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The Athens service is a trust federation where identity providers (typically, individual educational institutions or other user organisations or even entire countries), service providers (typically, publishers, distributors, or other resource providers) and Athens operate under common rules and licenses. Trust is enforced by the use of public-key cryptography and other security mechanisms. The identity provider provides an appointed administrator who uses browser-based tools provided as part of the Athens service to manage the user accounts of their group of users. Accounts can be grouped into categories with different attributes, and given access to different sets of resources.
The service is neutral; it is not involved in the selling process between a service provider and an identity provider. The service provider informs the service when access to its resource is to be enabled to a particular identity provider, and the service then allows the identity provider to allocate the resource to appropriate user accounts.
Athens is used extensively within UK Higher and Further Education institutions, the UK National Health Service, and in more than 90 countries worldwide. It has been adopted by over 2,000 organisations, and over 300 online resources since it was first launched in 1996. Over 4.5 million individual user accounts are now registered with the system. The majority of Identity providers use Classic Athens; however more than 60 organisations, representing around one million users, have moved to the fully federated Local Authentication model.
In 2006 Athens was represented at the Medical Library Association Annual Meeting. Since then hospital libraries in the United States have begun using Athens as method for providing off campus access to library resources.
Once SAML became a ratified standard, Athens adopted SAML and Shibboleth interfaces to the Athens system to facilitate inter-working with a larger number of systems. The Athens service offers these connectivity protocols through gateways where native connectivity is not practical.
Athens makes a number of attributes relating to its organisations and its user accounts available to its service providers through its agent technology. These are generally organisation-related as in the case of the ‘issuing organisation identity number’ or ‘issuing organisation country’, or pseudonymous like the persistent unique identifier for a user account.
Athens user management facilities, whether for Classic or Locally Authenticated users, allow the administrator to allocate a different set of resources to each user account. This provides fine-grained authorisation for resources. However, the ability to deliver attributes through the agent technology is expected to offer a long term ability to authorise based on attributes, when attributes and their meaning are commonly understood by identity and service providers.