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9/25/2019
10:00 AM
Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts
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The Future of Account Security: A World Without Passwords?

First step: Convince machines that we are who we say we are with expanded biometrics, including behaviors, locations, and other information that makes "us" us.

Passwords
Passcodes
Passphrases
No Passwords
Two factors
Three factors
Biometrics
Facial (smack head against phone…)
Prove you exist
Prove it's you that's proving you exist …

... at which point most people will have thrown the device away, gone back to their notepad or Post-it note, and dug out the old password from years back that still gets them into everything under the sun, which, let's face it, is probably root/calvin, root/toor, admin/letmein, or something akin to these.

We're all creatures of habit. We look for simplicity and ease of use because we're inundated on an hourly basis by applications, systems, phones, cars, fridges, and even the toaster asking us to identify ourselves before we get any meaningful service or a warmed-up waffle.

And herein lies the problem: A long time ago, someone, somewhere, in a mainframe (probably in another galaxy) decided that we needed to associate each human with an account, unique to them, and then protect it (little did they know) with a code that only that one human would ever be able to use or remember.

There's short sighted and then there's not being able to see to the end of your nose. The password flaw is something that it's inventor, recently-deceased Fernando Corbató, was keen to point out. This is, let's face it, on par with the Y2K flaw but without the immediate consequences. We keep living with the issue; heck, we have a World Password Day (first Thursday in May) when we actually celebrate that we can't fix something that's arguably been the bane of our existence since the '60s! The password is to us like the common cold is to healthcare.

The challenge is one of balance. We need/want safety and security, but we like privacy (that is debatable, I know). We also want usability (as shown by all the blinky stuff we keep buying in the hopes of an easier life). Unfortunately, these three forces are acting upon ALL the various options out there vying for supremacy on the password battlefield, and, presently, no one has really come up with something that would keep all parties happy. Remember, our audience is everyone from the NSA/Mossad folks securing their systems to my mother and her computer login to Tesco supermarkets for home crockery delivery. Whatever we come up with must solve this entire spectrum of users.

Some progress has been made in the realm of passwordless solutions, some of which do a fantastic job of uniquely managing credentials in a manner that allows for seamless transactions across multiple platforms. Others can take existing credential techniques and mask them behind a much more collaborative, intuitive, and manageable front end, creating vaults that actually do work, and solutions that tie together all the myriad technologies out there. But, in the end, what they are doing is helping to navigate the mess that is underlying a well-built 1960s veneer: a set of credentials assigned to us, by us, for us, or for our use still has to be part of an access solution. Only now, instead of one mainframe, we have 1,001 apps, systems, websites, programs, ERP systems, etc., all clamoring to understand who we are and whether we should be allowed in.

So, what are we to do? What are our options, and where will we 5-10 years from now? Will we still be fending off "Summer2019!" as the default corporate password, or will we have finally put the '60s to rest and moved on?

In the short term, we have to convince the machines that we are who we say we are, so let's take biometrics and expand it to include behaviors, locations, and other information that makes "us" who we are to the outside world.

Long term, take that concept of "us" and who we appear to be and start to look at our very existence, our experiences, our lives, and our memories. I'm talking about taking neural information, directly from the gray matter between our ears that would demonstrate that we know the location, the bank, the account, the office, the card, and, if we're smart about it, we correlate that with the device itself knowing "us." Therefore, our very existence and interactions become our key. Essentially, we don't have to prove who we are — we just have to be ourselves.

Will that solve all the password problems we collectively grapple with daily? Probably not, but it should at least eradicate 123456 or the more complex version of adding 789.

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Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "'Playing Around' with Code Keeps Security, DevOps Skills Sharp"

Chris is one of the world's foremost experts on counter threat intelligence and vulnerability research within the information security industry. He has led or been involved in information security assessments and engagements for the better part of 20 years and is credentialed ... View Full Bio
 

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