4 Rules of Thumb Regarding Passwords and Authentication

Many people believe passwords are dumb.  They store their credentials for easy login, or maybe even leave the password blank if the app allows. For IT managers, forcing users to come up with a strong, unique password is definitely not an easy task.  Resting on convenience over security, many people would prefer to use familiar names and dates or simple phrases they can remember.  Even when IT departments try to enforce best practices there is often a struggle between honoring those standards and influencing user behavior.

Relaxed password standards allow users to set passwords that may be as easy to guess as they are to remember, and very strict requirements for strong and complex passwords often results with users storing passwords in document files or on post-it notes on the monitor. Setting password standards and managing the policy implementation requires a balance between usability and security, but more often than not the balance skews toward simplicity. Yet passwords aren’t going away any time soon, even while biometrics and multi-factor authentication methods grow in prominence.

It is most likely that new technologies and standards will be combined with passwords to protect critical data. Using only a password to protect information may not be the ultimate in security, but it is important to recognize that passwords remain as a key element in any security model. For now, passwords should be as strong and unguessable as possible.  As technologies and standards rise up to meet the demands of users as well as enterprises, there are likely to be changes in how passwords are used. Here are 4 rules of thumb to consider regarding passwords and where authentication technologies are going.

1. Your face might be your password.

Biometrics won’t fully replace passwords right away, but the use of biometric data for authentication is growing rapidly. Face recognition, fingerprinting and voice identification are all being employed as authentication mechanisms and users are embracing the technology because it is easier to use than a remembered password.  Smartphones and PCs have sensors for reading fingerprints and cameras for seeing faces, and microphones for hearing your voice.  Many systems are also now able to use geodata with the biometric data (matching person to place), making it harder to compromise an identity while also being less disruptive to the user. While the technology isn’t foolproof, it represents a major step towards creating more secure systems without placing the responsibility strictly on the user.

2. Two pieces of ID are better than one.

The point of multi-factor authentication is that there are two different pieces of evidence a user must present in order to gain access. For example, a password may be the first piece of evidence presented, with a pass code sent to a mobile device as a second. Even as biometric authentication grows in prominence, industry participants recognize that no single method covers all the bases all the time. Multi-factor authentication is gaining in prominence as users become more familiar with the methods and the implementations become less intrusive. AI may also influence how these systems are applied. As user behavior and transaction parameters are “learned”, systems can identify activities that fall outside of normal routines and additionally prompt users for single-use pins or passwords sent to their mobile device.

3. Businesses should learn from past mistakes.

With news of hacking, ransomware and malware being daily fare, companies and their users are realizing that password security really is important and are stepping up their security efforts. The information is available to help prevent businesses from making the same mistakes that others have, offering worst case scenarios a’plenty to learn from.  Using default passwords and recycling passwords across work and personal accounts, using unsecured network connections, not encrypting files that contain password information and failing to patch or update systems and software are entirely preventable situations that put information at risk. Taking the reports seriously and identifying mistakes to avoid is highly useful in designing security for the business.

4. There’s a growing ecosystem for authentication.

With the number and type of systems requiring authentication – from industrial control systems to dating websites – there is a great and growing need to find highly secure methods of authentication that are actually usable for the user. Even in the world of blockchain there is a need for “identity assurance” and confirmation when documents or biometrics are captured via smartphone. Fast IDentity Online (FIDO) is a set of security specifications for strong multi-factor authentication, developed by the FIDO Alliance. The FIDO Alliance includes members such as Google, Aetna, Amazon, Microsoft, Bank of America and Samsung, and developed the spec as an initial basis for standardizing authentication across platforms and systems at the client and protocol layers.  

Technology is changing rapidly and solutions once reserved for government and large enterprise are now entering mainstream consumer use. You’ve probably already noticed that banking and other apps are employing the use of fingerprint and other biometric data with increased frequency as users demand easier access to applications and features from their smartphones and other mobile devices.

