Firms must muster the will to change security as username-password combos fall

Ongoing large-scale breaches of user ID and password credentials are becoming so frequent that their days may be numbered in the enterprise, according to a strategic head with identity-management giant NetIQ.

Noting recent hacks such as the recent publication of 5 million Gmail username and password credentials, director of solution strategy Geoff Webb told CSO Australia that conventional authentication techniques had a limited lifespan.

“This is the stressing to breaking point of the traditional approaches to proving who we are,” he explained. 'We're at the point where the traditional username and password combination has become so difficult to secure, and so hard to use safely that you can argue its lifespan may be limited.

“Once you get these hackers with vast numbers of accounts, usernames and passwords don't prove anything anymore. Those hackers have figured out where the holes [in security defences] are and are currently driving trucks through them. We have to accept that we have to become a little more sophisticated in the way we prove we are who we say we are.”

Alternative methods of authentication were readily available but the rise of new mobile devices was challenging vendors to find new ways to complement existing credentials, Webb noted.

Some devices, for example, use biometrics as an additional form of authentication while social-media logins and two-factor authentication – often using mobiles as portable authentication tokens – were also becoming increasingly popular ways of making up for passwords that are often far weaker than they should be.

Despite a flood of vendor offerings in this space, however, the real impetus for change had to come from within enterprise organisations.

“The customer has to want to get better at it,” Webb said, noting that governments had proved particularly open to change. “They've often invested already, but It's getting cheaper and easier to expand the use of additional authentication,” he explained.

Proactive use of mobiles was allowing the development of smarter authentication processes which, for example, consider the location of the user and the time of day while making the authentication request. Such policies might allow a mobile user to access particular systems without incident, but might throw an alarm if an internal link to the HR system confirmed that employee had just been fired.

Ultimately, Webb believes the mounting threat of damage from an information breach will drive organisations to find the internal motivation to improve things – and will often prioritise services across a spectrum of security exposures.

“Reputational damage is significant if information is exposed, so those where the table stakes are high are already looking hard at additional authentication. You layer security on the things you care about, and make it easier to access things you don't care that much about.”

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