions of data stores, broadly con­strued in view of the clarity objections above (see points 4.1-4.3 supra), is a prerequisite for any data synchro­­nisation. And D1 discloses the possibility to ex­clude personal data from synchronisation (p. 7, l. 5-10).

7. Therefore the board considers the subject matter of claim 1 to differ from D1 by the following features:

i) D1 does not disclose that the local instance of the data store is initially created on the client's request.

ii) The synchronised data in D1 does not include cre­den­tialing records with the particular information content as claimed.

iii) D1 does not disclose that a client and the server are re-synchronised when they fall out of commu­ni­cation and re-establish communication.

Differe­nces i), ii) and iii) broadly correspond to the differences 2.1), 2.2) and 2.4) as identified in the decision under appeal (p. 4-5).

7.1 The board considers that the problems addressed by these differences do not interact with each other in any non-trivial manner and that, hence, their res­pec­tive inventive merit may be considered indepen­dent­ly.

7.2 Re. difference i), it would be obvious to the skilled person to create an initial instance of a data store at the request of the client. If the "roaming user" of D1 (p. 1, l. 17 -24) starts working on a particular client (p. 6, l. 12-14) and wants to resume a task that was inter­rupted before at another client, the new client will have to have the pertinent workspace data down­loa­ded from the global server to initiate a local copy at the new client.

7.3 Re. difference ii), the skilled person would not need to solve any technical problem in applying the tea­chings of D1 to the synchronisation of any particular kind of data such as the credential records of claim 1 (see also point 6.1 supra).

7.4 Re. difference iii), the board considers synchro­ni­sa­tion frequency to be a common design decision of a dis­tributed database such as the claimed one. The skilled person would balance the need for synchronicity and accu­­racy against the communication costs involved according to circum­stances and as a matter of routine without exercising any inventive activity.

7.5 Therefore, the board comes to the conclusion that the independent claims 1, 7 and 20 are not inventive over D1 in the sense of Article 56 EPC 1973.

7.6 It follows from the above that the appeal has to be dismissed.

Order

For these reasons it is decided that:

The appeal is dismissed.

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