To Comply Or To Secure?

Yes, that is the question. Unfortunately, there is a difference between compliance and security, in terms of Information Security. MSI was recently approached with a simple question concerning multi-factor authentication and what the regulations really are (or will be, for those bodies of legislation that are a little behind the power curve). A quick perusal of several different pieces of regulatory guidance (i.e…NCUA 748 and the FFIEC Handbooks) indicate that, while they each call for the use of multi-factor authentication for high-risk transactions involving access to customer information or the movement of funds to other parties, there is very little guidance that dictates the level or complexity of the proposed authentication scheme.  One “attempt” at guidance says that where a risk assessment has indicated that single-factor authentication is inadequate, financial institutions should implement multi-factor authentication, layered security, or other controls reasonably calculated to mitigate those risks.  What in the world does that mean?  To me, that means that a financial institution, given a third party risk assessment has been completed, can decide to use some implementation of authentication that may not be the most secure, as long as “they” believe it to be reasonable enough.

I currently bank with a financial institution that only requires a username and a password (at least 6 characters, one capital letter, and no special characters allowed) for me to log in to the online banking site and have unfettered access to my account. To me, this is an outrage!  Granted, I can change banks.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe there are very many options that offer a more secure authentication scheme.

At MSI, we set about to try and define our stance on multi-factor authentication and whether simply complying with the regulations is going far enough to secure that precious “member data”. We were asked if, instead of implementing a multi-factor authentication scheme, would a solution that requires the use of a password and a security question (much like the age old “mother’s maiden name” question) would put a financial institution into compliance.  The short answer….yes.  The long answer…depends if the financial institution “believes” it does.  MSI’s answer….not even close.

In these types of situations (where regulatory guidance is too “willy-nilly” to enforce a secure solution) organizations should look to industry standard’s best practices for guidance and implement the secure multi-factor authentication scheme that will go much further in protecting customer data.

Multi-factor authentication is meant to be difficult to circumvent.  It requires the customer to be able to offer AT LEAST 2 of 3 possible forms of proof of identity.  Those forms are (in no certain order):

  1. Something you know (password, PIN)
  2. Something you have (ATM Card, Token, Smart Card)
  3. Something you are (Biometrics…fingerprint, hand print, retinal scan)

While ATM’s have been using multi-factor authentication schemes since the beginning of time (at least for those Laguna Beach watchers in our audience), financial institutions continue to leave the most critical of vulnerabilities unchecked.  That’s the vulnerability of an attacker exploiting the inability of a customer to keep their passwords to themselves. If those same financial institutions took that leap to offer a more secure authentication scheme, I believe the market would reward them handsomely.  They’d get my money, as measly as the balance may be.

The moral of the story is that multi-factor authentication is meant to be difficult for all parties involved.  Sure, all I hear is that security departments don’t want to hinder their customer’s or their employee’s ability to perform their work by requiring a difficult authentication scheme.  That’s the biggest complaint that surrounds multi-factor authentication. However, if it’s easy for your customers to use, it’s probably pretty darn easy for an attacker to use as well.

While the current regulations give many financial institutions a “cop-out” when deciding whether or not to implement a multi-factor authentication scheme, it should not mean that the bottom line should always be the deciding factor when protecting your customer’s personal information. Industry standard’s best practices should drive this moral dilemma. A risk assessment, performed by a qualified third party, may indicate that the risk doesn’t require a tough authentication scheme.  I have to wonder if that risk assessment bothered to contact any or all of the 10’s of thousands of people who have fallen victim to fraud or identity crimes because of poor authentication requirements?

This entry was posted in General InfoSec by Troy Vennon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Troy Vennon

I recently separated from the U.S. Marine Corps after 8 years. I spent the first 3 1/2 years building classified and unclassified networks all over the world. There was a natural progression from building those networks to securing those networks. My last 4 1/2 years in the Marine Corps took me to Quantico, Va where I was stationed with the Marine Corps Network Operations and Security Command (MCNOSC). While with the MCNOSC, I was a member of the Security section, which was responsible for the installation and daily maintainance of the 34 Points-of-Presence that made up the Marine Corps 270,000+ user network. After a period of time with Security, I moved over to the Marine Corps Computer Emergency Response Team (MARCERT). There I was the Staff Non-Commissioned Officer of the MARCERT, which was responsible for the 24x7 monitoring of network traffic across the Marine Corps. Specifically, we monitored network traffic for malicious intent and investigated any network incidents as they occurred. While with the MCNOSC, I attained my CISSP, CCNA, and OPST (OSSTMM Professional Security Tester). I have been with MicroSolved for the past 4 months as the Senior Security Engineer, Technical Lead, and Project Manager.

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