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Russian credential theft shows why the password is dead

Jaikumar Vijayan | Aug. 8, 2014
It's way past time for companies to implement strong authentication measures.

News that Russian hackers amassed login credentials belonging to more than 1.2 billion Internet users hammers home why companies that have not implemented strong authentication measures really need to get moving on it.

Passwords have been dead for years. Security experts have been advocating the need for companies to raise the bar on user authentication for a long time.

Bill Gates, in fact, famously predicted the death of the password 10 years ago during a speech at the RSA Security Conference, and organizations like the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council ( FFIEC) have required banks to implement strong authentication measures since at least 2005.

In recent years, many companies have implemented multifactor authentication measures, such as the use of a password and a unique code sent to a mobile phone, for securing access to critical accounts. Many companies, especially in the financial service industry, routinely support the use of tokens and other methods to generate and distribute random onetime passwords to be used in conjunction with static passwords.

Other companies have implemented less visible measures for verifying user identity during the log-in process and even while a transaction is being conducted. Major banks, e-commerce sites and even some social media sites routinely use device identification and location sensing tools for quickly spotting and challenging users attempting to log in from a new location or an unfamiliar device.

Yet a troubling large number of companies still rely on just a user name and a password for letting users into their accounts, said Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner. And it is for these companies, and their customers, that the Russian credential theft is especially troublesome.

"If you still only rely on a password, then good luck. Passwords were dead a few years ago. Now they are more than dead," Litan said. Passwords are so easily compromised that it is almost pointless for companies to rely on them as the sole method for authentication.

Numerous, relatively easy to implement tools are available for companies to strengthen their authentication process. Many of these tools work in the background in a non-intrusive manner so users don't even know of their presence, she said. These include device printing, gesture analytics, user profiling and anomaly detection.

"Consumers don't even know these technologies are in force, and analyzing their behavior unless they're a bad actor in which case their session will be interrupted and suspended," she said.

Smartphones and other mobile devices also offer a great opportunity for companies to strengthen user authentication methods, Litan said. Smartphones, for instance, make it relatively easy for companies to deliver one-time use passwords and even biometric identifiers such as voice or fingerprints to identify a user.


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