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Will 2015 be the year we say goodbye to passwords?

Jan 19, 20153 mins
Identity Management Solutions

When it comes to protecting their most valuable information assets most companies still rely on passwords. The use of passwords is a very cost effective security measure but unlike many other security controls passwords are not under the complete control of the organization. Indeed, it’s a shared responsibility where how secure the passwords being used is at the grace and mercy of the users of those systems. With this in mind will 2015 be the year that two-step authentication and non-standard password security methods like biometrics become the norm for forward-thinking businesses?

There are two aspects to password security, or insecurity, which need to be considered. The first is users who use easy to simple passwords which can be easily guessed by criminals. Despite countless warnings and campaigns we still see users employ simple passwords such as Password1 or 1234567. The other issue is how do the systems being used store the passwords and how secure are they stored.

Recent high profile security breaches have refocused many people’s attention to the use of two factor authentication. A number of mainstream consumer focused sites have introduced some form of additional authentication. Facebook, Gmail and Twitter all now have the facility that a code can be sent to a user’s mobile phone to be used in conjunction with their password when logging onto the system.

Other forms of two factor authentication include the use of security tokens, similar to the RSA SecurID tokens, or using biometrics such as peoples’ fingerprints, retina scanning or other items unique to them. Apple for example have introduced fingerprint readers to unlock their latest range of iPhones.

What is interesting from the above developments is that it brings two factor authentication, previously an area mainly reserved for corporates, into the consumer arena. While this acceptance may make it easier for businesses to introduce two factor authentication to their workforce it may still be a number of years before we see this adoption take place.

We also need to consider that companies which store passwords need to do so in a secure way. Many of the security breaches that we have read highlight how the affected companies were storing passwords insecurely. They either were using outdated or weak encryption systems, or in some cases simply storing the passwords in plaintext. As a result it did not matter how secure and sophisticated the users’ passwords were as the criminals could access them directly.

Passwords, for all their weaknesses and issues, have the big advantage of being a very cost effective way of securing systems. Implementing and managing two factor authentication systems can introduce a lot of extra costs and overheads for companies to employ. Because of this the use of passwords will continue to be a necessary evil.

What we need to do is educate users on how to select and use passwords securely, for them to use password managers to help them cope with the multitude of passwords they may have to use, and get companies to properly secure the passwords being used to access their systems.

Until cost effective and scalable two factor solutions are widely available we will still have to employ passwords. As a result we need to take a complete holistic approach to managing and securing passwords so we to not rely solely on users to not select their favorite pet’s name to protect our data.

brian honan

Brian Honan is an independent security consultant based in Dublin, Ireland, and is also the founder and head of IRISSCERT, Ireland's first CERT. He is a Special Advisor on Internet Security to Europol's Cybercrime Centre (EC3), and an adjunct lecturer on Information Security in University College Dublin. He is the author of the book "ISO 27001 in a Windows Environment" and co-author of "The CSA Guide to Cloud Computing" and "The Cloud Security Rules". He is a regular speaker at major industry conferences. In 2013 Brian was awarded SC Magazine Information Security Person of the year for his contribution to the computer security industry"

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