Passwordless MFA Empowers Zero Trust Initiatives

Interest in Zero Trust security strategies has increased significantly recently. The main reason is the drastic increase in cyber attacks due to increased remote work.

For example, Check Point Research found that the number of weekly attacks on the average corporate network increased by 50 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year. The Identity Theft Resource Center concluded that the number of data breaches in 2021 increased by 68 percent compared to 2020 – setting a new record. Beyond Identity found that 70 percent of customers stopped using a service because of a reported security breach. This is a clear indication of the collapse in sales that companies face if they do not take cyber security seriously.

The pandemic has further accelerated the trend toward remote working. It uses protocols and applications that are vulnerable to hacks and security breaches. Indeed, developers have usually fixed these vulnerabilities quickly as soon as they are discovered, and many companies are making efforts to improve their protection. But mostly, the hackers are always one step ahead.

Hacking tools such as ransomware-as-a-service enable attacks even with little programming knowledge. In addition, the stolen information brings in higher and higher ransoms. Companies, therefore, urgently need to protect their networks. The most secure method is implementing zero-trust security built on top of passwordless and tamper-proof multi-factor authentication (MFA).

Basics Of Zero Trust

Zero Trust overturns the traditional moat mentality of cybersecurity, where all security resides at the edge of the network. Conventional security thinking trusts the user by verifying their Identity. Typically, this is done through username and password, sometimes through MFA (with additional factors such as one-time passwords or SMS messages).

With Zero Trust, there is never trust, it is continuously verified, and every action on the network is viewed as a potential threat. MFA plays a central role in this, sometimes using factors such as cryptographic tokens tied to a specific device and user. During a session, the user only has access to what they need to complete their task.

In the background, the session is monitored for suspicious behavior, automatically increasing the number of factors to ensure the legitimacy of a request. But even with these additional measures, hackers still get in through password exploitation and inherent issues with traditional MFA.

Traditional MFA Does Not Offer Zero Trust

Password-based MFA has long been the standard for enterprises to implement better cybersecurity. But at its core, traditional MFA still relies on a level of Trust inconsistent with Zero Trust security.

Passwords that keep getting hacked are still a factor, as are other easy-to-compromise elements like push notifications, texts, or magic links. These factors are uncertain and do not provide the security that MFA is supposed to provide. Because these codes are easy to intercept and fake, and that happens more often than you think. Also, none of these factors can ensure that the person who signs up is who they say they are. They, therefore, do not help to achieve zero trust security. Consequently, it is time to leave behind texts, codes, push notifications, and passwords.

Passwordless And Non-Tamperable MFA

Passwordless and tamper-proof MFA received a considerable boost in the US earlier this year when the Biden administration released its long-awaited zero-trust policy for the federal government. In its ambitious strategy, the government hopes to transition all-digital government infrastructure to Zero Trust by September 2024.

But how do passwordless and tamper-proof MFA differ from traditional MFA solutions:

  • Passwordless: The password is abolished. Users must identify themselves via an authentication token assigned to the user and device to prevent access from unauthorized devices or credential theft.
  • Anti-counterfeiting: MFA codes and challenges sent via insecure methods such as security questions, SMS, push notifications, and emails can be easily intercepted. On the other hand, Biometric, hardware, and software-based keys are much more difficult to crack.

Eliminating the password eliminates the risk of password-based attacks, the root cause of data breaches. At the same time, by making the MFA less vulnerable to phishing, the risk of an attack is reduced to almost zero. Add continuous background monitoring, and organizations can meet the Zero Trust requirement: never trust, always verify.

Conclusion

Passwordless and untameable MFA is the only way to implement an actual Zero Trust strategy. That’s because it’s the only solution that offers a secure identity. A password-based MFA cannot do this, as it still relies on the passwords reaching the rightful user.

Another key difference is that most traditional MFAs only require you to authenticate once. With passwordless and unchangeable MFA, the user is constantly authenticated while adjusting access based on risk.

Traditional MFAs are also not exactly user-friendly. However, implementing Zero Trust measures is only worthwhile if the users accept it. A passwordless MFA removes this resistance and is, therefore, more successful.

However, it is not enough that the MFA is passwordless and immutable. It should also be invisible. After a simple registration process, visitors receive an immutable cryptographic credential tied to the device and user. It was logging in after registration is as easy as one click. All MFA factors are invisible to the user and built into the process. The risk of password-based attacks is eliminated, and thanks to continuous monitoring, the risk, and scope of insider attacks are drastically reduced. An invisible MFA is Zero Trust in its purest form.

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