Advanced authentication: 5 steps to enhance security and user experience

With the development of new technologies, cyber threats are becoming more sophisticated, and personal data remains one of the most desirable targets. The Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report states that 49 percent of hacks use credentials.  

Traditional authentication methods, such as username and password with standard Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), are no longer sufficient to protect sensitive information and systems from unauthorized access. According to Microsoft, there are 1287 password attacks every second. Consequently, businesses must adopt more sophisticated and layered methods of user authentication. One of these methods is Advanced Authentication.

Understanding the Essence of Advanced Authentication

At its core, Advanced Authentication signifies a departure from conventional methods of user authentication. While traditional approaches primarily rely on one or two authentication challenges, Advanced Authentication adopts a multifaceted approach that incorporates context and risk, creating multiple layers of defense against unauthorized access, data breaches, and cyber threats.

It is essential to distinguish between Advanced Authentication and Strong Authentication. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the former encompasses a broader spectrum of techniques. Strong Authentication refers to the strength of an individual authentication challenge. This might involve a hardware token, a FIDO2 challenge using on-device biometrics, or facial recognition. However, it can involve additional friction for users, requiring a modern phone or laptop with built-in biometrics, or the presence of a hardware token.

Of course, Advanced Authentication leverages Strong Authentication, but is not limited to it. Advanced Authentication incorporates a range of methods, including Machine Learning (ML) and other advanced technologies to assess the level of risk in a login attempt and adjust the level of authentication accordingly. For low-risk attempts, the user might be allowed to authenticate with just a password, or a password plus email MFA. For riskier attempts, the user might be directed to authenticate using a Strong Authentication factor to ensure they are legitimate. For very high-risk attempts, such as users connecting via the Tor network or from a sanctioned country, the user might be blocked outright.

ML-powered pattern and behavioral analytics distinguish legitimate users from potential attackers, allowing authorized users to experience a smooth and convenient login process, while challenging potential attackers with several layers of strict authentication controls.  Advanced Authentication becomes a key strategy that not only strengthens cybersecurity but also enhances the user experience.

The Path to Advanced Authentication.

There are several best practices that should be followed when deploying Advanced Authentication to ensure reliable and resilient authentication and protect sensitive information and user accounts.

1. Comprehensive Risk Assessment: The journey towards Advanced Authentication begins with a comprehensive risk assessment. Organizations must assess the existing authentication infrastructure to identify potential vulnerabilities, and tailor security measures to address them.

Understanding that not all applications and data require equal security levels is crucial. For instance, sensitive customer data, intellectual property, or financial apps may demand stricter authentication than general employee tools. By categorizing data by sensitivity and applying suitable protection, organizations can prioritize both security and user experience.

Strengthening authentication for individuals handling sensitive data is another key element in deploying Advanced Authentication, including implementing role-based access controls (RBAC), governance, and attestation programs to ensure that users only have access to what's essential for their tasks.

2. Embracing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA is crucial for Access Management due to the insufficient security provided by passwords alone. MFA minimizes reliance on passwords (something they know) by extending the authentication challenge to include something they have (a hardware token or phone), and something they are (biometric data).

For highly sensitive data, a combination of factors such as physical tokens and trusted devices should be used to maximize security. For less sensitive data, a strong password combined with a one-time password (OTP) or PUSH mobile app may be sufficient.

The balance between security and usability is vital. Combining mobile authentication and device-level biometrics with ML will improve security without compromising usability.

3. Leveraging Adaptive Authentication: In a landscape characterized by evolving cyber threats, adaptive authentication emerges as a potent defense mechanism. This method employs ML and behavioral analysis to assess the risk level of each login attempt. As a result, the authentication process can be dynamically adjusted based on the perceived risk level and, for example, skip MFA when the risk is low, apply step-up authentication when necessary, or deny access altogether. This approach strikes an optimal balance between security and user convenience.

4. Continuous Monitoring and Analysis: To ensure better authentication controls, it is necessary to integrate Security Information and Event Management tools (SIEM) with the Identity and Access Management (IAM) platform. This will enable real-time monitoring, enabling swift detection and response to anomalies. Immediate alerts will notify security teams of unauthorized access attempts, unusual login patterns, or other suspicious activity, allowing potential risks to be promptly investigated and addressed.

5. User Empowerment through Education: The success of implementing Advanced Authentication depends largely on user training and education. One key aspect is for organizations to provide clear, user-friendly documentation and training materials on the implementation and use of extended authentication methods. To gain understanding and buy-in, organizations should highlight real-life examples of security breaches and their consequences. Training users in how to detect phishing, and running internal phishing campaigns to monitor user maturity is particularly important.

By raising awareness of the risks associated with weak authentication methods and highlighting the benefits of strong security, organizations create a culture of cybersecurity vigilance.

In Conclusion

Advanced Authentication stands as a pioneering leap forward in securing digital landscapes. By weaving together multiple layers of security, ML and adaptive technologies, this approach creates a formidable defense against emerging cyber threats.

At the heart of Advanced Authentication is a commitment to protect data, users, and digital assets. By adhering to best practices, organizations fortify their cybersecurity posture while enhancing user confidence. As technology evolves and cyber threats become increasingly sophisticated, the implementation of Advanced Authentication becomes not just a necessity but a strategic imperative.

Image credit: ArtemisDiana/

Stuart Sharp is VP, IAM Strategy at One Identity.

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