Consumers, credentials and context

Larry Ponemon, of the Ponemon Institute, is well known for excellent surveys about technology issues. And Larry didn’t disappoint when he recently released “Moving Beyond Passwords: Consumer Attitudes on Online Authentication, A Study of US, UK and German Consumers” (warning: pdf file).

In summary, the report of the survey concludes:

  • “The majority of consumers would use a multi-purpose identity credential to verify who they are before providing secure access to data, systems and physical locations.
  • Banking institutions are considered the best for online validation and strong authentication and identity verification. Consumers in all countries believe banks would be the best to issue and manage a multi-purpose identity credential.
  • The benefits of a multi-purpose identity credential are convenience (US & UK consumers) and security (German consumers). Identification and authentication when traveling, accessing the Internet and using social networks are the most popular reasons to have single ID.
  • There is no clear consensus on what devices would be preferred to manage their multipurpose identity credential. However, in the US more consumers would prefer their mobile devices for identification purposes. In the UK, it is RFID chips. German consumers seem to favor biometrics.
  • If consumers trust the organization, biometrics is acceptable to use for authentication.
  • Voice recognition and facial scan are the most acceptable types of biometric authentication. Least acceptable in the US and UK is an iris scan. In Germany, least favored are fingerprints.
  • Authentication is important when sharing devices with other users. The majority of consumers believe it is important to have authentication that securely verifies their identity on devices that are shared with other (multiple) users.”
So what we’re seeing here is that users favor stronger authentication, but also easier to use authentication (thus the preferences for mobile devices, RFID and biometrics as opposed to passwords). There’s also a strong feeling that the identity provider be trustworthy, or be seen as trustworthy: “Industries and organizations considered by consumers in all three countries as most trustworthy to safely issue and manage a multi-purpose identity credential are: banking institutions, credit card and Internet payment providers, telephone, wireless or cable services companies, healthcare providers and postal and delivery services. Least trusted are educational institutions, Internet service providers and retailers. “

The bottom line appears to be that users are looking for ease-of-use coupled with security and trust and these are exactly the issues we will be exploring next month at the European Identity & Cloud Conference (EIC). In particular, I’ll be moderating a track on Authentication & Authorization featuring a detailed look at “Versatile Authentication, Risk- and Context-Based Authentication: Why you need these Concepts”. Risk-based Access Control  using context is a subject near and dear to my heart. It appears to be what the consumers in Ponemon’s survey are groping towards, without being able to articulate exactly what they want. It’s also something that seems to be gaining more traction in the marketplace, at least if I can judge by what I’m reading lately.

Chris Zannetos, CEO of Courion, recently wrote a blog post called “Context is everything”. In this look at what he calls “security intelligence,” Zannetos says:

The activity and traffic monitors such as SIEM and deep packet inspection products have been looking at streams of information flows without the context to make sense of them. This is a bit like analyzing a baseball game by looking only at the types of pitches and result (hit, walk, out) — without understanding who is pitching, who is up to bat, what their past patterns have been, the ballpark, or the weather. In other words, the ‘Moneyball’ factor has been missing.”
< for my non-North American readers, substitute “football” (or “futbol”) for “baseball”>

And, of course, context is about more than a single packet – it’s the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of a transaction. Chris even alludes to a deeper context – the history of the context of similar transactions, which should be included in the analysis much like a Bayesian spam filter is used with email.

The second piece I read about context was from Jeff Rosenberg, a technical instructor in the Client Services group at Ping Identity. He didn’t use the word “context” in his blog entry called “Identity as a Rental (IDaaR),” but he did describe context-based authentication when he wrote:

Did the user authenticate via password, certificate or one-time code? Is this user within the corporate network or coming in externally? Which training level or security clearance is required? Perhaps attribute-level permission is involved, such as LDAP group membership. When these questions are satisfied, the user checks out and the service is provided.”
Rosenberg then goes on to talk about the short-term use of particular attributes which are appropriate for the context of a given transaction, but that’s more appropriate for KuppingerCole’s discussions of Life Management Platforms, another subject that will be well covered at EIC next month.

Context, as a contributor to Risk-based Access Control, as collected for SIEM and for packaging identity attributes for short-term use is definitely a winner. And it is readily – and easily – available to most of you who use some form of SAML-based authentication/authorization system. You might wish to read (if you’ve nothing else to do right now) “Authentication Context for the OASIS Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) V2.0” (another PDF file), all 70 pages of it.

But for today, the introduction should be sufficient: “If a relying party is to rely on the authentication of a principal by an authentication authority, the relying party may require information additional to the assertion itself in order to assess the level of confidence they can place in that assertion. This specification defines an XML Schema for the creation of Authentication Context declarations - XML documents that allow the authentication authority to provide to the relying party this additional information. Additionally, this specification defines a number of Authentication Context classes; categories into which many Authentication Context declarations will fall, thereby simplifying their interpretation.” In other words, this is a way to provide context to the transaction. Once you take context into account, then allowing a simple, easy-to-use factor (password, fingerprint, hardware token, etc.) is no longer a problem. Guessing someone’s password doesn’t get you the context in which it’s used and thus raises the risk factor for that transaction.

We have the tools, all we need is the effort to provide more secure, yet easy-to-use authentication ceremonies. What’s stopping us? Let’s talk about that at EIC next month in Munich.



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