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One Step Ahead
November 4, 2008, Volume 55, No. 11

One Step Ahead

Another tip in a series provided by the Offices of Information Systems & Computing and Audit, Compliance & Privacy.

Beyond Passwords: Strong Authentication

As more and more sensitive and confidential information makes its way into online systems and databases, “strong authentication” is a term we’re all going to be hearing more about in the coming months and years. The need for computer users to select and protect “strong” passwords has been a recurring topic of our One Step Ahead series, and it remains a fact that the overwhelming majority of systems in the world still rely on passwords as a single method to authenticate users despite the well-known problems and vulnerabilities.

Discussions about authentication usually center around three commonly identified “factors” that can be used to verify identity:

1) Something you know. The most obvious example of this, of course, is a password/passphrase that, in theory, is known only by the user.

2) Something you have. For computers, this usually is some sort of electronic “token” or “Smart Card” that displays a short-term code (which changes every minute or so) that is synchronized with the system. While it may seem like a password, the purpose is to verify that the user is in physical possession of the token.

3) Something you are. This refers to “biometric” verification of identity using devices that scan physical attributes like fingerprints or irises. While technology-based measures like these are not yet generally ready for mass-market (the “Mythbusters” TV show has recently demonstrated that consumer-level fingerprint scanners can be deceived), the time is coming when it will be commonplace to log on in part by touching or looking into something.

A system that uses two or more of these factors is said to be “strongly authenticated”. Like our peer institutions, Penn is investigating ways to employ strong authentication, especially on critical systems. If you regularly work with data that is sensitive or confidential, chances are that “strong authentication” will become part of your life in the not-too-distant future.


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For additional tips, see the One Step Ahead link on the Information Security website: www.upenn.edu/computing/security/.

Almanac - November 4, 2008, Volume 55, No. 11