Identity Theft - Should You Be Worried?
by Robin Gertsen - Senior Product Marketing Manager, PortWise - Tuesday, 2 May 2006.
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A big step that organizations can do to ensure that trust is established between users and applications is to implement stronger authentication methods. The most basic authentication methods are very easy to break, even for novice hackers and password cracking tools, but enforcing strong one-factor authentication, coupled with two- or three-factor authentication can virtually guarantee ID theft is minimized due to the sensitive and unique nature of the authentication methods.

Basic authentication requires users to input a username and a password, and everything will be available to them, including sensitive and confidential information. But making the distinction on how users authenticate is a big step in stopping sensitive information being stolen. For example, an organization could set the policy that if a user uses one-factor authentication, they will only have access to the most basic information, such as e-mail, but if the user uses higher levels of authentication then more applications and data will be available to them, such as e-mail, sales systems, purchasing systems, etc.

A large percentage of stolen data comes from unhappy employees who leave backdoors open to themselves where they only need the right username and password to get access to everything, after they have left the organization. With two-factor authentication, requiring the user to own a unique possession, such as PDA, mobile phone, or hardware token (usually a password generating device issued by a third party) , would make it much harder for disgruntled employees to hack their way back into systems to cause damage.

Highly sensitive systems could even require an extra level of protection adding in bio-metric authentication, where the user needs to use a physical attribute unique to them, such as their iris or finger print.

In March of 2005, Techworld reported on a gang of scam artists who had sent out millions of daily emails to users, and once the user clicked on the links in the email, a Trojan keylogger was automatically installed on the user’s device, recording everything the user did and sending it back to the gang. The gang was so successful in their operation that they managed to profit more than $37,000,000 before being shut down. Most of the profit came from users accessing online banking systems and credit card purchases, which could be easily captured and exploited. Two-factor authentication could have ensured that information had stayed safe, because users would be required to enter a unique one-time password that is unique to a device that they own.

Several large financial institutions across the world are now starting to implement two-factor authentication ensuring that trust can be re-established with their users, fearing that if nothing is done profits are lost, customer confidence will drop, and the brand will be damaged for long-term disadvantages.

The icing on the cake: adding an extra layer of security

Most organizations think that providing users with secure authentication, along with the latest anti-virus and anti-spyware software should take care of the problem of identity theft. The reality is that with the changing paradigm of how users connect, security also needs to be present after the user ends the session or connection.

In the 1980s and 1990s it was easy to control what devices users used to connect with, but in today’s world, go into any city around the world and there are bound to be several internet cafés offering easy and cheap access, or walk through the airport and you are guaranteed to find a number of Internet kiosks offering quick and easy access to the Internet. Any time a user uses an “insecure” device, they could be leaving a trail of information behind, stored in cookies, URL history, temporary files, and even downloaded files. For organizations to offer mobile access from any location using any device, automatic clean-up of session data is imperative.

By combining the session clean-up with an upfront device assessment, it becomes easy to detect if the user is using a device approved by the organization or if it is not approved. If the device is not approved, once the user is done using the system to connect to e-mail or any other number of applications, data should be erased immediately from the device.

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