Password Rotation, Phishing and Authentication Limitations, Oh My!

BeyondTrust, January 26th, 2011

As we have pointed out in several recent blog posts, getting users to choose effective passwords is hard.  This is particularly important to us at BeyondTrust since for our PIM solutions to function correctly we need to accurately  authenticate a user to know what access privileges to grant them  While new technologies for user authentication  are on the way, they aren’t here just yet.

There are several options today for improving user passwords but they all have issues.   Requiring user to choose strong password often leads to them writing theirs down a yellow sticky pad so they can remember it.  Password rotation is standard defense against password cracking attacks, but a recent Microsoft study suggests password rotation just causes people to choose easier to remember phrases as passwords.  Biometrics are expensive and far from foolproof as shown in this recent MythBusters episode.  2 factor authentication should be the norm but is perceived as expensive and inconvenient.  Even if implemented it’s still susceptible to social engineering and phishing attacks.

So there are no easy answers to assure a user is who they say they are.  As with all security decisions, you need to weigh the costs of a solution versus the risks, but practically we recommend 3 things:

  • Enforce strong passwords but make it easier for people to create them.  You can provideguidance about better ways to create strong but memorable passwords or suggest the use of passphrases rather than passwords.  Finally, you could publish links to password strength testers like Microsoft’s so people aren’t surprised at the moment of truth when asked to input their new strong password.
  • For more secure situations, like systems administrators who may be able to access critical corporate systems, go with 2 factor authentication,  it’s the current gold standard.
  • Finally, recognize that authentication will never be perfect.  So implement least privilege at all levels to limit exposure.  Not every user needs to be an admin on their desktop and not every system admin needs to access all system with all commands

I f you have any tips or techniques you would like to share, please add them to the comments.