Adaptive authentication explained

To understand what this article is about it’s important that we have an agreement on what we mean when we use the term “adaptive authentication”. It isn’t a difficult concept, but it’s best if we’re all on the same page, so to speak.

First, the basics: authentication is the ceremony which allows someone to present credentials which allow access to something. Typically and traditionally this is a username/password combination. But username/password is only one facet of one factor of authentication and we usually speak of three possible factors, identified as:

  • Something you know (e.g., a password)
  • Something you have (e.g., a token such as a SecureID fob)
  • Something you are (e.g., a biometric such as a fingerprint)

There are multiple facets to each of these, of course, such as the so-called There are multiple facets to each of these, of course, such as the so-called “security questions” (mother’s maiden name, first pet’s name, city you were born in, etc.) which are part of the Something you know factor.

Beginning around 30 years ago, it was suggested that multi-factor authentication – using two of the three factors, or even all three – made for stronger security. Within the last ten years, on-line organizations (such as financial businesses) and even social networks (Google+, Facebook, etc.) have suggested users move to two-factor authentication.

While this is good practice, this multi-factor authentication is static. Every time you access the service you need to present the same two credentials in order to log in. It’s always the same. Once a hacker (usually through what’s called “phishing”) knows the two factors your account is as open to them as if there was no security.

Within the past 5 years we sat KuppingerCole have advocated moving to what we called “dynamic” authentication – authentication that could change “on the fly”. But because we advocated much more than a change in how the authentication credentials were established, we now call the technology “adaptive” authentication.

It’s called “adaptive” because it adapts to the circumstances at the time of the authentication ceremony and dynamically adjusts both the authentication factors as well as the facet(s) of the factors chosen. This is all done as part of the risk analysis of what we call the Adaptive Policy-based Access Management (APAM) system. It’s best to show an example of how this works.

Let’s say that the CFO of a company wishes to access the company’s financial data from his desktop PC in his office on a Monday afternoon. The default authentication is a username, password and hardware token. The CFO presents these, and is granted full access. Now let’s say another CFO of another company wishes to access that company’s financial data. But she’s not in the office, so she’s using a computer at an internet café on a Caribbean island where she’s vacationing. The access control system notes the “new” hardware’s footprint, it’s previously unknown IP address and the general location. Based on these (and other) context data from the transaction the access control system asks for additional factors and facets for authentication, perhaps password, token, security questions and more. Even so, once the CFO presents these facets and factors she is only given limited read access to the data.

The authentication is dynamically changed and adapted to the circumstances. That’s what we’re discussing here.


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