Operations // Identity & Access Management
12/10/2013
11:06 AM
Dave Kearns
Dave Kearns
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2013: Rest In Peace, Passwords

In the future, we will look back on 2013 as the year two-factor authentication killed passwords.

To my way of thinking, 2013 is the TFA year. No, I don't mean "too freaking awesome," though some day we may see it that way. I do think that we'll look back on 2013 as the year of two-factor authentication -- or maybe the year passwords died. No, that's probably too much to hope for. But multi-factor authentication (of which two-factor is a special case) certainly seems to be finally taking hold.

Two of the big three destination websites (Google and Twitter) have introduced optional two-factor authentication. The third (Facebook) has introduced an optional and occasional form of TFA called "login approvals." With this system, you need to use a second factor -- an SMS message -- whenever you access the site from a new platform (PC or mobile device). Once you've logged in from the new platform and registered it, there's no need to do anything except enter your password on subsequent visits from that platform.

More people are urging Facebook to follow Google and Twitter and enable TFA with every login. Additionally, services such as Dropbox, WordPress, and Amazon Web Services offer optional two-factor authentication. The reason people are clamoring for this is quite simple. Just look at the headlines:

That would scare most people, but the headline that scared me was in USA Today last week: Four tips for creating stronger passwords. People, there are no stronger passwords. There's weak, weaker, and weakest. There are no passwords that a human can remember that will keep a determined miscreant (or government service) from cracking your account. None.

The TFA solution vendor Authentify surveyed 428 security pros at financial services, corporate information security, and health insurance providers. In that survey, 41% of respondents said they favored implementing a second authentication factor to strengthen login processes using passwords.

Why not eliminate passwords? According to a whopping 72.5% of Authentify respondents, passwords would continue to be used in their respective worlds. Most of us have given up trying to eliminate passwords. In February 2004, Bill Gates said, "There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords. People use the same password on different systems, they write them down and they just don't meet the challenge for anything you really want to secure." Well, we know how prescient he was.

The solution to the all-passwords-are-weak problem is for additional authentication methods to be used alongside the password. Biometrics (fingerprints, retina scans, vein readers, heart monitors, etc.) are an option -- one that I favor but has strong opposition in the marketplace. Tokens -- both hardware (like the RSA SecureID) and software (such as those provided by the SPML protocol) -- are currently the favored second factor. The Google, Facebook, and Twitter systems rely on software tokens delivered out of band (via a cellular network rather than the broadband network) helping to drive acceptance of that factor.

Apple introduced a fingerprint reader with the iPhone 5S. Samsung is reported to be working on an iris scanner for its upcoming phones. Both are steps to a workable, acceptable biometric second-factor solution. There are even rumors that Google will soon require two-factor authentication for many, if not all, of its services.

Maybe in the years to come, we will look back on 2013 as the year our accounts finally became secure. That certainly would be too freaking awesome, wouldn't it?

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J_Brandt
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J_Brandt,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/26/2013 | 10:52:23 AM
Agree.. but
Passwords aren't that bad.  It is the people and process surrounding them that is the real concern.  There have been many good suggestions for passphrases and letter/number substitutions and more.  Some of us have been doing that for a decade.  I find resistance to two tier authentication in most instances because people find it too intrusive.  Google, Twitter and others maybe have the ability for users to engage in a higher level of security, but I have not seen any statistics that indicate it's getting significant use.
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/15/2013 | 8:17:56 PM
I hope the author is right.
Even though I've been using -for years- a very good password manager (RoboForm), I agree, old fashion passwords have to go. I personally like some sort of biometrics security. Fingerprint reader (Apple)  is good. Iris scanner (Samsung) seems to be more practical. I like the most voice recognition along with some sort of short pin. Star Trek Voyager fan here
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
12/12/2013 | 8:01:54 AM
Re: a password alone will not stand
@jasonscott, Those are great suggestions for my post-it note reminder list(ugh!). But why not have two factor authentication with the second factor something besides a password e.g. SMS text + biometric?
jasonscott
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jasonscott,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2013 | 1:24:02 PM
Re: a password alone will not stand
First, I don't believe that there's anything inherently wrong with passwords -- they're a good first step at securing things. But, like anything, they aren't perfect.


Adding biometrics or a token as a second factor makes it exponentially harder -- if not impossible -- for some ne'er-do-well to access your stuff.


As for the old practice of writing passwords down ... it's obviously less than ideal. But there is a way to make it safer: when I have to do that, I write only part of the password -- enough to remind me, but not enough to get someone in. Maybe the first and last letters, like M...y (for Mickey), or maybe the initials, if it's a phrase, like T.p.I.j.t.I (This password Is just too Insecure). You get the idea. That way, even if the paper is seen, no one knows the password. I actually go a step farther: I do the same for the system that they're used for -- just some kind of unidentifiable abbreviation. It's not tricky nor foolproof, but I'm not simply giving away access if someone discovers my cheat sheet.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 9:20:26 PM
Log out
Another dangerous thing people do, especially on the iPhone, is to remain logged into all their applications all the time. Many websites or apps that handle sensitive data will log you out after a specified time, but you'll stay logged in to Facebook, Gmail, LinkedIn, etc. indefinitely. If you lose you smartphone and all of those are accessible, it doesn't matter if the passwords you set up were good.
dak3
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dak3,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 5:54:59 PM
Re: I'm starting a death-of-password list
For the one password you do need to remember, make it a phrase or a line from a song but substitute a number or symbol or two for letters:

 

W1nter W0nderland

 

for example

 

-dave
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
12/10/2013 | 5:46:03 PM
Re: I'm starting a death-of-password list
I could live with passwords becoming irrelevant. 

As for password managers, it's time for a true confession. I tried one once and then I forgot my password. But Dave, on your recommendation, I'll give KeePass a try. :-)
dak3
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dak3,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 5:00:59 PM
Re: I'm starting a death-of-password list
Not me! It will Bill Gates almost 10 years ago who predicted the death of the password. I think they'll never day, just hopefully become irrelevant.

 

By the waym I do suggest everyone look into KeePass...
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 4:43:48 PM
I'm starting a death-of-password list
I will start a list of predictors of the death of the password, with Dave Kearns at the top. Let's see if this list gets as long as the list of those who predicted the death of the mainframe. We better dig in for a long stint of list compilation.

 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Moderator
12/10/2013 | 4:27:24 PM
Re: A welcome change
I'd expect third-party password management apps to give way to something like KeyChain from Apple.
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