Panel tackles how to make mobile devices as secure as they are indispensable

As smartphones have become de rigueur in the global digital economy, users want them to do more work, and businesses want them to be more productive for their employees -- as well as powerful added channels to consumers.

 

But neither businesses nor mobile-service providers have a cross-domain architecture that supports all the new requirements for a secure digital economy, one that allows safe commerce, data sharing and user privacy.

 

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Ping Identity.

 

So how do we blaze a better path to a secure mobile future? How do we make today’s ubiquitous mobile devices as low risk as they are indispensable?

 

BriefingsDirect recently posed these and other questions to a panel of experts on mobile security: Paul Madsen, Principal Technical Architect in the Office of the CTO at Ping Identity; Michael Barrett, President of the FIDO (Fast Identity Online) Alliance, and Mark Diodati, a Technical Director in the Office of the CTO at Ping Identity. The sponsored panel discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.

 

Here are some excerpts:

 

Gardner: We're approaching this Cloud Identity Summit 2014 (CIS) in Monterey, Calif. on July 19 and we still find that the digital economy is not really reaching its full potential. We're still dealing with ongoing challenges for trust, security, and governance across mobile devices and network.

 

Even though people have been using mobile devices for decades—and in some markets around the world they're the primary tool for accessing the Internet—why are we still having problems? Why is this so difficult to solve?

 

Diodati: There are so many puzzle pieces to make the digital economy fully efficient. A couple of challenges come to mind. One is the distribution of identity. In prior years, the enterprise did a decent job -- not an amazing job, but a decent job -- of identifying users, authenticating them, and figuring out what they have access to.

 

Once you move out into a broader digital economy, you start talking about off-premises architectures and the expansion of user constituencies. There is a close relationship with your partners, employees, and your contractors. But relationships can be more distant, like with your customers.

 

Emerging threats

 

Additionally, there are issues with emerging security threats. In many cases, there are fraudsters with malware being very successful at taking people’s identities and stealing money from them.

 

Diodati

Mobility can do a couple of things for us. In the old days, if you want more identity assurance to access important applications, you pay more in cost and usability problems. Specialized hardware was used to raise assurance. Now, the smartphone is really just a portable biometric device that users carry without us asking them to do so. We can raise assurance levels without the draconian increase in cost and usability problems.

 

We’re not out of the woods yet. One of the challenges is nailing down the basic administrative processes to bind user identities to mobile devices. That challenge is part cultural and part technology. [See more on a new vision for identity.]

 

Gardner: So it seems that we have a larger set of variables, end users, are not captive on network, who we authenticate. As you mentioned, the mobile device, the smartphone, can be biometric and can be an even better authenticator than we've had in the past. We might actually be in a better position in a couple of years. Is there a transition that’s now afoot that we might actually come out better on the other end?

 

Madsen: The opportunities are clear. As Mark indicated, the phones, not just because of its technical features, but because of the relatively tight binding that users feel for them, make a really strong authentication factor.

 

Madsen

It's the old trope of something you have, something you know, and something you are. Phones are something you already have, from the user’s point of view. It’s not an additional hard token or hard USB token that we're asking employees to carry with them. It's something they want to carry, particularly if it's a BYOD phone.

 

So phones, because they're connected mobile computers, make a really strong second-factor authentication, and we're seeing that more and more. As I said, it’s one that users are happy using because of the relationship they already have with their phones, for all the other reasons. [See more on identity standards and APIs.]

 

Gardner: It certainly seems to make sense that you would authenticate into your work environment through your phone. You might authenticate in the airport to check in with your phone and you might use it for other sorts of commerce. It seems that we have the idea, but we need to get there somehow.

 

What’s architecturally missing for us to make this transition of the phone as the primary way in which people are identified session by session, place by place? Michael, any thoughts about that?

 

User experience

 

Barrett: There are a couple of things. One, in today’s world, we don’t yet have open standards that help to drive cross-platform authentication, and we don’t have the right architecture for that. In today’s world still, if you are using a phone with a virtual keyboard, you're forced to type this dreadful, unreadable tiny password on the keyboard, and by the way, you can’t actually read what you just typed. That’s a pretty miserable user experience, which we alluded to earlier.

