Mobile device makers unleash FIDO

Vendors are lining up to implement the Fast Identity Online authentication spec in mobile devices.

Vendors of mobile devices are lining up to implement an authentication scheme meant to make online transactions both simpler and more secure, known as the Fast Identity Online (FIDO) specification, which is being released today.

Within a year there could be 20 to 30 vendors integrating FIDO in shipping products, says Michael Barrett, who heads up the FIDO Alliance, an industry group of more than 150 members that has written the specification.

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This would greatly expand the handful of vendors and service providers who have so far been using the technology in its pre-spec incarnation to authenticate mobile users. The goal is to make FIDO more widely used by consumers, service providers and enterprises to reduce reliance on vulnerable usernames and passwords in favor of two-factor authentication, Barrett says.

The final implementation specification announced today means anyone interested in using FIDO has a solid ground on which to base it. Until now some parties have been jumping in using a preliminary FIDO-Ready spec that was subject to change depending on what the final version looked like.

The FIDO Alliance includes among its members some large and influential vendors, service providers and enterprises, including Google, PayPal, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, RSA, VISA, Discover, MasterCard, Lenovo and Alibaba.

The final specification describes two elements, a universal authentication framework (UAF) and a universal second factor (U2F) that together can ultimately eliminate usernames and passwords and so the risk that they are hacked, says Barrett.

UAF allows users to show a biometric fingerprint, voiceprint, face recognition that authenticates them to their devices. A client on the devices then completes a secure connection to FIDO servers using UAF protocol that includes encrypting the transaction using a private key generated by and stored on the device. A public key sent to the server decrypts the client's response to complete the authentication.

U2F is a small, one-time password dongle that can be inserted into the client machine. Users authenticate to servers using username and password and are prompted to use the dongle inserted in a USB port on their machines as a two-factor second layer of authentication. Next year the dongles will support not only USB but also Bluetooth, near field communications (NFC) and LTE wireless technologies as well, Barrett says.

The long-term goal of FIDO is to eliminate usernames and passwords altogether, but if they choose to and have appropriately equipped machines users can immediately use biometrics instead.

Already some entities are employing FIDO client-server technology to protect online transactions. Samsung (Galaxy S5) and Lenovo have installed the clients on some of their phones and laptops that have fingerprint readers. PayPal has implemented a FIDO server to support authentication for online transactions. Google has implemented support for U2F it in its Chrome browser, and Google users can use it to securely login to their Google accounts.

Vendors have stepped up to supply FIDO hardware and software to those who don't want to do the work themselves. For example Nok Nok Labs sells FIDO clients and servers that are used by PayPal as well as Alipay, and Yubico sells FIDO dongles.

At $50 or less, the dongles are less expensive than security tokens costing hundreds of dollars that generate new authentication codes at set intervals and are synched with authentication servers. The dongles may not be as secure, but they are more secure than simple username and password.

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