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Stronger is Better - How companies can manage strong authentication intelligently

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Stronger is Better - How companies can manage strong authentication intelligently
Mike Davies, VeriSign EMEA

According to the latest figures from the Department of Trade & Industry, eight out of ten UK firms offer its employees the option of working from home for at least part of their working day. As the UK heads towards a more mobile workforce, this number bodes well for the economy's ability to integrate a more diverse range of people whose personal circumstances mean they may otherwise be left out.

Moreover, the penetration of key technologies in the UK means working from home is now more feasible than ever before. Over 27 million people have access to the Internet in the UK while, according to BT, there are 9.8 million broadband subscribers.

So surely these should be happy days for UK Plc? That would be the case were it not for the enormous security implications that arise as a result of home workers – as well as customers and partners – trying to access corporate networks via the internet.

Five years ago, organisations dealt with remote access by giving users a simple username and password. But recent security lapses, inspired primarily by phishing attacks, mean many organisations feel this level of security is insufficient. And when access to corporate networks is increasingly part of a company's duty of care under the regulations laid down in Sarbanes Oxley, there are many who would support a complete ban on remote access to corporate networks via the ‘net.

The most recent phishing attacks have shown how professional internet fraudsters steal passwords and identities. To exclude the growing security risk, experts recommend dual-factor authentication – also known as “strong” authentication. The use of security systems for strong authentication practically excludes the risk of passwords being deliberately stolen or cracked. This is by virtue of the fact that strong authentication extends the “knowledge” factor – in other words the password – by the “ownership” principle – mostly in the form of a security token or a smart card. In principle therefore, strong authentication is based on a principle familiar from EC cards as used in ATMs: card plus PIN code – ownership plus knowledge.

Strong authentication can be applied in different ways. While the first factor – “knowledge” – is invariably a static password or a PIN code, companies have various options when it comes to applying the second principle. Namely: the “one-time password” (OTP) and digital certificates. These can be saved either to small hardware devices, called “tokens”, or directly to the user's desktop.

Even more secure than one-time passwords is authentication via digital X.509 certificates. They function like a digital ID card and give users a certified internet identity. Personal digital certificates confirm the user's identity and prove the integrity of the data being sent via internet. The certificates are issued after careful scrutiny of identity by an independent certification authority such as VeriSign or RSA. Besides data about the person, a digital certificate contains what is called a public key. A second, secret key is only known to the owner and is stored by the certification authority.

The drawback of this solution is the higher cost of implementation compared to one-time passwords. That's because a PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) must be set up to generate the digital certificates. But the investment can quickly pay off: On the one hand, authentication using digital certificates offers a very high degree of security, and on the other hand, the PKI is not only the basis for digital certificates, but also plays a central role in the security infrastructure of all companies. The PKI then provides the basis for secure and trustworthy processing of all transactions via internet, also allowing other services such as the digital signature, data encryption, issuance of digital certificates for (web) servers and time stamping.

The security industry has recognised that the simple handling of strong authentication by users represents a significant reason for their acceptance and continued success in the market. While the smart card has so far been unable to assert itself as a carrier of digital certificates everywhere, the USB-compatible tokens are becoming increasingly popular.

But whichever technology path customer chose, as an industry we have to ensure we provide our customers with solutions to their problems. We know that one of their key problems is trying to mobilise workforces so our duty is to ensure that all organisations have secure access so they can continue to flourish in the 21 st century. Now is the time for us all to act because stronger is most definitely better.

See also "Double Lasts Longer"

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