As businesses embrace a kaleidoscope of cloud-based platforms and apps, managing user and machine access has become challenging. Traditional, static passwords and secrets simply can't keep pace with the ever-evolving security landscape. The need for a more robust and flexible solution is undeniable.
It is time to invest in new authentication mechanisms. Just like metal keys and locks are being replaced by access cards that employees receive once their identity has been validated and their access permissions determined, token-based authentication allows access to services and resources once the requestor’s identity has been authenticated.
What is token-based authentication?
Token-based authentication is a secure protocol that leverages computer-generated tokens to verify user identities for network and resource access. These tokens act as digital keys, granting temporary access upon verification, often employed in conjunction with passwords as part of two-factor authentication (2FA) for enhanced security.
To overcome the vulnerabilities of password-based authentication, a diverse set of methods have emerged. These methods, though distinct in their approach, all share a common thread: they rely on one of three factors:
- Knowledge: What you know, like a password or PIN.
- Inherence: What you are, such as a fingerprint or voice print.
- Possession: What you have, like a security token or phone.
Password authentication sits squarely in the knowledge category, relying on a secret code or phrase users have memorized and chosen. In contrast, biometric authentication, like fingerprint or voice recognition, falls under the inherence category, leveraging unique biological traits inherent to each individual. Finally, token-based authentication belongs to the possession category, requiring users to have a physical or digital token like a security key or mobile app for access.
How does it work?
Tokens are available in two varieties: hardware and software. Regardless of their type, they are used to authenticate requests to networks or servers, functioning similarly to passwords but offering a more seamless user experience. This approach eliminates the need for users to remember multiple passwords. As the number of applications and services requiring authentication grows, relying solely on login IDs and passwords can result in password fatigue.
Physical or hardware tokens are typically plugged into a USB port. Once connected, the system cross-references the token's data with its stored database information. If the match is accurate, the user gains authorization to access the system.
On the other hand, modern web applications typically use software tokens, known as JSON web tokens (JWTs) to authenticate their users. JWTs are encoded as JSON objects and operate within an open standard for securely transmitting information between parties. In practice, user data is encrypted by an identity provider into a JWT. The service provider then stores this encrypted data and uses it to confirm the user identity in every subsequent request. This ensures that criminals cannot access user data—which is held by the identity provider—in the event of a breach to the service provider.
While classic token-based systems still exist, the rise of smartphones has revolutionized token based authentication, turning them into mobile-as-a-token powerhouses. Smartphones now act as secure code generators, providing users instant, on-demand access to their networks. During login, users receive a cryptographically secure one-time passcode (OTP) that vanishes after 30 or 60 seconds, depending on server settings. These OTPs can be generated by an authenticator app on the phone or sent via SMS, offering flexibility and convenience.
The token-based authentication process
When using an authentication based system, your users will only need to verify their identity once and then are allowed access to the system for an allotted time frame. Here’s how that process works:
- The user requests service or access to the system
- The server determines if the user is verified to enter the system and can be trusted to use it.
- When the user is verified, the system issues a token to the user which allows the user access to the system.
- The token is then stored in the user's browser while the user is working with the system.
Benefits of token-based authentication
Token-based authentication reduces dependence on vulnerable login credentials, aiding organizations in transitioning to a passwordless strategy for identity and access management (IAM). This method provides a robust authentication factor that enhances security in conjunction with biometrics, push notifications, and other methods.
Token-based authentication is particularly beneficial to mobile apps and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) applications. It simplifies the process of securing access to on-premise or cloud-based applications and enables organizations to actively adopt digital transformation initiatives by securely sharing their information through APIs with a wide range of customers, partners and suppliers beyond the traditional corporate perimeter.
Except for these important benefits, the use of tokens comes with many advantages such as:
Stateless: Tokens are self-contained and hold all necessary information for authentication, removing the need for the server to store session state. This significantly improves scalability and reduces server load.
Flexible Generation: Token generation is independent of verification, allowing you to generate tokens on distinct servers or even through different companies, increasing flexibility and potential for offloading workload.
Granular Access Control: Tokens can contain user roles, permissions, and authorized resources directly within their payload. This enables fine-grained access control and a more seamless user authentication experience.
How secure is token-based authentication?
Passwords alone are no longer a fortress against attackers breaching corporate networks. Compromised credentials, often stolen through brute force, dictionary attacks, or phishing scams, are their preferred weapon. But token-based authentication throws a wrench in their plans.
Tokens act as an additional layer of security, requiring access to the generating device, be it a USB key or a smartphone. This significantly raises the bar for attackers, making token-based methods highly effective and secure.
Despite the many advantages token-based authentication presents, they are not immune to security risks. For example, sending OTP tokens through SMS is not a best practice, since these tokens are susceptible to SIM swapping attacks and could be intercepted or compromised during transmission. For this reason, it is highly advisable to use authenticator apps for generating OTP tokens. Even then, there is always the danger of losing the smartphone of the USB key. A stolen token together with a compromised password can be the key to all your secrets, leaving your organization vulnerable to the criminals’ malicious intentions.
Best practices for managing tokens
Fortifying your corporate data against breaches and security incidents hinges on a robust and effective authentication strategy. But its true success lies in user adoption and adherence to best practices for protecting identities and credentials. Here are some key considerations when deploying a token-based authentication strategy:
- Select the right token. With so many available options to choose from, selecting the right token-based authentication method is an exercise that should consider factors like business environment, security, scalability, user experience, and cost of ownership.
- Keep it private. A token should be treated the same way user credentials are. Protecting the security and integrity of your tokens is the cornerstone of an effective IAM strategy. Stolen or compromised tokens act like Trojan Horses.
- Set an expiration date. A signed token carries inherent validity unless a signing key change occurs, or explicit expiration happens.
- Signing Key Change: When the signing key used to create the token is compromised or changed, all existing tokens signed with the old key become invalid. This ensures security and prevents unauthorized access.
- Explicit Expiration: Tokens can be assigned an explicit expiration time, after which they become invalid and cease to grant access. This approach enhances security by limiting the window of opportunity for potential misuse.
- Leverage HTTPS connections. HTTPS connections leverage encryption and security certifications to protect sensitive data. It is important to use HTTPS when sending tokens to avoid being intercepted.
The use of passwords or static secrets to authenticate users or machines accessing corporate resources is not adequate for modern enterprises migrating to hybrid environments. Organizations should adopt multi-factor authentication mechanisms while developing passwordless initiatives. Token-based authentication is the right approach towards providing a robust, efficient and effective Identity and Access Management (IAM) policy. However, as with every credential, tokens and their signing keys must be protected adequately to avoid compromise. Venafi TLS Protect offers the most reliable certificate and machine identity management platform.
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