(Original posting date: 31 May 2013)
In one form or another — verbal, written, typed, semaphored, grunted, and more — passwords broadly defined have been part of our cultures pretty much since the dawn of humans at least. Whether an 18 character mixed-case password replete with unusual symbols, or the limb-twisting motions of a secret handshake, we’ve always needed means for authentication and identity verification, and we’ve long used the concept of a communicable “secret” of some kind to fill this need.
As we plow our way ever deeper into the 21st century, it is notable that most of our Internet and other computer-based systems still depend on the basic password motif for access control. And despite sometimes herculean efforts to keep password-based environments viable, it’s all too clear that we’re rapidly reaching the end of the road for this venerable mechanism.
That this was eventually inevitable has long been clear, but recent events seem to be piling up and pointing at a more rapid degeneration of password security than many observers had anticipated, and this is taking us quickly into the most complex realms of identity and privacy.
Advances in mathematical techniques, parallel processing, and particularly in the computational power available to password crackers (now often using very high speed graphics processing units to do the number crunching) are undermining long held assumptions about the safety of passwords of any given length or complexity, and rendering even hashed password files increasingly vulnerable to successful attacks. If a single configuration error allows such files to fall into the wrong hands, even the use of more advanced password hashing algorithms is no guarantee of protection against the march of computational power and techniques that may decimate them in the future.
What seems like an almost daily series of high profile password breaches has triggered something of a stampede to finally implement multiple-factor authentication systems of various kinds, which are usually a notch below even more secure systems that use a new password for every login attempt (that is, OTP – One-Time Password systems, which usually depend on a hardware device or smartphone app to generate disposable passwords).
As you’d imagine, the ultimate security of what we might call these “enhanced password” environments depends greatly on the quality of their implementations and maintenance. A well designed multiple factor system can do a lot of good, but a poorly built and vulnerable one can give users a false sense of security that is actually even more dangerous than a basic password system alone.
Given all this, it’s understandable that attention has now turned toward more advanced methodologies that — we hope — will be less vulnerable than any typical password-based regimes.
There are numerous issues. Ideally, you don’t want folks routinely using passwords at all in the conventional sense. Even relatively strong passwords become especially problematic when they’re used on multiple systems — a very common practice. The old adage of the weakest link in the chain holds true here as well. And the less said about weak passwords the better (such as “12345” — the kind of password, as noted in Mel Brooks’ film “Spaceballs” — that “an idiot would have on his luggage”) — or worse.
So, much focus now is on “federated” authentication systems, such as OAuth and others.
At first glance, the concept appears simple enough. Rather than logging in separately to every site, you authenticate to a single site that then (with your permission) shares your credentials via “tokens” that represent your desired and permitted access levels. Those other sites never learn your password per se, they only see your tokens, which can be revoked on demand. For example, if you use Google+, you can choose to use your Google+ credentials to access various other cooperating sites. An expanding variety of other similar environments are also in various stages of availability.
This is a significant advance. But if you’re still using simple passwords for access to a federated authentication system, many of the same old vulnerabilities may still be play. Someone gaining illicit access to your federated identity may then have access to all associated systems. This strongly suggests that when using federated login environments you should always use the strongest currently available practical protections — like multiple-factor authentication.
All that being said, it’s clear that the foreseeable future of authentication will appropriately depend heavily on federated environments of one form or another, so a strong focus there is utterly reasonable.
Given that the point of access to a federated authentication system is so crucial, much work is in progress to eliminate passwords entirely at this level, or to at least associate them with additional physical means of verification.
An obvious approach to this is biometrics — fingerprints, iris scans, and an array of other bodily metrics. However, since biometric identifiers are so associated with law enforcement, cannot be transferred to another individual in cases of emergency, and are unable to be changed if compromised, the biometric approach alone may not be widely acceptable for mass adoption outside of specialized, relatively high-security environments.
Wearable devices may represent a much more acceptable compromise for many more persons. They could be transferred to another individual when necessary (and stolen as well, but means to render them impotent in that circumstance are fairly straightforward).
A plethora of possibilities exist in this realm — electronically enabled watches, bracelets, rings, temporary tattoos, even swallowable pills — to name but a few. Sound like science-fiction? Nope, all of these already exist or are in active development.
Naturally, such methods are useless unless the specific hardware capabilities to receive their authentication signals is also present, when and where you need it, so these devices probably will not be in particularly widespread use for the very short term at least. But it’s certainly possible to visualize them being sold along with a receiver unit that could be plugged into existing equipment. As always, price will be a crucial factor in adoption rates.
Yet while the wearable side of the authentication equation has the coolness factor, the truth is that it’s behind the scenes where the really tough challenges and the most seriously important related policy and engineering questions reside.
No matter the chosen methods of authentication — typed, worn, or swallowed — one of the most challenging areas is how to appropriately design, deploy, and operate the underlying systems. It is incumbent on us to create powerful federated authentication environments in ways that give users trustworthy control over how their identity credentials are managed and shared, what capabilities they wish to provide in specific environments, how these factors interact with complex privacy parameters, and a whole host of associated questions, including how to provide for pseudonymous and anonymous activities where appropriate.
Not only do we need to understand the basic topology of these questions and develop policies that represent reasonable answers, we must actually build and deploy such systems in secure and reliable ways, often at enormous scale by historical standards. It’s a fascinating area, and there is a tremendous amount of thinking and work ongoing toward these goals — but in many ways we’re only just at the beginning. Interesting times.
One thing is pretty much certain, however. Passwords as we’ve traditionally known them are on the way out. They are doomed. The sooner we’re rid of them, the better off we’re all going to be.
Especially if your password is “12345” …
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.