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?


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