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Perimeter

9/8/2010
04:35 PM
Taher Elgamal
Taher Elgamal
Commentary
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Authentication A Problem That Needs a Solution -- Yesterday

A number of distinct developments brought about the current authentication schemes we see in networks today.

A number of distinct developments brought about the current authentication schemes we see in networks today.In the '70s, the creators of UNIX recognized that in order to give a number of individuals in the enterprise access to a collection of machines connected to a single network, the enterprise would have to give each individual an account. This account would require access rights, which we recognize today as the username/password combination. It's a pattern that was started by the technical community -- one that has become the world's most common authentication scheme and a mainstay of modern life.

By the '80s, the individual had a machine sitting on her desk, and it was connected to an enterprise network, which gave her access to networked machines throughout the building. But because all of those machines were physically located within the building, guaranteeing the enterprise's security was a relatively simple matter.

Then an interesting issue popped up.

Salespeople.

Salespeople didn't usually work inside the building. This meant that they didn't have access to the same resources that engineers and executives had, and this put them at a disadvantage. To address this, a whole new industry -- the dial-up industry -- was born. Its objective: to enable on-the-road individuals to dial into an enterprise network from afar. No longer accessible exclusively to individuals physically located in the building, the enterprise network -- still loaded with intellectual property -- was now accessible to any individual with a modem and a password.

As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the enterprise. Suddenly, a password was not enough, and soon two-factor authentication -- security that demands a user both know and have something, like a code and a keycard -- was born.

Two-factor authentication was quite successful within the enterprise's commuting workforce, but it only became popular enterprisewide a decade later, when the Web caused all of the enterprise networks -- perhaps unintentionally -- to be connected together.

E-commerce During the early days of e-commerce, we knew two fundamental issues needed to be addressed to adapt the Internet to commercial applications.

First, the Internet is way too open. If you want to listen in on a conversation over a traditional phone line, then you actually have to get physical access to the phone line or PBX. Not so with the Internet. A talented hacker can access any packet in transit and manipulate it however he wishes. T

Second, how is a consumer supposed to know that a merchant is legitimate, and how is the merchant supposed to know that the consumer is authorized to use a given credit card? (Strangely enough, we are still pursuing an ideal solution to this problem!)

We designed SSL in an attempt to address both of these problems in one fell swoop. SSL provides confidentiality through encryption and integrity through signatures and hashing so that data can travel over the Internet securely. At the same time, SSL uses PKI keys to verify for both consumer and merchant that the other is, in fact, who they say they are.

Unfortunately, almost all implementations in the e-commerce space did not fully utilize the facilities in SSL, and browsers implemented the trust model in a less-than-perfect way, which gave way to today's e-commerce environment. (In fact, after the aforementioned implementations, years passed before the financial industry figured out that the username/password authentication system did not provide enough protection.) In other words, in order to provide ease-of-use, the trust model had to be broken in a few different ways, and that imperfect model still exists today amid all the challenges of malware, phishing, and other threats.

In my next post, I'll delve further into my view of the current state of SSL and provide some insight into where I believe the e-commerce industry is headed.

Recognized in the industry as the "inventor of SSL," Dr. Taher Elgamal led the SSL efforts at Netscape. He also wrote the SSL patent and promoted SSL as the Internet security standard within standard committees and the industry. Dr. Elgamal invented several industry and government standards in data security and digital signatures area, including the DSS government standard for digital signatures. In addition to serving on numerous corporate advisory boards, Dr. Elgamal is the Chief Security Officer at Axway, a global provider of multi-enterprise solutions and infrastructure. He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University.

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