Philip Hung Cao

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Eliminating Passwords in the Enterprise

4 min read


Passwords can be a pain for everyone. They are not secure and are prone to misuse. Isn’t it time to get rid of them entirely?

While issuing an enterprise credential with a strong password is fairly easy to accomplish, managing that password over the credential’s lifetime is more difficult. User password resets, compromised passwords and a lack of synchronized passwords across enterprise systems all cause problems for users, IT departments and security professionals.

And users truly hate passwords. There are too many to remember, each system has different rules, and there is a lack of standards for reset processes.

A positive associated with passwords is that they are well understood by both providers and end-users. They offer portability, through reuse and single sign-on, and are supported by all identity and access management (IAM) platforms. Corporate policies for using passwords with credentials are also well established.

But, usability and security of password-backed credentials are in decline and a passwordless future is something that keeps coming up in the IAM conversation. So what will it take?
I do not believe it will be any one technology or single method that replaces passwords in enterprise access management. There are simply too many user, business, application and compliance requirements out there for a one-solution-fits-all scenario.

In the online world we have an embarrassing number of authentication options. Biometrics examples include the iPhone fingerprint reader and the up-and-coming Nymi band. Hardware tokens have been here for a while. Smartphone tokens work fairly well. And this stuff is not really all that new—in 2007 I blogged about authenticators such as fobs, proximity cards and USB tokens.

With all of these options, it does not seem likely that any one technology will swoop in to corner the market and single-handedly replace passwords. But that’s okay—I don’t think we need a killer authenticator or login process. A better option is a flexible IAM solution that offers adaptive (or context-based) authentication.

Today, access management systems provide a traditional username plus password credential:

Figure 1 – Traditional Access Management

The access manager software has logic that determines that a username and password are required, and both must match the entry in the directory—pretty straight-forward stuff. But this is an old approach, invented when users’ screens were green and bellbottoms were cool.

If we want to eliminate passwords, we need a better access manager—one that supports adaptive authentication.

Let’s say we want to improve the experience by accepting either a username plus password, or a username plus equivalent authenticator. And, let’s assume we have issued mobile phones with contact-less technology to our users. In this case, the adaptive authentication process might work something like this:

Figure 2 – Adaptive Access Management

The access rules (white boxes) direct the authentication process. (This is a simple case—using adaptive access management, you can extend this flow to include multiple authenticators and checks.)

As products mature, the flexibility to add logic and capabilities to these processes will increase. The more rules you implement, the more secure—yet potentially just as easy—the access can become.

Wait: you mean secure OR easy right? Isn’t there always a trade off? Well, the implementation of adaptive authentication technology may be difficult, but the user experience can be simplified. If all we need is to eliminate passwords, then the alternate authenticator needs to be as strong and, hopefully, easier to manage. If the contact-less smartphone is that authenticator, we meet or improve on both security and ease-of-use.

The point is that the combination of authenticators—aligned with the level of assurance required by the network, application or service—is what matters. It does not matter that a password is involved.

Once the right technology is implemented, the process to migrate away from passwords is fairly straightforward: offer users an option to log in with their phones and watch the migration occur on its own. In six months, force the switch and you have eliminated passwords entirely.

There is a catch (of course). The organization’s password and access policies will need to change. In my experience, these policies are specific to passwords (length, composition, etc.) and cannot support adaptive authentication as I have just described.

It is critical to create policies and standards for authentication assurance (and identity proofing), based on the sensitivity of information. The types of rule sets necessary to implement compliant adaptive authentication can then be based on clear policy. IAM expertise is needed to do this effectively.

Because business, IT architecture, security and privacy teams need to be on board, the benefits and risks associated with adaptive authentication need to be understood. Critically, the organization’s leadership also needs be informed of the risks of current password-based access management in order to secure support. All this takes time and skill to do well.

Adaptive authentication, revamped policies and senior management support—that’s what it will take to eliminate passwords. Are you ready to say goodbye to your passwords?

Mike Waddingham
President, Code Technology Corp.


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