These technologies sometimes replace traditional password entry as the primary means of authentication or augment password use in some manner. Even MasterCard has announced a component in its payment card solutions that allows users of next-gen payment cards to register their fingerprint data on their credit card.

The push is to allow users to interact with their tasks without putting up barriers to access.

A combination of usability and enhanced protection, the new standards are developing to address not just system security but identity verification for various purposes. Corporate information must be secured and so must personal identity information; simply read the news to understand what can happen when digital identity information gets compromised.

Whether the data is business or personal, keeping hackers and bad actors away from it isn’t easy, so strengthening the most basic first layer of protection – the password – is the best place to start.

Make Sense?


4 Rules of Thumb for Better Mobile Device Security

Security threats are everywhere, lurking in alley ways and around corners and even in your favorite coffee shop. Yet mobility is in demand, and people will use their smartphones and other mobile devices because it’s convenient, even if company policy suggests against it.

This is a big deal for IT and security professionals and CIOs, which is why it took a while for IT to recognize the need to address mobile device security rather than simply deny mobile device use. With data breaches, ransomware attacks, hacks and information leaks happening on an almost daily basis, businesses must find ways to protect their valuable applications and data from loss or misuse while at the same time enabling mobile device use.

The following 4 rules of thumb are not comprehensive but are four essential rules of thumb to help guide business owners in addressing mobility management and security within their organizations.

Rule 1: Make sure there are clear mobile device use policies and support them with ongoing administration and strict enforcement.

I can’t say enough about having good security and mobile device policies and keeping them modernized, relevant, and actually enforcing them. Too many businesses say they have a “security and use” policy in place, yet it is outdated and doesn’t reflect the actual tools or processes currently in use.  Even more frequently a business will develop a policy just to say it has one, but won’t actually train workers or enforce compliance.

Rule 2: Require and enforce strong passwords, manage access in real time, and force password changes with some frequency.

It is essential that all user access to applications or data be controlled at minimum by password-protected logins to the device and corporate resources coupled with periodic forced password changes. Users often prefer to not require passwords or other authentication for device access, but corporate policy should not only require them but also enforce their use.  Also, user access should be managed in real time, meaning that any aspect relating to access should be disabled or revoked immediately upon employee termination or reassignment. Too often these forgotten chores are relegated to after-the-fact IT administration, which allows users to access resources beyond their rightful boundaries.

Rule 3:  Do something to contain the applications and data on the device.

Whether the approach is with containers, cloud hosting, server-based computing or something else, it is really important to try to “contain” the applications and data accessed from the mobile device. Risk is created when users sync data directly to the device’s storage or install applications directly on the device to access corporate data. Password and other security measures prevent unauthorized access, but allowing applications, credentials or data to be stored directly on the mobile device allows those things to interact with other things on the device.  Containers, hosting and server-based computing models keep the applications and data within secured spaces, often not even storing essential items on the device but only accessing them via the device. This allows the business to provide users with the access and functionality they need to do their jobs, but also reduces the vulnerability of applications and information assets.

Rule 4: Keep device software up to date and download fewer apps.

Updating mobile device operating system versions and release levels is important to make sure the device has the most current security patches and threat protection.   Some mobile OSes even have capabilities which can help keep personal and work apps separated.  Limiting the number of apps users can download to their devices should also be considered. Users may randomly download and install applications to their devices with little regard for the quality or security of the app, and often accept terms of use without really reading them. Consumer apps from app stores may pose risks to data and the device, so IT should check regularly for problematic apps if the device is used to access the corporate network, applications or data.

Mobile and wireless are in demand

Just about every business has people who use their phones and tablets for some business use, and every one of those mobile devices and the apps running on them could open the door for a hacker, ransomware, data theft or compromise. While there are many benefits to be gained by enabling remote and mobile devices in the business workflow, unrestricted access only creates risk.

Keeping mobile devices secure for business use takes multiple approaches, as there is no single method or solution that works for every situation. Our 4 rules provide a basic foundation for business mobility management, offering a starting point for developing a more thorough and detailed plan.

Make sense?