 

Barrett

But also, it’s a very ugly. It’s a mainframe-centric architecture. The notion that the authentication credentials are shared secrets that you know and that are stored on some central server is a very, very 1960s approach to the world. My own belief is that, in fact, we have to move towards a much more device-centric authentication model, where the remote server actually doesn’t know your authentication credentials. Again, that comes back to both architecture and standards.

 

My own view is that if we put those in place, the world will change. Many of us remember the happy days of the late '80s and early '90s when offices were getting wired up, and we had client-server applications everywhere. Then, HTML and HTTP came along, and the world changed. We're looking at the same kind of change, driven by the right set of appropriately designed open standards.

 

Gardner: So standards, behavior, and technology make for an interesting adoption path, sometimes a chicken and the egg relationship. Tell me about FIDO and perhaps any thoughts about how we make this transition and adoption happen sooner rather than later?

 

Barrett: I gave a little hint. FIDO is an open-standards organization really aiming to develop a set of technical standards to enable device-centric authentication that is easier for end users to use. As an ex-CTO, I can tell you the experience when you try to give them stronger authenticators that are harder for them to use. They won’t voluntarily use them.

 

We have to do better than we're doing today in terms of ease of use of authentication. We also have to come up with authentication that is stronger for the relying parties, because that’s the other face of this particular coin. In today’s world, passwords and pins work very badly for end users. They actually work brilliantly for the criminals. 

 

So I'm kind of old school on this. I tend to think that security controls should be there to make life better for relying parties and users and not for criminals. Unfortunately, in today’s world, they're kind of inverted.

 

So FIDO is simply an open-standards organization that is building and defining those classes of standards and, through our member companies, is promulgating deployment of those standards.

 

Madsen: I think FIDO is important. Beyond the fact that it’s a standard is the pattern that it’s normalizing. The pattern is one where the user logically authenticates to their phone, whether it be with a fingerprint or a pin, but the authentication is local. Then, leveraging the phone’s capabilities -- storage, crypto, connectivity. etc. -- the phone authenticates to the server. It’s that pattern of a local authentication followed by a server authentication that I think we are going to see over and over.

 

Gardner: Thank you, Paul. It seems to me that most people are onboard with this. I know that, as a user, I'm happy to have the device authenticate. I think developers would love to have this authentication move to a context on a network or with other variables brought to bear. They can create whole new richer services when they have a context for participation. It seems to me the enterprises are onboard too. So there's a lot of potential momentum around this. What does it take now to move the needle forward? What should we expect to hear at CIS?

 

Moving forward

 

Diodati: There are two dimensions to moving the needle forward: avoiding the failures of prior mobile authentication systems, and ensuring that modern authentication systems support critical applications. Both are crucial to the success of any authentication system, including FIDO.

 

At CIS, we have an in-depth, three-hour FIDO workshop and many mobile authentication sessions. 

 

There are a couple of things that I like about FIDO. First, it can use the biometric capabilities of the device. Many smart phones have an accelerometer, a camera, and a microphone. We can get a really good initial authentication. Also, FIDO leverages public-key technology, which overcomes some of the concerns we have around other kinds of technologies, particularly one-time passwords. 

 

Madsen: To that last point Mark, I think FIDO and SAML, or more recent federation protocols, complement each other wonderfully. FIDO is a great authentication technology, and federation historically has not resolved that. Federation didn't claim to answer that issue, but if you put the two together, you get a very strong initial authentication. Then, you're able to broadcast that out to the applications that you want to access. And that’s a strong combination.

 

Barrett: One of the things that we haven't really mentioned here -- and Paul just hinted at it -- is the relationship between single sign-on and authentication. When you talk to many organizations, they look at that as two different sides of the same coin. So the better application or ubiquity you can get, and the more applications you can sign the user on with less interaction, is a good thing.

