federalcto.com The Blog of a Federal CTO

29Jun/110

Wait! I thought the Feds only cared about smartcards . . .

Monday, I posted how Quest's tokens allow for users to program their own seeds. Which then prompted questions (internally) of, "Why do you even care? I thought you focused on the Federal space, and the Feds only cared about PAP, or CIV cards?"

Well, yes. For the most part, the US Federal government does focus on CAC (Common Access Card - used by the DOD), and PIV (Personal Identification Verification - mostly used by the civilian agencies) cards. And you'll also hear about PIV-I (PIV Interoperable) being involved. In the case of CAC and PIV, a user has to file an application, and some Federal agency would need to sponsor the individual to obtain such a card. This usually includes a background check, or some sort of formal review, before the card is issued. PIV-I tried to lower this barrier, by allowing non-Federal organizations (think government contractors, state governments, first responders, etc) to issue interoperable smartcards that are trusted by Federal systems.

However, PIV-I has a lower "assurance level," and often involves the same (or similar) sort of background check, just by a different organization. Assurance Levels are set by NIST and can be found detailed in their Special Publication (SP) 800-63. You'll see there are 4 assurance levels, and PIV-I only gets to level 2 (really, it gets to level 3, but with a less stringent background check, it can only be considered level 2.5 at best). CAC & PIV strive for level 4, if not level 3.

Ok. So we've established that smartcards are the main vehicle for 2-factor authentication in the Federal government, but I still haven't explained why tokens (RSA and other ones) crop up. And this is because a token is also an acceptable form of 2-factor authentication (read SP 800-63. and you'll see them mentioned as 'one-time passwords'). The "identity proofing" is still required, but tokens are actually a lot more flexible for several reasons.

1. Tokens can be assigned to any user (part 1). In the case of smartcards, they are usually assigned to people, while tokens can be shared. In fact, with our tokens, users can share tokens, but continue to use their distinct credentials (username and password) with the token. Which means that multiple admins can share a token to access a common system, but you can determine which admin logged in to do something with the particular token. This lets you continue to have 2 factor authentication, but also a "check-in/check-out" system for the particular token, allow more controls over the physical token (perhaps locked away in a safe or vault).

1a. Tokens can be assigned to any user (part 2). This is really a corrollary to 1, which is that the token can be assigned to service, or privileged accounts. Putting in the same sharing (check-in/check-out) model for a token, plus tie the password to a password vault product, and you have some pretty solid security around your privileged accounts such as oracle, root, Administrator, and other 'non-named' accounts.

2. Tokens are independent of environment. With smartcards, you have to have a reader attached to the user's console. No reader, or a malfunctioning reader, makes authentication a bit more difficult (read not possible). There are also situations where PKI simply isn't used. Older applications or platforms that do not make use of certificates cannot be changed quickly or easily. With a token, along with a username and password/PIN, you can continue to get 2FA, even in a scenario where a reader isn't available or not practical, or the app is expecting only a username and password. There is still some amount of work to be done, but it's often easier than tying an app into an entire PKI infrastructure.

2a. Tokens are independent of environment. There are some cases where the app or platform is capable of using PKI, but it is sitting in a location/area/network that simply cannot reach the PKI infrastructure to which the certificate on the smartcard is tied to. Not every system is actually on the internet (unbelievable, I know), which means tokens can provide access without requiring a centrally managed CA (certificate authority) to be present.

3. Tokens can be assigned much quicker and easier. And this is really the crux of why tokens come into play in the Federal space. Smartcards require a centrally issued certificate to be put onto the card. In some cases, there is no time for the requests to make their way through the system to get a certificate, publish it to a CA (certificate authority) and card, and get the card to the user. In other cases, the user simply will not get through a background check (or unwilling to get one), but has to be given access to certain systems. Yes, there are times when the Federal government has to deal with "questionable people" but they might as well make sure it's the right person, so 2-factor is still needed.

3a. Tokens can be revoked much quicker and easier. Because the token is usually some bit of plastic, it's easier to revoke and know that it won't be used in other ways. Most smartcards take a while to issue because they are also printed as a security badge. Meaning that even if the certificate on the card is revoked, the card may still be usable to get physical access to a building or location. However, it's unlikely that an agency will let you in because you have a black piece of plastic on your keychain.

So, with those all those reasons, tokens are not going away. Smartcards will continue to dominate, but there will continue to be a need for 2-factor authentication (2FA) using one-time passwords (OTP) in the Federal space.

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Copyright (C) 2010-2011 Dmitry Kagansky – All opinions expressed are those of the respective author and do not reflect the views of any affiliate, partner, employer or associate.