Five ways to show business value of M-F authentication

There's more to selecting an enterprise second-factor authentication method than meets the retina scanner. As with any IT project, each dollar spent must produce business value. With M-F authentication, this translates to value beyond simply verifying an employee's identity.

Too often, security professionals are mesmerized by regulatory or best practice multi-factor (M-F) authentication mantras. They don't see that selling M-F solutions to management requires more than a strategically placed HIPAA, SOX, or CoBIT two-by-four. Besides, using regulatory requirements to squeeze additional security dollars out of the IT budget is an argument with diminishing returns.

There are five basic characteristics of an M-F solution that affect its potential for showing business value: an acceptable probability of success in verifying identity, easy enrollment, enhanced productivity, enables single sign on (SSO), and user acceptance.

  1. Achieves business-defined probability of success in verifying identity – This is the obvious function of an M-F solution. It should supplement the primary authentication method, usually password-based, by meeting a business-defined threshold for positive verification.Expecting an M-F method to produce 100 percent accuracy is the first mistake of many security managers. Even the effectiveness of finger-print recognition is determined by its error rate. Unless you're guarding the crown jewels or defense department secrets, the cost of solutions that achieve zero errors is usually higher than necessary to achieve reasonable and appropriate protection. The level of success necessary depends on the strength of your passwords, business tolerance for risk, and the existence and effectiveness of other access controls.
  2. Easy enrollment – Enrollment should take less than two minutes and be easily integrated into the new-hire process. Presenting a solution to management that requires employees to juggle three balls while whistling Dixie is not going to help your cause. For example, I just looked at a solution last week that required users to answer over 60 questions to get set up. The solution, currently an academic exercise only, achieved a probability of success that was high enough, but enrollment challenges make it almost impossible to gain management acceptance.
  3. Enhances productivity – The user experience should be improved, eliminating existing authentication challenges that go beyond regulatory compliance. In fact, selling a solution to management might require demonstrating how it can solve other issues. For example, many health care organizations deploy shared computers to nurses stations. Several nurses use these devices, logging in many times, during each shift. Their ability to provide care might be enhanced by an M-F solution that quickly verifies their identity and performs fast user switching, eliminating lost time dealing with system authentication issues. Proximity detection can make this happen before the nurse even gets to the keyboard.Another enhancement is SSO-like functionality. Although users have to authenticate to each application, the use of M-F technology can often eliminate the need to enter a user ID and password every time.
  4. Enables SSO – The M-F solution should be compatible with future SSO implementations. Selecting an M-F technology without considering SSO is a big mistake. The cost of M-F solutions can be high, and ripping it out if it isn't compatible with the SSO technology you choose is a career-limiting exercise. According to Forrester, the best approach is selecting an SSO solution first, even if implementation is two to three years in the future. Implementation of an M-F solution should be within the context of your SSO vision. Share that vision with management, positioning your biometrics or smart-card solution as an incremental step toward an improved user experience.
  5. Acceptable to users – The solution must be easy to use and actually improve the way users see the security that protects information assets. Nothing kills an M-F rollout faster than user revolt. User resistance is often based on one or more of the following,
    • Fear that the company stores unique personal information
    • Fear that the company is collecting personal health information (retinal scans look at patterns that are also used to determine certain health conditions) for insurance purposes
    • Fear that the red light in retinal scanning sensors is physically harmful
    • Fear of contracting diseases through contact with publicly used sensors
    • High error rate, without an easy alternative to logging in

The first four bullets under the fifth business value characteristic can be assuaged with pre-rollout discussions with users or user representatives, helping them understand the actual facts about the M-F technology selected. The last item is a technology challenge.

As I wrote early in this post, M-F technology isn't perfect. There will be errors. One error that frustrates users is a rejection of authorized login attempts. Frustration levels can be controlled by ensuring your solution includes an easy way to deal with these issues as they arise. Remember, this is supposed to improve user experience


Tom is a security researcher for the InfoSec Institute and an IT professional with over 30 years of experience. He has written three books, Just Enough Security, Microsoft Virtualization, and Enterprise Security: A Practitioner's Guide (to be publish...

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