Is it Time to Finally Get Rid of the Password?

kpatyhka/Shutterstock.com

The vast majority of users and organization still rely on passwords for protection from increasingly persistent cyberattacks.

Last week, the popular password manager LastPass announced it had been hacked. LastPass is one of a number of services that provides users with a “master password” to help lighten the burden of remembering multiple logins for websites.

Ultimately, the LastPass hack did not result in widespread data breaches, although users have been advised to change their master password. What the LastPass hack does call attention to, however, is the woeful security protection provided by our long-standing system of usernames and passwords.

The LastPass debacle is merely the latest of what seems to be a daily litany of security intrusions that compromises personal data and put millions at risk. Earlier in June, for example, the US Office of Personnel Management was hacked, putting the personal data of at least 14 million (some estimate even more) people in danger.

From the federal government to Target, Sony, Anthem and Citibank, it’s become increasingly clear that no organization is immune to the threat of data breaches. While many solutions can mitigate the danger, the vast majority of users and organization still rely on passwords for protection.

A complete upheaval

Passwords have existed as a means of security for millennia. And for most of their history, they’ve worked as advertised. But now that society has transitioned to digital, a massive market for stolen data has sent security experts scrambling to put out fires, all the while pleading with their clients to make their passwords more secure.

It may be a losing battle, however, as governments in countries including Russia and China are believed to be funding widespread efforts to hack US government and private sector organizations in order to extract state secrets and financial data. And, typically, we still make it pretty easy for them to succeed, by using unsophisticated passwords or using the same password for most or all of our online accounts.

So can we just kill the password already?

Short answer? Not likely. Passwords are, quite simply, easy to use. The average person may have dozens of online accounts and the simplest way to manage them is by using an easy-to-remember password. Then there’s the fact that despite the seemingly constant news of major security breaches, people still tend to believe “it won’t happen to me” and simply aren’t motivated enough to demand higher security. Killing the password would mean a complete upheaval of the online experience.

“This is an age-old question that never dies, along the lines of the song that never ends,” Gary Hummel, chief information security officer of the Arizona State Retirement System, told Quartz. “Should we be trying to collectively kill the password in favor of a different solution? It seems we would have to endure a civilized meltdown if we removed this ‘convenience,’ as there are too many of us that are addicted to it. Are they unreliable as a means of security? Wherever there is money involved or power to be had, passwords will always be unreliable.”

The solutions

But there may be a way to keep passwords and the convenience they provide without requiring people to do significantly more work. It’s called multi-factor authentication and it makes passwords work better by authenticating something else in addition to the password. It could be device authentication, knowledge authentication or even biometric authentication.

For example, in addition to username and password, a user could be asked to provide data only he or she knows, or to scan a fingerprint, or to enter a code sent via text message.

“Right now, passwords are still needed,” said Jerry Fralick, chief security officer at Lenovo. “I think the wave of the future will be two factor authentication—meaning a fingerprint and/or Personal Identity Verification (PIV) or card key, maybe even with an eye scan. Some people only use one ID and password for everything—not real good security. My password index is overwhelmed right now, but that is the landscape of where we are today.”

Fralick likes two-factor biometrics as a solution, specifically FIDO—Fast ID On-Line—which is an open source, multi-factor authentication standard currently in development. The FIDO Alliance would allow any website or cloud application to interface with a broad variety of existing and future FIDO-enabled devices that the user has for online security.

The problem with a FIDO-like solution, however, is that it places a burden on the user.

“I am in favor of discontinuing the use of passwords as they are used traditionally,” explained Ida Salazar, information security manager for the city of Portland, Oregon. “However the replacement would need to be something the user would have with them natively, such as a fingerprint or eye scan, or a combination thereof; biometrics. The requirement of having a token or device that has to be carried will pose the same issues of being forgotten, copied or lost—just as the password is today.”

As for biometrics, they present a problem of their own—namely, they never change.

“You cannot use a biometric as a primary authenticator, or you’re gonna have a bad time,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist of the Center for Democracy & Technology, told Yahoo in January. “It’s not secret. You can’t change it. So you always have to have something else.”

In other words, when a biometric authenticator gets hacked (which it will eventually), that particular line of defense is completely compromised. You can’t change your fingerprint.

Customized options for different transactions

For Chris Ipsen, assistant vice president for technology/chief information officer of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, perhaps the question of whether we can—or should—kill the password depends on the nature of the transaction the password is meant to protect.

“For transactions that require a real identity, banking, email… the answer [to should we kill passwords] is yes,” he told Quartz. “Usernames and passwords don’t work, and we have reached the point where the risk is greater than the reward. We have multi-factor authentication methodologies that work ubiquitously and resolve identities at a much higher level. I believe two ancillary questions that also need to be asked are: What about when you don’t want to be identified? And who or what should provision the identity behind the credential.”

The consensus seems to be that we have to do something, and some sort of multi-factor authentication is likely the way we’ll have to go about it.

“The bottom line is, we need to move away from passwords and embrace and implement multi-factor authentication; whether it is with tokens, smart cards with PINs, or something else,” said Keith Tresh, chief information security officer of Orange County, California. “Too many breaches are being conducted using stolen credentials.”

Our current love-hate relationship with passwords doesn’t have to continue: There are solutions. The reality of those solutions actually being developed and then implemented depends, however, is on us. Ultimately, users dictate the technology, and so they will need to affirm that the need for better security, even if that requires a few more steps. But in a world of digital convenience, that may be asking too much.

(Image via kpatyhka/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.