The science and art of authentication


Securing software is a must, but users also must take care not to expose their credentials. Find out about authentication and password security.

Authentication is essential. Every couple of days we hear about vulnerabilities being exploited. Unfortunately, there is much less talk about the human factor in the most of these attacks. And when it comes to humans using software systems, the first question is always: who that human is. And are they really who they claim to be?

The process of verification that an entity is really who it claims to be is called authentication. If it gets broken, we have spoofing. Let’s see how to do the first right, to avoid the latter.

Means of authentication

There are several – namely 3 primary and several secondary – methods, also called factors, of doing authentication:

  • Knowledge-based authentication is based on something you know. Examples include bank card PINs, and all kinds of secrets, like passwords or key phrases.
    The weakness of knowledge-based authentication is that the secret can be stolen even without the owner noticing the theft. They can be stolen for example by shoulder surfing (watching over your shoulder while you type it in), impersonating officials (e.g., a caller claiming to be from your bank asking for your PIN), man-in-the-middle attacks (the attacker overhearing and storing the information between the user and the targeted system), or even by stealing and cracking stored passwords. And there are many more other methods attackers can get their hands on these
  • Possession-based authentication is based on something you have. Examples are your car- or house-keys, an SMS or app notification you receive onto your phone or a security-token or fob. This can also be just a 6-digit number displayed by a phone app or a special device, changing periodically, say every 30 seconds. By being able to type in the provided number you basically prove that you still have the device with you that shows it.
    The weakness of possession-based authentication is that these items and devices can be stolen or even cloned. Just think about copying a house key or reporting a SIM broken by an attacker and having it replaced by the mobile provider.
  • Biometrics-based authentication is based on something you are. Examples are fingerprint, retina scan, face or even ear recognition, or the way you walk, move or type.
    Weaknesses are based on implementation. The scanner – if not implemented correctly – can be fooled. Fingerprint scanning can be fooled by taking a fingerprint from a wine glass and transferring it to a carrier. This carrier is then presented to the scanner. In case of face recognition, a photo or 3D model of a face can be shown to the scanner or even glasses with masking tape on them can fool face recognition.
    The downside of biometrics-based authentication is that a wet hand or bad lighting condition can make it impossible to correctly authenticate yourself.
  • And finally, location-based authentication is an emerging secondary factor based on your location. It can be a cyber-location (an IP address, for instance) or a physical one (geographic location). Obviously, it cannot be used as an authentication method on its own but using it in a multi-factor authentication process can have its advantages. For example, when you use your credit card from London and 5 minutes later use the same credit card from Hong Kong, the fraud detection system in your bank can deny
    the transaction and block your card.
    However, an IP address can be faked. But even a geo-location can be spoofed via a GPS signal generator and a denial-of-service attack can deny your legitimate access to the system.

Hardening: multi-factor authentication

To harden the authentication process, several methods can be combined. But when combining them, it is important to use different means from the method categories above. Which in this context we call factors.
A good example is using an ATM: the card itself is possession-based authentication, while the PIN is knowledge-based. Another example is using a security token, where the code displayed by the token is possession-based, while the password used to access the token is knowledge based.
Paying in a shop with an NFC mobile device requiring biometrical unlocking combined with location-based authentication uses even 3 methods (possession-, biometrics- and location based). On the other hand, using a credit card online with only the 3-digit CVV to secure it is not multi factor authentication. In this case all the required data is knowledge-based and to make it worse all of them can be obtained from the same card.
Also, using SMS messages as the second factor is not a good idea despite it being very widespread. It is vulnerable to SIM swap attacks, where the SIM is reported stolen or damaged by the attacker as discussed earlier. Also, the SMS architecture itself is not secure and the messages can be spoofed easily. This is why NIST removed its recommendation for SMS as part of a multi-factor authentication process.

About passwords

One of the most obvious and common authentication methods is using a password.

The problem with password authentication is twofold. On one hand passwords must be strong enough to withhold the various cracking attacks. On the other hand, human psychology requires easy to remember passwords. Otherwise, they will end up on a post-it note on the side of the screen. When security is too hard, people will find a way to go around it by either breaking the system or abandoning it. Finding a solution easier to use is often the easiest.

For this reason does NIST not recommend changing the passwords periodically, only in a case of a breach.


Password cracking or stealing?

There is a distinct difference between a password being cracked or stolen. In the former case the only protection as the user is choosing a strong password. The latter can be avoided by being vigilant.

