Every day, billions of people log into various accounts and websites online. Many of these users have something in common: they use token authentication. For something that is so widely used and important for the average user, token authentication is something that people rarely ever think about. There are millions of exchanges that happen every day between users and servers, and token authentication is being used in order to keep private data safe and secure from prying eyes.
Token Authentication Beginnings
Things weren’t always handled this way though; there was a time when token authentication wasn’t widely used and server based authentication was more commonplace. There were many issues with server based authentication including, but most especially, the distinct lack of security. Basically, server based authentication would follow a relatively static pattern with one key flaw: the server would create an entirely new record associated with the user every time that they logged into the system.
Every. Single. Time.
Server based authentication presented many issues of convenience and scalability. On top of that, the system requirements for memory and hardware resulted in a large budget requirement with little return on investment.
Token authentication solves the problem by creating a simple code in the form of a shared secret between the server and the user, which is only recognized for the duration of a single login. Unlike server based authentication, the more streamlined approach offered by token authentication allows for a more convenient, scalable method of securing accounts, and reducing strain on the server end.
In the recent years of the digital age, a drive for a more secure login has pushed many websites, companies and corporations towards using more than one factor for authentication. It has become a two-factor world, and token authentication has begun to outshine the competition.
Instead of having just a weak username and password to use for authentication, users are required to make use of One-time passwords (OTPs) or other secondary verification methods to confirm the legitimacy of a login request. One example of a company that does this is Google with their text message authentication service. This process helps Google provide an extra layer of protection for its users in order to protect important and/or sensitive information.
There are many different ways that a user can incorporate token authentication into their existing login process. Most methods can be categorized as either hard tokens or soft tokens and come with the same advantages and disadvantages inherent in each group.
A soft token is any token that uses software in order to authenticate a user. So for example a software token could be a code sent to your email account in order to make sure that you are who you say you are when you are attempting to authenticate an account. A soft token can be useful as there is no physical token that needs to be carried, you generally just need access to a device, like a phone or computer, in order to authenticate yourself.
The most obvious disadvantage to using soft token authentication is the possibility of an attacker having access to the software that is receiving/sending the code.
A hardware token is a physical device that can authenticate a user. Generally, hard token authentication relies on one-time passwords synced to a shared clock between token and server. If the two match, the authentication is allowed. Some examples of a hardware token would be a usb connector, cryptographic keys that can verify biometric data, or a Yubikey in order to authenticate yourself.
Of course, the disadvantage to using hard token authentication is the physical item itself. These items can be stolen by a particularly devious attacker, or even lost or damaged by the end user.
Looking at the Future of Token Authentication
In the past, expensive hard tokens were the most commonly used method to create an extra layer of authentication protection. Unfortunately, these forms of authentication can be difficult to scale, especially for large organizations. With the advent of the mobile age, it is much easier to implement soft token authentication.
Even though a multifactor approach today makes authenticating a much more secure process, there is always room for innovation and improvement. The real heart of the issue is in properly determining if the user is truly who they claim to be. Right now, multifactor token authentication is the simplest way to confirm user identity. The future will bring even more secure methods that will take into account dozens of different factors in order to establish that identity verification.
As smartphones get smarter every year, biometric authentication will become a bigger factor, and known user information and behavior will increasingly be referenced for various purposes – similar to contextual authentication today. Phones are already starting to learn more about us as we use them, in order to give us a tailored experience. Smartphone personal assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now will do the same in the future, streamlining our authentication as well. Soon enough, phones will be able to interpret the veracity of a user’s identity based on behavior. From there it will be a simple matter to determine authentication status. Someone has to lead the way, and it all starts with token authentication.
Regardless of what direction technology goes in terms of token authentication, we can be sure that innovation in this field will only get more advanced and better at keeping our information safe. Much to the chagrin of some purists, perhaps, the Internet and its slue of websites and applications shows no signs of dying any time soon. Where there is that much access, security will always be paramount. Token authentication will keep end users secure in the knowledge that their private information is as safe as it can be.