Why the password-only era is over and what to do about it

Many experts would prefer to see the use of passwords disappear, but acknowledge that no technology exists to replace them entirely

The Russian crime ring that amassed more than a billion stolen passwords has shown why businesses have no choice but to add other forms of authentication in securing access to websites and corporate networks.

By collecting user names and passwords from 420,000 sites, the group, exposed this week by Hold Security, demonstrated that the password-only era of authentication is over.

"Any of our clients who enable remote access without requiring two-factor authentication is something we strongly, strongly discourage," Dave Dalva, vice president of information security risk consulting at Stroz Friedberg, said.

Many experts would prefer to see the use of passwords disappear, but acknowledge that no technology exists to replace them entirely.

"People have called for an end to passwords for years," Rohit Sethi, vice president of professional services firm Security Compass, said. "No amount of breaches has or likely ever will change the fact that passwords are the easiest form of authentication for software developers to use."

However, adding other forms of security on top is critical.

During each of the last two months, 150 staff, faculty or students at North Carolina State University had their credentials stolen and computers compromised in phishing attacks, Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology at NCSU, said.

The sophistication of the tactics used to trick victims into giving up credentials convinced the university to start rolling out two-factor authentication as a requirement for anyone logging into the network.

"My security folks tell me that will reduce the effectiveness of phishing scams by 90 to 95 percent," Hoit said.

Such authentication today typically involves sending a one-time PIN to the user's mobile phone. The largest Internet companies provide the mechanism as an option and smaller sites are expected to follow suit.

"We are likely to see the trend of enabling voluntary two-factor authentication continue to grow," Sethi said.

Longer term, experts expect to see biometrics used increasingly as a second form of authentication. Fingerprint scanners are already available on the Apple iPhone and some Android phones.

Biometric technology more advanced in identifying individuals hold the promise of someday replacing passwords. Examples include wristbands that can send a person's unique electrocardiogram signal to unlock a device or application.

Such technology will need time to mature before reaching an acceptable level of reliability and ease of use. Nevertheless, the need for a password alternative is strong enough that experts believe the technology will come.

"The guy who makes the right widget to make passwords go away is going to be a billionaire," Dalva said.

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