The FIDO Alliance – game changer for Internet Security?

Last week, Google announced that it has joined the FIDO Alliance. FIDO stands for Fast Identity Online. The alliance was formed in July 2012. The mission is to change the nature of online authentication by providing interoperability among strong authentication devices. The alliance is working on specifications for an open, scalable, interoperable set of mechanisms that allow secure authentication of users to online services without the need for passwords for each of these services. It wishes to become a standard that allows using both existing and future strong authentication devices (those that support the FIDO standard), in an interoperable way.

This is in fact about “versatile authentication” from scratch, enabled in any device. Currently, many organizations are investing in versatile authentication technology that allows them to flexibly change and combine different authentication mechanisms. With FIDO, that could become a standard.

Users can use a choice of different mechanisms for strong authentication, including hardware tokens, embedded hardware such as TPMs (Trusted Platform Modules), biometrics, etc. The website will recognize the devices as “FIDO devices” and enable them. Once a strong authentication device is connected to a site, it can be used the same way it has always been used.

FIDO requires a browser plugin, which is the simple part of the story. It also requires a device-specific module that must be installed to use the “FIDO authenticator”, i.e. the strong authentication device of choice. The website or online service must also support FIDO.

Success of FIDO will depend on two factors. There must be a critical mass of online services supporting FIDO. Given that several large service providers already are members of the FIDO alliance, that might happen. Secondly, there is the need for a critical mass of users that use strong authentication devices with FIDO support. The challenge in that area will be a simple enablement of FIDO through browser-plugins (even better if they are pre-installed) and especially the availability and simple deployment of device-specific modules.

On the other hand there clearly is the question of whether FIDO will gain sufficient support and acceptance amongst the vendors. What will the vendors of strong authentication devices do? What will the vendors of versatile authentication platforms do? And what will the providers of online authentication services do?

From my perspective FIDO could help all of them. It provides the opportunity for “strong authentication for the masses”, for a ubiquitous approach that works for everyone, with flexible choice of strong authentication devices. The providers of Versatile Authentication Platforms can still provide the server-side interfaces, but with more flexibility in supporting different devices. And providers of online authentication services can still act as brokers and service providers – for many online services that will remain the better choice than direct support for FIDO. There might even be services that are brokers for “non-FIDO clients” and act as FIDO clients.

Overall, there is a good potential for the FIDO Alliance, despite the fact that it requires the installation of a client component. I greatly appreciate everything that makes the Internet more secure. I will closely watch the progress of the FIDO Alliance. However, I have seen so many concepts in that area that I would not bet on their success.


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