The Pandora’s Box of the “passwords are dead” movement

I’ve previously commented on the “passwords are dead” movement, and why I don’t agree that passwords are dead. But I recently realized that the “logic” behind the “passwords are dead” movement could endanger ALL forms of multi-factor authentication.

If I may summarize the argument, the “passwords are dead” movement is based upon the realization that passwords are an imperfect authentication method. People use obvious passwords, people re-use passwords, individuals don’t guard their passwords, and even companies don’t guard the passwords that they store. Because of these flaws, many passwords have been compromised over the years.

From this indisputable fact, the “passwords are dead” advocates have concluded that the best thing to do is to refrain from using passwords entirely, and to use some other authentication method instead (choosing from the five authentication factors).

In my spiral of people connections, the most frequently suggested replacement for passwords is biometrics. As a biometric content marketing expert and a biometric proposal writing expert, I’m certainly familiar with the arguments about the wonderfulness of biometric authentication.

But wait a minute. Isn’t it possible to spoof biometrics? And when a biometric is compromised, you can’t change your finger or your face like you can with a compromised password. And the Internet tells me that biometrics is racist anyway.

So I guess “biometrics are dead” too, using the “passwords are dead” rationale.

And we obviously can’t use secure documents or other “something you have” modalities either, because “something you have” is “something that can be stolen.” And you can’t vet the secure document with biometrics because we already know that biometrics are spoofable and racist and all that.

So I guess “secure documents are dead” too.

Somewhere you are? Yeah, right. There are entire legitimate industries based upon allowing someone to represent that they are in one place when in fact they are in another place.

So I guess “geolocation is dead” too.

You see where this leads.

NO authentication method is perfect.

But just because an authentication method has imperfections doesn’t mean that it should be banned entirely. If you open the Pandora’s Box of declaring imperfect authentication methods “dead,” there will be NO authentication methods left.

Epimetheus opening Pandora’s Box. By Giulio Bonasone – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0,

And before talking about multi-factor authentication, remember that it isn’t perfect either. With enough effort, a criminal could spoof multiple factors to make it look like someone with a spoofed face and a spoofed driver’s license is physically present at a spoofed location. Of course it takes more effort to spoof multiple factors of authentication…

…which is exactly the point. As security professionals already know, something that is harder to hack is less likely to be hacked.

“I don’t want to say multi-factor is terrible. All things considered, it is generally better than single-factor and we should strive to use it wherever it makes sense and is possible. However, if someone tells you something is unhackable, they’re either lying to you or dumb.”

And heck, be wild and throw a strong password in as ONE of the factors. Even weak passwords of sufficient length can take a long time to crack, provided they haven’t been compromised elsewhere.

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Luckily, my experience extends beyond biometrics to other authentication methods, most notably secure documents and digital identity. And I’m familiar with multi-factor authentication methods that employ…well, multiple factors of authentication in various ways. Including semi-random presentation of authentication factors; if you don’t know which authentication factors will be requested, it’s that much harder to hack the authentication process.

Do you want to know more? Do you need help in communicating the benefits of YOUR authentication mechanism? Contact me.