Benefits and weaknesses of different types of authentication

The impact of the Internet over the last few years has meant fundamental changes in the way we access business systems. The network security perimeter has crumbled at all levels while the number of users wanting network access has grown. The geographical location of users has also widened to a situation where they can be, not just in a different department or company branch office, but anywhere in the world.

While there are enormous productivity benefits available from increased access, the security risks have greatly increased. The traditional method of securing system access was by authentication through the use of passwords. Unfortunately, traditional password authentication is totally unsuitable for securing the access requirements of today’s distributed users.

According to the DTI Information Security Breaches Survey 2006, UK businesses are still overwhelmingly dependent on user IDs and passwords to check the identity of users attempting to access their systems. UK companies are poorly placed to deal with identity theft, with only 1% having a comprehensive approach for identity management (authentication, access control and user provisioning).

Weak single factor authentication is the use of single static passwords and still employed by most UK companies. The benefit is that static passwords are easy to remember. However, when you have different passwords for different systems, they start to become very difficult to remember and have to be written down, making them vulnerable.

The many disadvantages of single static passwords include how easy it is to crack them. They are short and based on topics close to the user, such as birthdays, partner names, children’s names, etc; and they are typically letters only. They are also vulnerable to social engineering i.e. people asking for your password or guessing it. They can also be picked up by spyware.

The alternative method of password management is to change passwords regularly. Operated correctly, this has the benefit of being more inherently secure than static passwords. A disadvantage of frequently changing passwords is that they can be easily forgotten, leading to very high support costs and significantly increased administration costs. This is particularly relevant for larger organisations with hundreds of applications.

Single Sign On (SSO) allows users to authenticate once and gain access, when required, to multiple (permitted) software systems. This is useful where users are wanting to access an ever increasing numbers of applications. SSO has major security and user benefits, as well as significantly reducing the helpdesk costs of password management.

There is a security risk with static password-based single sign on because a breach of password security means all systems accessible by a particular user can be compromised. Typically, SSO deployments are in conjunction with some form of two factor authentication. SSO is now undergoing rapid growth thanks to new technology from companies such as Imprivata, which has dramatically lowered the cost of deployment.

Strong authentication involves one of a range of elements such as hardware tokens, soft tokens, fingerprint recognition, swipe cards, etc. Most strong authentication deployments are used together with passwords (two factor authentication).

Strong two factor authentication is a much more secure means of authenticating users onto networks as it requires two separate security elements.

It comprises something you know (a password) and something you have (e.g. a token). Tokens are currently the most popular two factor solution, due to their low cost, ease of deployment, ease of management and the standard of security they provide. The rapid fall in the price of tokens means they are now available from only a few pounds per user per year. To put that in perspective, it’s less than the cost of ONE password-related helpdesk call. With password-connected calls making up between 30% and 50% of all helpdesk calls (depending on whose research you accept), tokens can represent a cost-saving as well as an improvement in security.

Other two factor options include soft tokens which can be sent to your mobile, swipe cards, USB-based authentication and fingerprint recognition. Proximity authentication is another variation which simply means that once you have authenticated and are within wireless range, you don’t need to authenticate again for another system.

Similarly with physical/logical security, physical swipe card entry systems linked to IT systems security, allow organisations to integrate access security with network security. Companies such as Imprivata are providing converged security systems in this area.

Three factor authentication is far superior and involves something you know (e.g. password), something you have (e.g. authentication token) and something you are (e.g. fingerprint, retinal scan, facial recognition). While biometric authentication is obviously more costly, it is appropriate for high security applications/departments such as pharmaceutical R&D, finance, etc.

Biometric authentication can be either two factor or three factor. Biometric authentication is more appropriate than tokens for certain applications, such as some manufacturing environments; or where superior security is required.

Static passwords are still the main way of authenticating users onto a network, but are woefully inadequate for remote and mobile computer users, with huge identity theft risks (particularly for wireless). The answer is to deploy strong two factor authentication, but other measures are also advisable.

The recent, almost £1 million fine of Nationwide by the FSA for security lapses, following the theft of an unsecured laptop from an employee’s home, shows how important it is to provide proper security for laptops. Low cost encryption from companies such as Utimaco or PGP, can protect key mobile devices for less than £70 per device. Or, if cost is an issue and performance isn’t a problem, there are free solutions available.

It is essential to ensure that network connections from remote users is via encrypted VPNs, which create a secure tunnel over the Internet from the user to the network and are authenticated through the network gateway. Either Secure Socket Layer (SSL) or IPsec VPNs are suitable. SSL VPNs are more appropriate where you have large numbers of remote users as they are low cost and provide easier to manage connections than IPsec.

Wireless is a particular security issue and it is best to ensure that, together with strong authentication, all wireless traffic is over VPNs and is encrypted. Don’t use Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) for encryption because it is poor, insecure and weak. Use WPA or WPA2 (also known as 802.11i) and ensure that users always operate with it switched on – the default is with it switched off.

If you have remote wireless LANs, ensure that the service set ID (SSID) is changed from the default and is secured to prevent unauthorised wireless users connecting. Don’t change it to something blindingly obvious. Another authentication option is to implement media access control (MAC) filtering. A variation of this is device authentication, where the device authenticates itself to the network.

The need for strong authentication is greater than ever, the cost of solutions such as single sign on and strong two factor authentication has come down, and such solutions are now easier to use. It is time for companies to look at improving their authentication procedures, if they want to remain secure and avoid potential business disruption, financial loss and damage to reputation.

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2 Responses

  1. very useful information

    and very nice blog

    Happy new year

    http://www.myposts4u.blogspot.com

  2. Good post. Most people are more concerned with ease of use, rather then security, which is comprises the main problem. Finding an easy to use, yet secure system.

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