 

Gardner: Before we go a little bit deeper into what’s coming up, let’s take another pause and look back. There have been some attempts to solve these problems. Many, I suppose, have been from a perspective of a particular vendor or a type of device or platform or, in an enterprise sense, using what they already know or have.

 

We've had containerization and virtualization on the mobile tier. It is, in a sense, going back to the past where you go right to the server and very little is done on the device other than the connection. App wrapping would fall under that as well, I suppose. What have been the pros and cons and why isn’t containerization enough to solve this problem? Let’s start with Michael.

 

Barrett: If you look back historically, what we've tended to see are lot of attempts that are truly proprietary in nature. Again, my own philosophy on this is that proprietary technology is really great for many things, but there are certain domains that simply need a strong standards-based backplane.

 

There really hasn't been an attempt at this for some years. Pretty much, we have to go back to X.509 to see the last major standards-based push at solving authentication. But X.509 came with a whole bunch of baggage, as well as architectural assumptions around a very disconnected world view that is kind of antithetical to where we are today, where we have a very largely connected world view.

 

I tend to think of it through that particular set of lenses, which is that the standards attempts in this area are old, and many of the approaches that have been tried over the last decade have been proprietary.

 

For example, on my old team at PayPal, I had a small group of folks who surveyed security vendors. I remember asking them to tell me how many authentication vendors there were and to plot that for me by year?

 

Growing number of vendors

 

They sighed heavily, because their database wasn’t organized that way, but then came back a couple of weeks later. Essentially they said that in 2007, it was 30-odd vendors, and it has been going up by about a dozen a year, plus or minus some, ever since, and we're now comfortably at more than 100.

 

Any market that has 100 vendors, none of whose products interoperate with each other, is a failing market, because none of those vendors, bar only a couple, can claim very large market share. This is just a market where we haven’t seen the right kind of approaches deployed, and as a result, we're struck where we are today without doing something different.

 

Gardner: Paul, any thoughts on containerization, pros and cons?

 

Madsen: I think of phones as almost two completely orthogonal aspects. First is how you can leverage the phone to authenticate the user. Whether it’s FIDO or something proprietary, there's value in that.

 

Secondly is the phone as an application platform, a means to access potentially sensitive applications. What mobile applications introduce that’s somewhat novel is the idea of pulling down that sensitive business data to the device, where it can be more easily lost or stolen, given the mobility and the size of those devices.

 

The challenge for the enterprise is, if you want to enable your employees with devices, or enable them to bring their own in, how do you protect that data. It seems more and more important, or recognized as the challenge, that you can’t.

 

The challenge is not only protecting the data, but keeping the usage of the phone separate. IT, arguably and justifiably, wants to protect the business data on it, but the employee, particularly in a BYOD case, wants to keep their use of the phone isolated and private.

 

So containerization or dual-persona systems attempt to slice and dice the phone up into two or more pieces. What is missing from those models, and it’s changing, is a recognition that, by definition, that’s an identity problem. You have two identities—the business user and the personal user—who want to use the same device, and you want to compartmentalize those two identities, for both security and privacy reasons.

 

Identity standards and technologies could play a real role in keeping those pieces separate.The employee might use Box for the business usage, but might also use it for personal usage. That’s an identity problem, and identity will keep those two applications and their usages separate.

 

Diodati: To build on that a little bit, if you take a look at the history of containerization, there were some technical problems and some usability problems. There was a lack of usability that drove an acceptance problem within a lot of enterprises. That’s changing over time.

 

To talk about what Michael was talking about in terms of the failure of other standardized approaches to authentication, you could look back at OATH, which is maybe the last big industry push, 2004-2005, to try to come up with a standard approach, and it failed on interoperability. OATH was a one-time password, multi-vendor  capability. But in the end, you really couldn’t mix and match devices. Interoperability is going to be a big, big criteria for acceptance of FIDO. [See more on identity standards and APIs.]

 

 

(You can read the rest of this blog post here.)

 

 

 

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Ping Identity.

 

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About the Author
Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, an enterprise IT analysis, market research, and consulting firm. Ga...
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