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Live at RSA: FIDO authentication protocols and checking in real-time for user presence

Thu, 23 Apr 2015 10:30:32 GMT

There are a LOT of authentication companies at RSA 2015 this year.  It’s been fun learning the difference between them – and there are big differences.  

Arshad Noor from open source company StrongAuth (South Hall booth 2332), came by the booth (South 2240) and briefed me on the relatively new FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) authentication protocols.  FIDO protocols are interesting for a lot reasons but what Arshad said about “user presence” got my attention.  One of my top concerns is how a compromised user endpoint can effectively defeat even the strongest authentication schemes.  (2 Factor, SSO, Federation and Cloud Identity are Awesome but it’s all for Naught if You Leave this One Backdoor Open ) If your endpoint is compromised, malware can wait until you authenticate and then piggy back off that authentication using a host of different methods.  So you have to attack that on 2 different fronts: preventing malware and for really high value operations you need to get reassurance at that moment in time that the user is present and the one initiating that operation.  Just checking for user presence still doesn’t solve for every sophisticated scenario but it gets you a lot closer.  But as with all things security, if you aren’t careful you end up making things so inconvenient for the user that you get in the way of business and asking users to go all the way back through onerous authentication steps at seemingly random times is a great way to get in the way of business.  So that’s why Arshad got my attention when he mentioned “user presence”.  

FIDO makes it easy for an application, including web applications, to reach out to the users FIDO compliant token and ask for real-time user presence verification.  It’s up to the token vendor how to implement this but the example Arshad talked about was a simple token started flashing and LED.  All the user has to do is touch the token to say “yes, I’m here and initiating this transaction”.  Then the token signs the verification response with its private key tied to that application and user and sends it back to the server.  That’s got to be the lightest weight 2nd factor user presence check I’ve seen.  I’ll be talking a lot more about the risks at the intersection of authentication and endpoint security but if you’d like to learn more about the FIDO protocols visit the FIDO Alliance.    

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