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Security Snags Loom Over Social Login

Even with standards, social authenticators are hardly secure enough for enterprises
As people tie their social networking identities more closely with their in-real-life personas, the idea of cross-referencing social identity data to authenticate users on the Web and in the enterprise continues to gain steam. The Secretary of State in Washington offered a prime example of this drive earlier this month by unveiling a new voter registration Facebook app developed by Microsoft that cross-references Facebook identity data with state information to confirm potential voters are who they claim to be before entering them in the voter rolls.

But the convenience of social login and social single sign-on -- even with the aid of standards like OAuth and OpenID -- is largely offset by the security concerns inherent with bestowing nonsecurity-focused organizations with the duty of ensuring integrity of a trusted chain of authentication.

"Companies are increasingly leveraging identity data created on social media sites to conduct business transactions, as it often provides for improved efficiency and better communication with customers," says Eric Maass, CTO of Lighthouse Security Group. "But organizations that rely upon identity information provided by third parties, such as Facebook and Twitter, must balance the benefits of doing so with the security and liability risks that can result."

Unfortunately for many CISOs, the headlong rush by enterprise developers to satisfy users' demands for always-available access, particularly through mobile devices, has drowned out even the whisper of suggestions for balance.

"Users want an easy way to identify themselves on mobile devices, and social login caters to such expectations," says Francois Lascelles, chief architect at Layer 7 Technologies. "As the enterprise reaches out to target audiences through mobile applications, there is an increasing demand for controlling identities at the API level."

Meanwhile, social networking sites like Facebook are doing everything in their power to encourage adoption of their login APIs to bolster footprint and their earning potential. Good for them, but maybe not so great for security organizations, considering these sign-on constructs generally have been created with every nature of usability up the priority stack above security.

"Social single sign-on was designed with convenience in mind, not security. A good example is the world's most successful social single sign-on protocol, Facebook Connect, which was designed to allow other websites to tap into Facebook's social graph with the sole purpose of expanding Facebook's footprint," says Thomas Pedersen, CEO and founder of OneLogin. "This aim at fast user adoption and tight security are like oil and water."

[ Learn about the flaws in web services SSO. See Web Services Single Sign-On Contain Big Flaws. ]

In the case of the app created by Microsoft for Washington state voters, My Vote, Facebook Connect is not used as an authenticator, and the identity data utilized is strictly used for voter registration purposes. Voters still must prove their identities in person while voting using a driver's license.

"It's important to note that the security here is not based on Facebook Connect," Pedersen says. "Voters still have to show a valid ID in order to cast their vote. Without that level of authentication, the security risks would be significant."

The added layer of security may offer some insight into how IT organizations can use social login applications based on risk appetite and mitigating controls. So a payment app may not be appropriate, but a user forum may work well. The ideas, Maass says, is to always keep in mind the nature of the trust broker in the social login ecosystem.

"Companies that trust the fact that users are who they say they are because they can delegate authorization to a specific social media site risk overstepping the boundary of legitimate 'trust,' as social identities are hardly authoritative," he says. "Anyone can sign up for one free of charge and promote fake identifying information."

The bottom line is that social identities should exist within enterprise schemas as agents of convenience, not security, he says.

"They should not rely upon the authenticated identity or the identity data from a social profile as authoritative," he says, "or anything they'd otherwise base a sensitive transaction upon."

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