The password is dead, long live the password?

There have been many reports of the death of the password.

However the password remains the most common authentication method by far.  Indeed, many apparently forward looking organisations still rely on them for their staff and customers security.

Given the multitude of well published breaches caused by password hacks, and the number of stolen password databases it would seem like a no brainer for organisations to move to more secure authentication methods.

Indeed, as this article from a couple of years ago demonstrates clearly passwords are not very hard to crack;

Even if you think your password is especially complex..

Interestingly it seems many ‘free’ services such as Yahoo and Gmail are actually leading the way and trialling more secure solutions even if they are not as slick as they potentially could be.  So we have a situation where your free service offers you more secure authentication than many of the paid services you or your organisation may use.

If you have services that only offer passwords as an authentication, or if you as an organisation still only offer this, then please adhere to 3 simple pieces of advice.  And please make the effort to educate your colleagues and customers!

  1. Have the passphrase mindset, not password.  Length beats complexity so use long, but easy for you to remember passphrases.
  2. Use a variety of passphrases for different sites, so if one is compromised your other accounts are not
  3. Change them reasonably frequently, say every 90 days.
  4. Oh and as a bonus, don’t ever share them!

So while everyone seems to agree passwords are pretty poor from a security perspective, very few organisations are really working to move away from them in the near term.

Why is this?  The reasons I can think of are;

  • They are free and easy
  • Everyone sort of understands them
    • I say sort of because we know what they are but provably fail to create ones that are difficult to crack, we re-use them extensively etc.
  • While the broader public read about how bad they are, they still don’t really push for something better.
    • Or they just accept them as most companies don’t offer anything better so what choice do they have?
  • More secure solutions involve change
    • People and organisations are often scared of change
    • What will our customers think?
    • Will it be difficult?
  • More secure solutions will involve cost
    • Implementation
    • Licenses
    • Support / management

However I think now really is the time to start moving on this.

Ask yourself;

  • Does your organisation want to be in the news as the next one suffering a breach relating to passwords, whether cracked, social engineered or stolen?
  • Do you want to lag behind competitors and ‘free’ services as they start offering more secure authentication solutions?

In terms of offering more advanced and secure authentication solutions, there are many potential benefits to your organisation and its customers including;

  • Differentiation (for a time)
    • Get ahead of your competitors, be seen as a technical and security leader by offering very public security enhancements.
    • This will also help your reputation as an organisation that takes security seriously.
  • Less hacked / breached accounts
  • Improved security for you and your customers
    • Better security for your customers = better security for you.
    • It is also extremely likely that what ever solution you implement can be rolled our to employees as well as customers.
  • Improved analytics and understanding of your customer environment
    • Most authentication solutions are able to collect a lot of data around both the behaviour of users, and their environment (browser and device information).
    • This is especially true of those that support risk based authentication.
    • If your organisation collects data into a big data platform, then this data can further enrich that, enabling greater analysis of user behaviour, what good / bad looks like etc. (more on this in a later post).
  • Better customer experience
    • Risk and policy based authentication enables decisions to be made based on things like the users historical behaviour, device knowledge, and the action within the application they are performing.
    • This means that for lower risk, known activities from known devices the users interaction with the system may be entirely friction free for them.  ‘Step-up’ authentication can be applied when they step outside of normal behaviour, or want to perform higher risk / administrative type activities.
  • Staying ahead of regulatory requirements
    • Increasingly regulators are starting to require ‘strong authentication’ for customer interactions with an organisations systems.  This is especially true in areas such as banking and payments.
    • Implementing solutions now will save you a rush to meet regulatory requirements in the near future.

I hope from the above that my position on this is clear.. It is time to move away from relying on passwords, and there are huge benefits from doing so.

It would be great to hear from you and to get an idea of how many organisations are genuinely planning to implement more secure and innovative authentication solutions vs. those who frankly have their heads in the sand.




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