Led by PayPal, Lenovo, Infineon Technologies, and several pioneers of authentication, the Fast IDentity Online (FIDO) Alliance Monday proposed a new, open authentication protocol (PDF) that is designed to give users and devices a standard method of identifying themselves, no matter what authentication tools they use to log on.
The first provider of FIDO-enabled authentication services will be Nok Nok Labs, a startup company headed by former PGP CEO Phillip Dunkelberger and launched on Monday.
FIDO and Nok Nok Labs are attacking the decades-old problem of definitively confirming the identities of end users before allowing them onto a website or network application. Passwords are often forgotten or stolen, and the myriad second-factor authentication tools -- including tokens, biometrics, and phone-based methods -- are generally proprietary and available only to pockets of users.
Under the proposed protocol, every device would be enabled with FIDO, a small bit of code that definitively identifies the user by the device he/she is using and inventories the methods of authentication that might be available, and which method would be the most secure.
A FIDO server such as Nok Nok Labs then enrolls the user and issues a symmetric key, placing one half of the key on the end user's device and the other half on the destination server. The end user half of the key can be unlocked by whichever authentication tool the end device might have, including fingerprint sensors, facial recognition, or the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chips found in most PCs.
Once authentication tool vendors add the FIDO API, and servers and end user devices are FIDO-enabled, the protocol could become part of the "handshake" between a device and a server, potentially eliminating the need to track and remember passwords, FIDO Alliance members say.
"By giving users choice in the way they authenticate and taking an open-based approach to standards, we can make universal online authentication a reality," says Michael Barrett, president of the FIDO Alliance and CISO at PayPal. "We want every company, vendor, and organization that needs to verify user identity to join us."
The new standard has been in the making for two years, receiving input from authentication experts such as Taher Elgamal, one of the inventors of the SSL authentication protocol. A number of "very large" corporations and service providers are preparing to announce support for FIDO in the near future, Barrett says.
As with all new standards, the chief obstacle will be in getting organizations, vendors, and devices on the Web to implement it, experts say. While the endpoint code will be broadly offered for free, it will require a service provider such as Nok Nok to enroll the devices and broker the encryption between the user and the server.
"It's not going to happen overnight -- it will take time for people to wrap their heads around it and to get the devices FIDO-enabled," Dunkelberger says. "At the same time, we think it will be very easy for whole enterprises to deploy it because it's not difficult to install." Nok Nok already has more than 400 customer requests for the technology, he says.
The FIDO technology could provide a path for enterprises to authenticate devices that users buy and bring in from home, Dunkelberger notes. BYOD devices would use FIDO to authenticate to the corporate servers, and corporations could require employees to FIDO-enable any device they want to use at work.
Over the longer haul, FIDO could provide a path for consumers and end users to build a single identity that would enable them to use a common method to access all of the websites and servers they use during the day. One of the founding FIDO Alliance members is Infineon, which provides identity protection services for many of the major banks and financial services vendors across the globe.
"Today we're identified as different users by all of the sites and applications we use, but I'm the same person, whether I'm using Amazon or my corporate server," Dunkelberger says. "This gives us a way to cut down some of those barriers between our different identities."
The technology may help enterprises to cut through the confusion of authentication technologies, Barrett says. "Since 2005, the number of authentication has grown from about 20 to more than 100," he notes. "Each of them might have the best thing since sliced bread, but at PayPal we can't easily pick just one of them and then make a transition to another. With FIDO, potentially, we won't have to."
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