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Safer, stronger authentication

Dec 03, 2013 by Dave Kearns

In my last post (“Dogged Determination”) I briefly mentioned the FIDO alliance (Fast Identity Online) with the promise to take a closer look at the emerging internet password-replacing-authentication system this time. So I will.

But first, an aside. It’s quite possible that the alliance chose the acronym “FIDO” first, then found words to fit the letters. Fido, at least in the US, is a generic name for a dog which came into general use in the mid 19th century when President Abraham Lincoln named his favorite dog Fido. Choosing a word associated with dogs harkens back to the internet meme “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”. With the FIDO system, no one except those you intended would know who you are. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

FIDO was in the news last week when it was announced that Fingerprint Cards (FPC) and Nok Nok Labs had announced an infrastructure solution for strong and simple online authentication using fingerprint sensors on smartphones and tablets. The two companies have initially implemented the joint solution utilizing Nok Nok Labs' client and server technology and commercially available Android smartphones using the FPC1080 fingerprint sensor in order to demonstrate readiness to support the emerging FIDO-based ecosystem.

That should give you an idea of the thrust of the Alliance.

The FIDO system doesn’t require a biometric component, but it appears to be highly recommended. From the Alliance’s literature:

The FIDO protocols use standard public key cryptography techniques to provide stronger authentication. During registration with an online service, the user's client device creates a new key pair. It retains the private key and registers the public key with the online service. Authentication is done by the client device proving possession of the private key to the service by signing a challenge. The client's private keys can be used only after they are unlocked locally on the device by the user. The local unlock is accomplished by a user–friendly and secure action such as swiping a finger, entering a PIN, speaking into a microphone, inserting a second–factor device or pressing a button.

The FIDO protocols are designed from the ground up to protect user privacy. The protocols do not provide information that can be used by different online services to collaborate and track a user across the services. Biometric information, if used, never leaves the user's device.

FIDO is, first and foremost, about strong authentication. Two-factor authentication is a requirement. A biometric component (fingerprint, voiceprint, etc.) is highly recommended.

President of the Alliance is Michael Barrett, formerly CISO for PayPal, formerly president of the Liberty Alliance and before that VP, Security & Privacy Strategy for American Express. Interestingly, the VP of FIDO is Brett McDowell, currently Head of Ecosystem Security at PayPal, who was previously Executive Director of the Liberty Alliance and its successor, the Kantara Initiative.  He also served as Management Council chair of the USA’s NSTIC (National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace) Identity Ecosystem Steering Group. These are two guys who know identity systems inside out.

PayPal (which is always looking for stronger authentication methods) and Nok Nok Labs (which is always looking for better ways to use biometrics as well as strong authentication) were two of the founders of the alliance which has now grown to over 50 members including such big names as Google, Blackberry, Lenovo, MasterCard and Yubico as well as just about everyone in the biometric device space.

It’s a good cast of characters, but is that enough?

The impact of so many biometric friendly members means that the Alliance has to first answer (again) all the questions about the “problems” with biometric authentication. Now, if you know me at all you know that “I ♥ Biometrics” but getting others to like them is an uphill battle. In fact, the continuous (I’ve been involved in it for 15 years!) argument about the security of passwords is really a side issue for the FIDO Alliance. More important, I think, is its reliance on the Online Secure Transaction Protocol (OSTP).

OSTP is a protocol designed and issued by FIDO (they say they will turn it over to a public standards body once it is fully “baked”). It’s explained in a white paper (“The Evolution of Authentication,” this is a PDF file) where it’s generally referred to as the “FIDO protocol”. The heart of the system is the FIDO authenticator which the white paper explains:

The FIDO Authenticator is a concept. It might be implemented as a software compo-nent running on the FIDO User Device, it might be implemented as a dedicated hard-ware token (e.g. smart card or USB crypto device), it might be implemented as soft-ware leveraging cryptographic capabilities of TPMs or Secure Elements or it might even be implemented as software running inside a Trusted Execution Environment.

The User Authentication method could leverage any hardware support available on the FIDO User Device, e.g. Microphones (Speaker Recognition), Cameras (Face Recognition), Fingerprint Sensors, or behavioral biometrics, see (M. S. Obaidat) (BehavioSec, 2009).

As I said, biometrics strongly recommended.

Read the paper for more details of how it works.

Can the FIDO proposal succeed? Yes, it’s a well thought-out system that does provide strong authentication with a high degree of confidence that the user is who they claim to be.

Will the FIDO proposal succeed? That’s much more problematic. It requires that relying parties and Identity Providers (which can be the same entity) install specific server software and that users install specific client software. The client part could be an easier “sell” if it comes along with the biometric devices and services that FIDO members provide. Easier, certainly, in a smartphone environment, less so in a desktop/browser environment. History says that anything requiring users voluntarily install something or requiring relying parties to buy, install and maintain single purpose services is a long shot. And the FIDO solution requires both. Still, if the members of the FIDO alliance provide the software and compel their clients to install it a tipping point could be reached. If so, I’d applaud it.

I will note that a number of my colleagues believe I’m reading too much into the so-called “biometric requirements” of FIDO, noting that hardware tokens (represented by Yubico and other members) are an even easier implementation since most modern smartphones can handle a microSD card, which could act as a hardware token – or, at least, turn the phone into a hardware token. It would be protected by a PIN, which users are familiar with entering for all sorts of services.

While I do agree with all that, the typical PIN is 4 digits so there are 10,000 possible combinations (0000 to 9999). That’s not strong enough for my taste. Brute force manual entry could try all possibilities within a few minutes, and – since some combinations (1234, 1111, 1379, 1397, etc.) are more popular than others it could be only a few seconds before the code is broken. Nevertheless, if this would increase the uptake in using the FIDO system, I’d be behind it – at least as a good beginning.

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Dave Kearns
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