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Apple debuts two-step verification for Apple IDs

Something you know, and something you ought to lock in a cupboard

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Apple is now offering two-factor authentication to Apple ID users.

The move, which follows similar moves by Google, will make it far harder for hackers to steal Apple ID login credentials. These credentials are important because they are used in conjunction with iCloud to store content, and in downloading apps from the App Store as well as buying songs, movies, and TV shows from the iTunes Store.

The damage that can result if a hacker gets hold of an Apple ID was graphically highlighted last year after journalist Mat Honan famously had his digital life blitzed by grievers who tricked Apple support staff into resetting Honan's Apple ID password. The cracker involved applied a remote wipe to Honan's computers and smartphones, blitzing the data on his iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Air in the process. The miscreant also thrashed Honan's online storage on iCloud, and for good measure also took over his Gmail account and various Twitter accounts.

At the time of the hack, Apple IDs were protected by additional "security questions" that applicants were challenged to answer if they wanted to reset login credentials. This modest insurance was better than nothing but proved to be inadequate, so Apple has taken the leap to introducing two-factor authentication – at least to some of its users.

Mac users in the US, UK, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand can apply "two-step verification" to their account by associating it with a mobile number. A one-time passcode will be sent to this number via an SMS message, and users will be required to enter this code in addition to their regular password before been allowed to log into their accounts.

However, as Paul Ducklin, Sophos's head of technology for Asia Pacific, notes, there's "nothing to stop you getting Apple to send your SMS verification codes to the same device on which you actually use your Apple ID." Because of this, the scheme is not quite as strong the "something you know, and something you have" approach of traditional two-factor authentication – but it's a hell of a lot better than what was in place before.

Apple has also cut its own support staff entirely out of the password reset loop for anyone who enables two-step verification.

With two-step verification turned on, only you can reset your password, manage your trusted devices, or create a new recovery key.

Apple Support can help you with other aspects of your service, but they will not be able to update or recover these three things on your behalf.

Ducklin applauded the move as helping to minimise the possibility of social-engineering attacks.

"If Apple's staff cannot recover or reset your password, then even the Mitnickest social engineer in the world won't be able to talk them round," he writes in a blog post, adding "take Apple's advice, write down the 14-character emergency recovery key created when you enable two-step verification, and lock it away somewhere at home".

Users should avoid the temptation to store the Recovery Key on their device or computer since that would give evildoers access to it and defeat the whole point of two-step verification, as Apple points out.

Apple's FAQ about two-step verification for Apple IDs can be found here. ®

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