It's an 'exciting time' for authentication

SAN FRANCISCO ' Face it, authentication is a bear. Any scheme simple enough to easily implement probably is too weak. More secure schemes and additional factors inevitably lead to problems with scalability and management.

So are we doomed to carrying pocketsful of tokens and smart cards, and trying to remember dozens of complex passwords to ensure strong IT security?

'I don't think we're doomed,' said Chris Voice, CEO of Entrust Inc. of Addison, Texas.

Many practical authentication tools exist and are being demonstrated at this week's RSA IT security conference. The key is not to find one perfect solution, Voice said. 'The big innovation has been taking these models and making them more sophisticated.'

Reliably establishing the identity of users is an essential first step in controlling access and securing resources. That is why you need a password to sign on to most computer systems and many applications and Web sites. Although passwords are relatively user friendly, federal regulators have declared they are inadequate for online banking and have 'recommended' that financial institutions begin using two-factor authentication for their customers this year.

'That kicked off exciting times in the authentication area,' Voice said.

There are a plethora of second factors available for authenticating users: digital certificates, either on your hard drive or a token; tokens that generate one-time passwords; simple grid cards for challenge-and-response schemes; and many kinds of biometrics. But all can have high management overhead, both for administrators and users. Unfortunately, the holy grail of a single authentication tool that will get us into everything probably is not attainable.

'I don't think we're ever going to have one authentication for everyone,' Voice said. But we will have 'communities of interest,' that could share authentication tools and reduce the number tokens, cards and passwords we need to manage. The government's Personal Identity Verification Card and the military's Common Access Card, which are intended to work with physical and logical access systems and be interoperable across agencies, cover one such community of interest.

Risk-based authentication is another way to keep authentication manageable. Higher levels of assurance generally add complexity that might not always be needed. Entrust's TransactionGuard product is a real-time fraud detection tool that monitors online activity to detect suspicious patterns of behavior. A suspicious session can be blocked or trigger a request for higher assurance authentication on signing in.

'It allows you to do strong authentication, but only when the risk warrants it,' Voice said.

But authentication is a two-way street. How does the user know what network, application or Web site he or she is signing on to?

Issuers of digital certificates and Web browser designers formed an industry group to address this question and came up with the Extended Validation SSL certificate. The certificates, used by Web servers to establish secure sessions with Web browsers, require an extra level of identity verification by the certificate authority before they are issued. When used, they provide additional information to the browser to help assure users that the site being visited really is the one intended.

The issue of authenticating Web sites has come to the fore in recent years with the rise of phishing attacks that decoy people to phony Web sites to steal personal data. Microsoft has integrated the EV certificate functionality into Version 7 of its Internet Explorer, and other browsers, including Mozilla's Firefox and Opera, plan to add it this year.

EV certificates will work by default with Microsoft's Vista operating system, but at least two certificate authorities, Entrust and Cybertrust Inc. of Herndon, Va., have begun issuing EV certs that will work with Windows XP. When visiting a secure site using the EV certificate, the address bar turns green and the name of the certificate's owner is displayed.

Gemalto Inc. of Washington is announcing a product that adds another layer of security. The Network Identity Manager is a USB device that lets the user and Web site mutually authenticate automatically without relying on the security of the computer you are working on.

The device contains its own browser with pre-loaded URLs that the user is permitted to visit. When plugged in, the user is prompted to enter a PIN by clicking numbers on a virtual keypad that appears on the screen before the browser is launched. Then a URL is selected from a preapproved list, again without using the computer's keyboard, thwarting keystroke loggers and other spyware that might reside on the computer. The site and browser device authenticate each other using digital certificates.

'You don't have to trust your browser and PC,' when visiting a Web site, said Amol Deshmukh, marketing manager for Gemalto.

The device and its digital certificates, used with a password or PIN, provide two factors of authentication that can be used for multiple services as additional URLs are added. Gemalto still is deciding what the price of the device should be, hoping to price it favorably in comparison with other two-factor authentication schemes.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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