Strategies for Deploying 2FA


Two Factor Authentication (2FA) enables applications and services to tie the usage of a two things (typically something you know and something you have) to user accounts so that both factors must be proven prior to the use of the service. Normally the second factor is a device (either physical or virtual); a great example of this is how Google and Microsoft have added support for One Time Passwords (OTP) in their online services.

With that said there are many forms of two factor authentication and OTP is simply one of them. When we look at deploying 2FA, before you get to choosing what kind of technology to adopt you first need to understand “how” we will you use it and where? The most common answers to the “how” question are:

  • Optional usage.
  • Conditional usage.
  • Mandatory usage.
  • Account / password recovery.

You will notice I have crossed out the first option (optional usage); the reasoning behind this is that optional usage provides no security benefit. This is because the attacker can still choose to attack the weaker mechanism.

Next is conditional usage, an example to of this model would be how some solutions prompt you to authenticate with a stronger mechanism when performing a privileged operation such as modifying another users account.

Then there is mandatory usage, this is of course what we all envision when we think of using Two Factor Authentication. Unfortunately it is seldom used as it has significant barriers do adoption, the three most common issues I see preventing this model being used are:

  1. The usability of these solutions is normally considered too poor for the serviced user community to be expected to use all the time.
  2. Accessing the same account from multiple devices and locations where the second factor is not available or a viable option.
  3. Not all services are able to be enabled for multi-factor authentication. The canonical example here is that of POP/IMAP services offered by Google, by default they allow the user to log in via POP/IMAP with a password.

This leaves many sites coming to the conclusion that leveraging 2FA for account recovery (a special case of conditional usage) is the most deployable solution for their user bases.

But what if you want to actually achieve a world where the usage of 2FA is mandatory? The answer is buried in risk assessment, planning and having a technology strategy that includes acceptable authentication technologies.

Organizations should pick what technologies they will utilize for authentication and incorporate these as requirements into the procurement and technology adoption processes. While its natural (and even beneficial) to standardize on a single technology the business requirements and technological realities mean that you will have a suite of standards you will need to support.

Usually the process of establishing those standards begins with an inventory of what technologies you are already using. If you are an enterprise and running Windows that list will include Kerberos with passwords as well as NTLM.

Next one assesses the how extensive the use of each of these protocols are in your environment, what platforms/applications support those protocols, how business critical/sensitive those systems are, what are the constituency of users that use them and finally getting a solid understanding of the risks those protocols represent in your environment.

Armed with this information you now have sufficient information to build a plan, most of the time the conclusion will be something along the following:

  1. You are leveraging some legacy authentication mechanism (possibly NTLM) that you need to aggressively deprecate.
  2. There are small (relatively speaking) set of users who perform business critical / sensitive operations and if those users were to step up to a stronger authentication mechanism the business would benefit.
  3. If will take numerous budgetary cycles to standardize the organization on the desired core authentication technologies.

Armed with this information you are now prepared to evaluate the various approaches to Two Factor Authentication and build a practical plan on how you get it ubiquitously deployed. That deployment will likely involve all of the approaches called out above:

  1. Optional usage – Piloting the use of the chosen technologies with users across your targeted user segments, you ask them to use the new authentication solution as their primary authentication technique.  You also ask them to track their experiences, report their problems and recommendations to increase chances of successful adoption. During this time it is very valuable to measure their actual usage of the technology use audit logs if available.
  2. Conditional usage – Usually it is not possible to jump directly to mandatory usage so the most sensitive users and scenarios are tackled first, for reasons called out above this also typically requires starting by only requiring the usage when possible or appropriate. This allows you to quickly begin to realize the benefits of deploying this technology while not negatively effecting productivity.
  3. Mandatory usage – Once you feel prepared to support the usage as the primary authentication approach for your identified application and scenarios you move to making the usage you’re your identified users / scenarios mandatory. This is typically done one user segment at a time, each business has different operational requirements and as you deploy to each community of users you learn something new that can be used to ensure the project is a business success.

Hopefully you found this post useful, let me know if you have any questions and would like to discuss your particular situation and how one can approach eliminating or at least reducing your organizations dependency on passwords.

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