It’s been 60 years since passwords were first used at MIT and if the number of breaches in the news is anything to go by, we are no more adept at managing our passwords than we were in 1961. But while passwords are being phased out, IT leaders can, fortunately, rely on authentication technology that will protect their valuable data, without destroying the user experience.
As more companies have adopted cloud computing, and more recently, remote working, the need to protect data has become significantly more important. For companies transacting online, the need to protect their customers is higher still. However, setting up security roadblocks that slow down the user experience will cause irritation and potentially lose a business valuable customers.
“Protecting users while keeping fraudsters out has become one of the most critical duties for today’s CIO. Finding the right balance between great user experience and strong authentication in a low-friction environment has become the holy grail in security circles,” says Gerhard Oosthuizen, chief technology officer at Entersekt.
Passwords just don’t cut it, and some alternatives don’t, either
According to Verizon’s annual security report, compromised credentials are still the most often used asset (80%) when it comes to data breaches. Despite the glaring evidence of just how at risk we are, most people resist making use of password managers and, according to Oosthuizen, still have terrible password habits.
“We all now have hundreds of accounts that require passwords,” says Oosthuizen. “The chances are we each have around four or five that we simply recycle: One which we only use for our bank account, one or two that we use for our various social media accounts, and one which we use for everything else. Our ‘recover password’ information is also easily cracked, so that is of little use – especially if we answer honestly. A simple search will give you a person’s mother’s maiden name, the name of their first pet and, let’s be honest, the majority of us will answer pizza if asked for our favourite food. Passwords are passé.”
When the weaknesses of password-based authentication started to become known, many organisations introduced two-factor authentication. One popular implementation that is still common today is SMS one-time PIN or password (OTP) technology. While it does add an extra layer of protection, Oosthuizen points out that this often comes with a big dose of user friction, and it’s by no means foolproof.
“Today the biggest challenge is with OTPs is that the technology does not really protect against modern attacks,” says Oosthuizen. “Criminals have found many workarounds such as SIM-swap and man-in-the-middle attacks.”
Stronger security, better experiences
More robust technologies like mobile push authentication have now replaced SMS OTPs as the industry standard in authentication. Unlike SMS OTPs, authentication messages delivered via push messaging technology are truly out of band. This means that you don’t rely on the same channel to deliver authentication requests and responses that were used to initiate the original, potentially fraudulent, transaction.
In addition to the stronger security provided by technologies like push-based authentication, they also offer a far greater user experience. The user receives the full request on their trusted mobile app, and can approve it from there. They no longer have to wait for an OTP to arrive and copy it or remember it and then enter it, frequently having to switch between apps to do so. It’s all about leveraging the user’s device to create a strong device identity, and making authentication experiences as seamless as possible. And today you can use the biometric sensor on a device to completely eradicate the use of passwords, while increasing security.
“This enables a truly passwordless experience,” says Oosthuizen. “So the passwordless future has arrived. That should make all those CIOs smile.”