Two-factor authentication solutions based on the one-time-password (OTP) concept have been providing strong protection for millions of accounts for almost as long as passwords have been around. This second factor, provided on top of the first one, typically a password, is valid for one authentication and dynamically generated. Over the years, the delivery methods for these second factors have changed in their appearance, from tokens users had to carry with them to software-based tokens and in their latest iteration (with the global advent of mobile phones) to text messages delivered to these devices. Although proven a good solution, there are some limiting inherent factors: manual user interaction (typing in the code), provisioning and setup for users and – being the logical attack location – the secrets needing to be stored centrally on the access servers.
In the last decade, with smartphones entering people’s lives on a global level and being carried around 24/7 in billions of shirt and pants pockets, handbags and – if you are working out or jogging – even strapped to your arms – your most personal device started accompanying you in unprecedented ways.
This widespread availability of newly available technology – which by today in most cases even includes a wide variety of biometric sensors, most commonly for scanning fingerprints, but also faces, the human eyes, voices or heartbeat rates – allows for new approaches without degrading the user experience (like interrupting what you are trying to do, change to another app, memorize the code and switch back to what you want to do, and sometimes even having to do it all over again because you just hit the 30-second limitation and have to redo it). Although solutions using OTP have definitely improved security, user acceptance has been ridiculously low (less than 10 percent according to research) due to the extra burdens created and not accepted by the vast majority of consumers. Another great benefit of most OTP solutions is the out-of-band ability (meaning it works even when you don’t have network coverage), the arrival of fast data networks like LTE, plus the majority of users in the regular consumer market accepting that in rare occasions there is no data connection (like in the elevator or in the basement on level -7). More than 90% of their usage of authentication services actually happens when they are covered. We have often heard phrases like ‘I am fine if it works wherever WhatsApp works’.
All of the above combined facts show that the requirements today for strong authentication solutions that are highly convenient (and ready to blow the legacy of SMS and OTP out of the water) are now widely available. And it is just the right timing as well, with the reports of OTP phishing and SMS interception and abuse steadily rising since 2015 and tech-savvy press articles starting to suggest back then to totally move away from these solutions (e.g. here’s an example on Wired), followed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) condemning it and no longer considering it verification.
The main issue why these solutions still are vulnerable to phishing and man-in-the-middle (interception of messages by the bad guys) attacks even for the widely used verification of password resets (see here) is the fact that they still use so called ‘shared secrets’, so symmetric encryption.
Solutions like sezame on the other hand use a newer approach, a so called PKI. Through the usage of asymmetric pairs of cryptographic keys there is no such thing as shared secrets, such as passwords, to be intercepted.
Sezame visiting HIMMS’18
In March 2018 we visited HIMMS in Las Vegas. HIMMS is the largest IT for Health exhibition worldwide and means Health Information Management Systems Society. Why did we visit HIMMS as our first visit to a healthcare exhibition? To put it bluntly the reason was that within the European healthcare sector the policies and decisions for healthcare are mostly done by the government which don’t take into account startups and thus it’s difficult in Europe to enter this domain easily. Next to that we think our solution is very well capable of supporting the healthcare sector since we are compliant to the European GPDR and eIDAS standards and our solution is simple and secure to use. Only in the US, Americans spend annually 3.4 trillion dollars on health (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/06/how-we-spend-3400000000000/530355/) which gives a picture how big this market is for IT.
What did we see at HIMMS, what were the largest takeaways?
Especially the first two take-aways are interesting to us. In the US the majority of interactions in the healthcare system is based on 1-factor authentication solutions or even no additional checks (in case of the usage of hospital badges e.g.). We also noticed that biometric authentication was not yet mainstream in healthcare solutions.
Our solution can be used within the healthcare domain on various use cases for e.g. logging into online accounts (with our solution there’s no risk of fraud, since only the account holder can log into the account), logging into a computer (no password needed anymore), logging into subdirectories / files with biometric authentication, validation of a customer on the other end of the phone line via remote biometric validation, unlocking electronic key lockers, or even linking a healthcare badge when walking through e.g. a hospital. As long as a smartphone can be carried along through the healthcare facility and the requester for the authentication is connected our solution works… simple and very secure!
Help us spread the word and free the world of the nuisance that passwords and PINs pose to all our lifes today and let’s make this world safer – especially in the healthcare environment!
We realize biometrics is a very worrying subject. Your passwords might get stolen, a very inconvenient thing to happen (if you ever had one stolen and then used, you know the feeling), but there is an upside (if you want to look at it from a positive perspective) – you can set a new password on all accounts you used it and you are ‘safe’ again. But with your biometrics, there is no such thing as changing them in case of theft – they will stick, no reset possible.
That’s why here at sezame we opted for the one path where this does not pose a threat – we do not have access to your fingerprints or face scans, we do not store them and we certainly do not send them over the internet – encrypted or not!
We follow the same pattern led by the industry giants implementing biometric sensors – your data stays within your most personal device, your smartphone. It never leaves the phone and (up to today) there is not one documented incident where the bad guys where able to access these biometrics on a phone – they are safely locked away in a so called TPM (trusted platform module) – a cryptoprocessor on the mainboard with isolated communication capabilities towards the main processor or the internet-connected modules. The implementation of these secure co-processors in today’s smartphones makes it literally impossible to access the raw fingerprint data via the operating system or any applications running on the phone (again, as of today, not a single documented incident). If you want to read more about this (in great detail, here’s a link to how Apple implements this in today’s iPhones: iOS_Security_Guide and Touch ID advanced security technology
So under the (pretty safe) assumption that your fingerprints or face scans are secure on your device, we decided to use an approach leveraging these sensors and their built-in security the way they were designed.
What are the advantages of remote authentication compared to the existing Touch ID solutions many apps already use on my iPhone?
There are many apps out there in the app store today that already make use of Touch ID & Face ID (on Apple smartphones) or fingerprint authentication in general (on most Android smartphones): your banking app, cloud storage providers (like Dropbox or OneDrive and many others), email clients or financial transaction apps (like your credit card company’s app or PayPal) and even your Amazon shopping app. They all make use of the great opportunity already built into mostly all modern smartphones of using your biometric identifiers for safely accessing services they provide without the constant hassle of entering PINs or passwords whenever you open them up or want to use them. This works great and is a big step towards a world without passwords.
So what is different if I use sezame?
The main difference is the way sezame makes use of these biometric sensors built into your most personal device. We leverage this secure approach of storing your biometrics (as you surely have heard before, your fingerprint details never leave your phone, they are securely stored in the phone and can not be retrieved by anyone, including us) to enable you to remotely log into your preferred service via your device. With all the aforementioned examples, you are more or less only replacing a locally stored PIN or password for your app with your fingerprint – releasing this stored PIN. sezame on the other hand enables this via its patented process e.g. on remote websites but more generally speaking also allows for unlocking more or less any service on a connected device (that can make use of our unique process via the installed SDK – a little piece of code available on all major platforms like Java).
Once your favorite website, service or device has implemented our solution, all you need to unlock, open or enable it is your fingerprint on your smartphone – secure and simple. So unlike the solutions you already know making use of Touch ID etc. which can only unlock one service/app locally because you stored a PIN for that app first, our solution has the potential to unlock mostly everything (if implemented on a wide enough scale of course) – and this without storing passwords or PINs, not centrally and not locally on your phone. So one app will be able to unlock all the services you use on a daily basis with the same method and the same convenience – again and again and again. Help us spread the word and free the world of the nuisance that passwords and PINs pose to all our lives today!