Hardware secured mobile devices toughen first line of defense

Combining a hardware-secured device with a PIN or biometrics can deliver more security and ease of use.

It’s been 10 years since the federal government introduced measures to standardize identity and credentials across all agencies. Since then, almost 5 million smart card-based Personal Identity Verification (PIV) credentials have been issued to government employees and contractors for secure access to government buildings and IT systems. Standards have also been widened for non-federal and commercial use to include millions more through Personal Identity Verification Interoperable (PIV-I) and Commercial Identity Verification (CIV) cards.

The standard for federal identity – FIPS 201 – was created in 2006 out of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 policy that established PIV as the required credential for federal employees and contractors. Aware of the potential offered by mobile devices, the federal government is now expanding the standard in the form of FIPS 201-2, which enables credentials derived from PIV to be provisioned onto mobile devices so users can access applications and networks securely, quickly and easily. The benefits of this enhancement are considerable, not least in the savings from making better use of an agency’s existing IT infrastructure.

Previously, investment into cybersecurity went into building walls – both virtual and physical – and limited identification measures designed to mitigate the threat of the wrong people getting in. Unfortunately, the attacks have become more sophisticated, the walls are no longer high enough and the gates are often left open. The vulnerabilities are especially prevalent in mobile devices, which are often poorly protected by users who recycle the same passwords across many accounts.  

One of the best methods of protecting these devices is to use a secure element embedded within the handset that cannot be copied or tampered with and that holds unique cryptographic keys. This is the same authentication principle as the smart card – the traditional form factor used by the U.S. government to securely hold employees’ identity credentials. In this case it is embedded in an individual’s mobile device – a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

There are several secure element types already on the market depending on the manufacturer, mobile network operator, operating system provider and optional user plug-in. Each type of secure element carries different levels of accreditation, cybersecurity resilience, cost and user convenience. Some examples include:

  • The software keychain in iOS
  • The Trusted Platform Module in Windows 8.1 devices
  • The Trustzone/Trusted Execution Environment in Android phones
  • PIV applets on universal integrated circuit cards (UICCs) provided by mobile carriers and consumer pluggable Micro SD cards
  • Bluetooth dongles

These elements are increasingly available in consumer devices and, if appropriately managed, offer much higher levels of identity assurance than the conventional username/password paradigm at little or no marginal cost. This wide scale availability of secure mobile hardware is a game changer.

Using a secure element in the device can turn what has been previously seen as a security vulnerability – the device itself – into an agency’s first line of defense. The key is in combining it with a PIN or biometric template to allow people to use their devices to authenticate themselves for secure physical and logical access.

This method of two-factor authentication takes something the user has – the device – and combines it with something they know (or are, in the case of biometrics) – the PIN – to offer a greater degree of security, combined with ease of use. This alternative to passwords is convenient and simple for the end user, and it lets agencies verify, monitor and control who is accessing networks and sensitive data – ultimately strengthening overall network security.

As the world enters an identity-centric economy, the ability to assert the identity of a person or a machine in the virtual realm will be critical to personal, organizational and governmental security and privacy. 

The technologies necessary to achieve this are becoming ubiquitous, and the federal government is in the vanguard of defining the necessary framework of standards to drive global adoption. As a pioneer of using these standards to protect public infrastructure and information assets, agencies now have the opportunity to provide private industry and the international community with a beacon of best practice for mobile use and IoT security.  Now is the time to seize the moment.

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