Google's five-year plan for authentication: It's complicated

Google has released a draft of its next five-year plan for loginauthentication that tries to stay at least on par with criminalhackers, but recognizes that strong security requires industrycollaboration.

The draft, which was released Wednesday for security pros,explores where Google might head following its first five-year planissued in 2008. The company declined to comment further onThursday.

Over the last five years, the security landscape has changeddramatically with the broad adoption of smartphones, the rise inhijackings of website accounts and the evolution in hackingtechniques and tools that require innovation in defenses.

This year, Google rolled out atwo-step login process to attach a specific device to anaccountholder. The company is now considering becoming much moreaggressive with the mechanism, which is currently optional.

Users who skip two-factor authentication attached to a mobilephone may have to pass a challenge along with inputting thepassword on nearly all sign-ins.

Google also favors shifting as much of the authentication choresas possible on the device and its operating system. Once peoplesign at the OS level on an Android phone, Google would like to havethose credentials work across all the apps on the device andwebsites accessed from the browser.

Currently, two-factor authentication usually involves a sitesending to a person's mobile phone a text message with a numberthat they input to access services on that device. Google wouldlike to switch to having an approved smartphone authorize anotherdevice through near-field communications over a cryptographicprotocol that cannot be phished.

Google is a supporter of OpenID, an open standard that makes itpossible for a cloud-based identity provider to store credentials,making them available to any website or any app on a mobile phone.Ã'Â However, that technology remains too complicated.

[Also see:Ã'Â Google looks to kill passwords, but experts say not so fast]

"While many sites want to add support for identityproviders, there are still very hard usability problems and accountlinking issues," Googlesaid in the draft. "We still believe that is the approachthat the vast majority of websites should take, so Google willcontinue to support efforts to simplify those issues and definebest practices."

Google also wants to implement the ChannelID open standard thatlocks cookies to the device that receives them. Websites will senda cookie after a visitor logs in to maintain that session. However,there are various techniques a hacker can use to steal that cookiein order to impersonate the accountholder. ChannelID solves theproblem by not allowing any other device to use the same sessioncookie.

Security experts agree that Google's plans to improvesecurity in its environment are solid and follow best practices."They're stepping up to the plate with recognition thatthe current authentication mechanism that users use on the Internettoday with passwords is broken," said Patrick Harding, chieftechnology officer for Ping Identity.

But Jon Oberheide, chief technology officer for Duo Security,said Google needs to put more emphasis on account recovery, whichbecomes necessary when people forget passwords or loose the mobilephone tied to the two-factor authentication system. In the draft,Google acknowledged this problem was the "Achilles heel"of its automated systems.

"Automated recovery mechanisms for two-factor systems tendto be less secure than the native two-factor credential, whichmeans they will be the lowest part of the fence for attackers tojump over," Oberheide said.

Implementing the technologies Google suggests wouldbe very difficult, said Mark Risher, chief executive ofImpermium. For example, some of the technology is interrelated, sothey have to be deployed together for maximum security, making theprocess complicated.

In addition, to really improve security, the majority of websiteoperators will have to be willing to adopt a lot of the sametechnology outlined by Google. "The website owners, thebusinesses, need to care enough to make those kinds ofinvestments," Risher said. "We work with sites of alltypes who are blindly ignorant of the risks that they'reunder."

Read more about access control in CSOonline's Access Control section.

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