The Problem With Two-Factor AuthenticationThe Problem With Two-Factor Authentication
The failure of corporate security strategies to protect personal identity information from hackers resides more with system architecture than with authentication technology. Here's why.
February 4, 2014
For too long, enterprises have been looking for the perfect two-factor authentication. First, it was X.509, then hard tokens, then SMS, and now Push and biometrics. And still, hackers keep winning. Just look at what happened with Target, Neiman Marcus, Living Social, Snapchat, and others.
The problem isn't the two-factor authentication technology. To be more specific, it's not just the two-factor authentication. It's the full integration, which includes the storage, accessing, validation, and assertion of identity throughout the authentication process.
But don't take my word for it. The forensics on most recent hacks reveal that hackers did not break the authentication mechanism itself. Rather, they broke the integration -- the identity passing and storage. That tells me websites (cloud or enterprise-based) that demand bulletproof security need to understand how authentication (single- or two-factor) is provisioned, conducted, validated from enterprise information, and asserted to the final resource -- and ultimately how the trust is reused at other resources.
How the authentication is provisioned
By this, I mean how the ID itself is granted to the user and how the credentials are provided to the users. The authentication process (single- or two-factor) should be quantified and scrutinized for weaknesses. One of the best ways to increase security in this procedure is to remove all human interaction (think: how to remove help desk interaction). You can validate users based on enterprise data or third-party social IDs and other data sources. You can then grant users reusable two-factor authentication credentials such as an X.509 certificate, an identity card, a mobile OATH token, or just the device itself.
Ideally, the registration process should be browser-based, which enables communication to match the client's native language automatically. Too often, however, each of these functionalities is siloed (e.g., coded after the two-factor product is purchased), and this is where the hacks occur. The hackers are breaching the architecture, not the authentication mechanism.
How and where the authentication takes place
Too often the validation algorithm is hosted or housed on servers or services that are beyond an enterprise's security control. These servers and services need to be scrutinized, because it is usually much easier for a hacker to breach the actual identity collection form (web or other form) than the actual authentication mechanism itself via cross-site scripting, SQL injection, or another attack vector against the form collector. Of course, this raises a raft of additional questions. Who wrote these collection forms? Are they housed on secure, enterprise servers? Have the forms been pen tested? Were they written by an outsourced contract service or hosted on insecure servers?
How the authentication is validated from enterprise PII
Most of the recent attacks have targeted enterprise-held personally identifiable information (PII), in which two-factor authentication methods prompted the company to sync up or migrate PII to other holders. As the Snapchat breach of 4.6 million users' phone numbers demonstrated, organizations need to secure their PII with the same security they use to keep passwords and other authentication information safe. Authentication information is, by its nature, PII, and allowing other services, especially authentication services, to use this data is simply asking for trouble.
How the authenticated identity is validated
Many authentication methods were created before resources like cloud and native mobile applications existed. As a result, common authentication mechanisms, such as tokens, were designed to use dated authentication protocols, like RADIUS, for resource-to-data-store validation. This type of authentication usually assumes that there is a proxy between the resource and the user, which is not always possible in the cloud and with mobile apps. In response, enterprises have implemented hackable integration methodologies that introduce vulnerabilities in the credential collection and identity-passing processes for these new resources.
Cloud resources should be secured with cryptographically signed assertions, like SAML or WS-Fed; similar mechanisms, including cryptographically validated web services, can be used for identity passing to native mobile apps. But these mechanisms are only as good as the services that encompass the identity passing. If the authentication system is separate from the identity-passing system, your enterprise needs to ensure that this transfer process is secure each and every time.
Don't ignore user fatigue
Ideally, all systems that users access (including network, cloud, enterprise, and mobile), should be set up to conduct some sort of identity validation. But if the enterprise forces a high-friction authentication such as SMS, token, or telephony, where the user has to re-enter credentials every session, it's pretty much guaranteed that the user will find a way to circumvent the best mechanisms and/or burden the help desk with repeated account lockouts or two-factor registration requests.
To alleviate this burden, SSO is the best solution. Look at consolidating enterprise resources into mechanisms that lend themselves to portal access where a single authentication (preferably, a strong one) allows access to multiple resources. Role-based is ideal, depending on what resources a particular user should see.
Organizations that demand bulletproof security must understand that true security is not in the authentication process alone. It's only when the entire system architecture -- from provisioning and validation through asserting identity -- is addressed from a security perspective that personal information will be truly safe from attack.
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