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The alternatives to password protection

Securing the desktop

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Workshop In a world where it is possible to create credential-stealing malware and where users are supposed happy to trade passwords for a bar of chocolate in a railway station survey, we ask the question: is the era of password authentication coming to a close?

From the first time systems administrators looked to restrict access to applications, the “password” has been the default authentication mechanism. As we all know, this is far from foolproof.

Many companies use a common “shared secret” allowing multiple users to access a single account. Short passwords based on easily guessed names, which sometimes appear to be all that most users can memorise, are easily cracked.

Also it is fairly common for users to employ the ‘ultra-secure’ yellow sticky note containing log-in credentials where administrators weed out weak passwords by insisting on minimum lengths, character requirements and password lifetimes.

A case can be made that long passwords that are regularly changed lead to more security problems than a reasonable password that is kept confidential.

So what are the alternatives when protecting desktops and laptops?

It is now common to include fingerprint scanners with business laptops, and even some desktops. This provides users with a supplement to or an alternative to traditional password authentication systems.

Fingerprint recognition is now often found even on machines targeting the consumer market. Several vendors also include the ability to use smartcard authentication mechanisms.

Given that alternatives to password authentication on PCs are widely available in large parts of the installed base, why is it that the active use of any additional form of authentication appears to be sporadic?

One reason could well be that few enterprise systems management tools are easily able to exploit such technologies in the central authentication repositories, although this is changing.

A more likely rationale is that relatively few organisations consider the security of their desktop and laptop machines needs to be, or what form it should take.

In companies where security is essential, it is becoming more common, at least for some categories of users, to employ some form of additional authentication beyond the password, quite often by using a one-time-password system, such as a key-fob display.

This approach is valid, but it gives cause to ponder why such systems are not more widely deployed, especially as recognition grows concerning the requirement to protect the sensitive data commonly held on systems.

Is this simply down to the fact that some security companies have done a good job marketing one-time password devices to enterprise security teams who control the authentication requirements for certain classes of user? Have the PC and laptop vendors not promoted built-in smart card readers or biometric systems to add security options for the general user population?

Another factor is that few users are happy to employ additional authentication protocols, as many perceive these to add complexity to their log-on processes.

Research we have carried out over the years highlights that few people outside of IT and compliance / auditor functions understand the business requirements to secure their systems robustly.

Educating all users on the importance of IT security, and the steps they should adopt in their daily use of computers, has clear benefits by raising understanding, which ultimately helps improve all aspects of data security.

It remains to be seen if organisations will ramp up PC security authentication in response to the increasing raft of privacy regulations and other compliance and governance requirements will force.

This may well prove to be the trigger for adoption of secondary authentication mechanisms; and anyone that does not take steps may be placing the organisation at risk. Should they do so, we are likely to see a rapid take up of secondary authentication put in place alongside more robust password requirements.

As ever, we are keen to hear how you handle these matters, the solutions you have adopted and the challenges you have had to overcome.

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