How Do You Solve A Problem Like Authentication?

Maguire, J. and Renaud, K. (2013) How Do You Solve A Problem Like Authentication? Human Factors in the Safety and Security of Critical Systems, University of Glasgow, UK, 18 Mar 2013.

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The security aspect that the computer user encounters most often is the password prompt - a demand that they verify their identity by providing a shared secret. Authentication, for the deployer, regulates access and enforces accountability. Authentication, for the user, obstructs, intrudes and delays gratification. Whereas users could probably put up with this if it happens relatively infrequently, this tends not to be the case. An authentication prompt is presented a number of times during the day. Sometimes it has serious consequences, such as when it is required to authorise the purchase of a digital item, and the permits consequent credit card charge. Other times it merely identifies the user to allow the system to customise the interface. The range of consequences and the multiplicity of systems mandating shared secrets collide with human limitations and the current password bloat and general end-user exasperation. Is it at all possible to improve authentication? As researchers, we have primarily addressed this problem in one of three ways: (1) by trying to find a password replacement, (2) by formulating rules and regulations to coerce users into choosing stronger passwords, or (3) fostering a security culture within the organisation, hoping that the social pressure will induce people to behave more securely. These endeavours have met with limited success. Alternatives have not been embraced by the developer community, rules and regulations are often ignored, subverted or deliberately flouted. Fostering a security culture has had more success, in relative terms, but still has not really addressed the “authentication problem”. The one thing these approaches have in common is their focus on the human agent: the end user. Consider a related problem in the physical world: locks on doors. These have not changed in centuries and the doors themselves are probably weaker than they were a hundred years ago. Yet do locks really prevent intrusion? A determined intruder finds the average lock an minor deterrent, and the door itself is sometimes even made of glass, allowing the thief to subvert the lock entirely. Yet one never hears about a desperate search for a door or lock replacement. One doesn’t hear the refrain, ‘How do you solve a problem like the door lock? This even though they, too, are lost, copied and shared. Why, when it comes to virtual locks, is there such a drive to come up with the perfect locking mechanism? The password and the average door lock function similarly: neither is perfect but both provide an acceptable measure of security. Here we will argue that it might be time to suspend our unrealistic expectations that we can find a perfect lock in the virtual world when we live quite happily with imperfect security in the physical world.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Renaud, Professor Karen and Maguire, Dr Joseph
Authors: Maguire, J., and Renaud, K.
Subjects:T Technology > T Technology (General)
College/School:College of Science and Engineering > School of Computing Science
Research Group:Human Centred Security Group

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