Make sure you protect yourself against social engineering and generally against having your credentials abused.

  • Never use the same password to authenticate yourself on multiple sites. This will protect all your other accounts in case one of your passwords falls into the wrong hands.
  • Use a password manager to generate unique strong random passwords. You don’t even need third party software for this, the latest versions of modern browsers have this feature already built in.
  • Change your password immediately if there has been a breach. This will protect your account – in case your account is not taken over yet after the breach. Remember there is always time between the passwords being stolen, the encryption broken, and the known passwords being used. Use this time to your advantage by changing the password before the attacker has a chance to use them. But also keep in mind that some time will pass between the breach, and it being reported, so make sure the delay on your side is as short as possible.
  • Use two-factor authentication whenever possible. The more factors, the harder to get unwanted access. Also make sure you understand that two-factor authentication is only useful if they are in fact based on different methods; but that’s more on the engineers who design the systems.
  • Be aware of shoulder surfing. Cover the PIN-pad when entering your pin. Make sure nobody looks over your shoulder when you enter your password to authenticate. Of course, a modern user interface will hide the password being typed in, but still.
  • Be aware of sniffing and man-in-the-middle attacks. When you use your credentials to authenticate in a dodgy net-cafe or set up an account to order something on a not too trustworthy website, the advice is back out! When your data is transported through a connection which is not trustworthy, the best you can do is leave. After all, what can be so important that you are willing to risk losing your account(s)?

Password cracking, easier than you might think

But why is it important to have a strong password?

To understand this question, you must understand how the authentication passwords are stored, and how they are cracked.

Passwords are usually stored not in clear text. They are stored hashed instead. Hashes are fixed length combination of bytes which describe the authentication password without storing it. The main advantage of hashes is that the hash calculation process is one-way. This means that the authentication password cannot be reproduced from the hash easily. The only way attackers can do it backwards is to try various passwords and compare whether the newly calculated hash matches the one in question. In addition, algorithms for hash calculation are designed to be slow. In average they are configured to allow only around 10 tries per second. This speed will not slow down authentication considerably but will put on the brakes against brute force attacks. To make the hashing algorithms even nicer, they are designed to be adaptable. As the technology evolves, and faster hardware is available, good hashing algorithms can be made to calculate even slower. This is especially important as cheap specialized hardware is abused to break passwords. Such specialized hardware is widely available since the same kind of computation is necessary to hash passwords as for image processing (e.g., computer games) and mining crypto currency. As you can guess, GPUs are of great help here.

Attackers are usually not trying to crack all the authentication passwords; they stop after a given time or after they cracked a given number or percentage of passwords. Therefore, it is important to have an authentication password stronger than most other users have in the system. This way there is a better chance that they stop the cracking process before they crack your password.

Of course, this is not the case if an attacker is targeting you. But in this case, they are trying to gather information about you through all kind of channels: social media, observing you, or even going through your garbage. They hope that your authentication password can be guessed from the data collected about you in one way or the other.

Trends and best practices

Despite all the problems, password-based authentication is still the most widespread. A shift towards biometrics is already on the way, but until then, we recommend using password managers, which are a convenient way of generating and handling different and strong passwords all over your accounts. This way you only have to remember one single password that protects the rest.

As a developer your job is to protect the passwords of your users. Password management is an essential task in all systems that do authentication. Best practices include hashing (no plaintext storage!), using appropriate hash algorithms (slow ones that are moreover adaptive in speed), and using salting (adding a unique value to the input of hashing for each password) + peppering (adding a server-wide secret to hashing in a similar way as salting).

And at the crossroad of the user and developer viewpoint there is password policy. It is an enforced guide to choosing satisfactory passwords. There are some interesting trends here: according to the NIST guidelines, a password should be at least 8 characters long, should support Unicode characters, but also there should be no periodic expiration (!), as well as no mixed character sets should be enforced (!).

Bottom line: authentication is one of those topics where the conflict between security and usability is tangible. Simply put, when you push security over a certain limit, it breaks. And the reason behind is the principle of psychological acceptability: the fact that your users are human beings and they simply cannot accept overly complicated solutions. Keep it simple, but secure!

Users can make many mistakes. But developers can do so as well. Take a look at our courses to see how we can give you a hand in avoiding the common security pitfalls and mistakes to make your systems more secure, and at the same time protect the user from its own mistakes.