By Barry Levine / CIO Today. Updated January 21, 2013.
Just as we Google people now, will we ring ourselves into our e-mail account in the near future? That's a possibility outlined in a new Google research paper, which proposes such options as a ring that taps on a computer to logon.
The paper, by Google Vice President of Security Eric Grosse and Engineer Mayank Upadhyay, is scheduled for publication this month in IEEE Security & Privacy Magazine. It argues for post-password computing because, according to the authors, "passwords and simple bearer tokens such as cookies are no longer sufficient to keep users safe."
It's hard to argue with that conclusion. While individual account hackings do not normally make news, most users have such experiences as someone breaking into their e-mail account, or receiving a notice about a security breach from their credit card company. And the news is regularly populated with reports of companies whose confidential user information has been stolen, with the pilfered accounts often numbering in the thousands or millions.
'Tap to Logon'
To address this situation, Google proposes a variety of physical logon devices, such as utilizing the small Yubico cryptographic card. It can be inserted into a USB port, and a modified Google Chrome browser can accept such a login without a separate software download. The Yubico card first needs to be registered, after which it's good to go.
While external, keychain-held physical devices that function as a second factor are not uncommon in some corporate environments, they are not widely used by consumers or many businesses, at least in part because of the convenience factor and the need for IT support. Google is attempting to circumvent both obstacles by suggesting that a ring or the ubiquitous smartphone could have Yubico-like capabilities built-in, along with a "tap to logon" capability -- not unlike the "tap to buy" capability of near field communication (NFC)-equipped smartphones.
In a recent story here, "Will Near Field Communication Change the World?", author Ira Brodsky outlined the change wave being driven by NFC, the security advantages, and a coming world where tap-to-do is a common activity. He called NFC a "wireless game changer" that can only operate in close physical proximity to the receiver.
A smartphone or "smartcard-embedded finger ring," wrote the Google authors, could "authorize a new computer via a tap on the computer, even in situations in which your phone might be without cellular connectivity." The authors envision that a second factor of authentication, including an on-screen one, might also be involved to ensure against a break-in if the physical device is stolen or lost, but they call for the "primary authenticator" to be a piece of hardware.
To support this vision, Google says it has developed a device- and vendor-independent protocol that uses a Web browser to support device-based authentication.
Google already offers two-step authentication to its users, with a one-time password sent to your smartphone to be entered along with your regular login. Other sites, such as Dropbox or Blizzard, also offer two-factor authentication schemes, but the weakness is that second-factor codes could be susceptible to fake Web sites and phishing attempts. Another possible possible approach is reflected in a recent rumor that the next Apple iPhone will provide a different kind of physical authentication -- a built-in fingerprint sensor.