Big News from the FIDO Alliance

FIDO Alliance (where FIDO stands for Fast IDentity Online) is an industry consortium formed in July 2012 with a goal to address the lack of interoperability among various strong authentication devices. Currently among its members are various strong authentication solution vendors (such as RSA, Nok Nok Labs or Yubico), payment providers (VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, Alibaba), as well as IT industry giants like Microsoft and Google. The mission of the FIDO Alliance has been to reduce reliance on passwords for authentication and to develop specifications for open, scalable and interoperable strong authentication mechanisms.

KuppingerCole has been closely following the progress of FIDO Alliance’s developments for the last couple of years. Initially Martin Kuppinger has been somewhat skeptical about the alliance’s chances to gain enough support and acceptance among the vendors. However, seeing how many new members were joining the alliance, as well as announcements like the first FIDO authentication deployment by PayPal and Samsung earlier this year would confirm their dedication to lead a paradigm shift in the current authentication landscape. It’s not just about getting rid of passwords, but about giving users the opportunity to rely on their own personal digital identities, potentially bringing to an end the current rule of social logins.

After years of collaboration, Universal Authentication Framework and Universal 2nd Factor specifications have been made public in October 2014. This has been closely followed by several announcements from different Alliance members, unveiling their products and solutions implementing the new FIDO U2F standard.

One that definitely made the biggest splash is, of course, Google’s announcement of strengthening their existing 2-step verification with a hardware-based second factor, the Security Key. Although Google has been a strong proponent of multifactor authentication for years, their existing infrastructure is based on one-time codes sent to users’ mobile devices. Such schemes are known to be prone to various attacks and cannot protect users from falling victim to a phishing attack.

The Secure Key (which is a physical USB device manufactured by Yubico) enables much stronger verification based on cryptographic algorithms. This also means that each service has its own cryptographic key, meaning that users can reliably tell a real Google website from a fake one. Surely, this first deployment based on a USB device has its deficiencies as well, for example, it won’t work on current mobile devices, since they all lack a suitable USB port. However, since the solution is based on a standard, it’s expected to work with any compatible authentication devices or software solutions from other alliance members.

Currently, U2F support is available only in Google Chrome browser, but since the standard is backed by such a large number of vendors including major players like Microsoft or Salesforce, I am sure that other browsers will follow soon. Another big advantage of an established standard is availability of libraries to enable quick inclusion of U2F support into existing client applications and websites. Yubico, for example, provides a set of libraries for different languages. Google offers open source reference code for U2F specification as well.

In a sense, this first U2F large-scale deployment by Google is just the first step in a long journey towards the ultimate goal of getting rid of passwords completely. But it looks like a large group sharing the same vision has much more chances to reach that goal earlier that anybody planning to walk all the way alone.


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