It seems the news has been rife with stories of security breaches lately. As a past and present federal contractor, the OPM breach impacted me directly. That and one other breach impacted my current client. The lessons I took from these and earlier breaches were:
- Use a password manager
- Enable 2-factor authentication wherever it’s offered
To implement lesson 1, I use 1Password. It runs on every platform I use (Mac OS X, iOS and Windows), and has browser plug-ins for the browsers I use most (Chrome, Safari, IE). Using the passwords 1Password generates means I no longer commit the cardinal security sin of reusing passwords across multiple sites. Another nice feature specific to 1Password is Watchtower. If a site where you have a username and password is compromised, the software will indicate that site is vulnerable so you know to change your password. 1Password even has a feature to flag sites with the Heartbleed vulnerability.
The availability of two-factor authentication has been growing (somewhat unevenly, but any growth is good), but it wasn’t until I responded to a tweet from @felixsalmon asking about two-factor authentication that I discovered how loosely some people define two-factor authentication. According to this New York Times interactive piece, most U.S. banks offer two-factor authentication. That statement can only be true if “two-factor” is defined as “any item in addition to a password”. By that loose standard, most banks do offer two-factor authentication because the majority of them will prompt you for an additional piece of “out of wallet” information if you attempt to log in from a device with an IP address they don’t recognize. Such out-of-wallet information could be a parent’s middle name, your favorite food, the name of your first pet, or some other piece of information that only you know. While it’s better than nothing, I don’t consider it true two-factor authentication because:
- Out-of-wallet information has to be stored
- The out-of-wallet information might be stored in plain-text
- Even if out-of-wallet information is stored hashed, hashed & salted, or encrypted with one bank, there’s no guarantee that’s true everywhere the information is stored (credit bureaus, health insurers, other financial institutions you have relationships with, etc)
One of the things that seems clear after the Get Transcript breach at IRS is that the thieves had access to the out-of-wallet information of their victims, either because they purchased the information, stole it, or found it on social media sites they used.
True two-factor authentication requires a time-limited, randomly-generated piece of additional information that must be provided along with a username and password to gain access to a system. Authentication applications like the ones provided by Google or Authy provide a token (a 6-digit number) that is valid for 30-60 seconds. Some systems provide this token via SMS so a specific application isn’t required. By this measure, the number of banks and financial institutions that support is quite a bit smaller. One of the other responses to the @felixsalmon tweet was this helpful URL: https://twofactorauth.org/. The list covers a lot of ground, including domain registrars and cryptocurrencies, but might not cover the specific companies and financial institutions you work with. In my case, the only financial institution I currently work with that offers true two-factor authentication is my credit union–Tower Federal Credit Union. Hopefully every financial institution and company that holds our personal information will follow suit soon.