O Assuring Authentication

Authentication is a process that requires both credentials and authorization to complete an interaction. Furthermore, identification is required for obtaining both credentials and authorization. Therefore, you need to both identify and authorize anything to authenticate it. This assures the authentication is valid.

When designing an authentication process, review each part of the process for limitations. By outlining the process and determining any limitations, you can see where authentication will work and how effective it will be at controlling access.

To prevent fraud, do not publicize the naming convention for logins and keep the criteria for how an agent or user is identified as secret as possible. An easily guessed login due to publicized or obvious naming conventions weakens the process and then the attacker only needs to guess or force the password. Securing both the login and password inhibits an attacker and strengthens the process. Using publicized, common, or easily guessed account names should only be allowed for local access to minimize dictionary attacks.

To stave off brute-force attacks, a password of at least eight characters and symbols should be required to improve complexity. This requirement will lengthen the overall time needed to successfully guess the password.

Protecting a system or service from getting overwhelmed can be difficult since the controls themselves are often what get overwhelmed. Slowing down the input response with a simple pause after acceptance will prevent a brute-force program from consuming too many system resources, making guesses so quickly that an administrator can't respond. However, this does not make any sense for SPAM and malware scanners, which should operate as fast as possible to authenticate the "good" and delete the "bad." Oftentimes this kind of denial comes at the expense of the parser where extremely large files or extremely deep directory structures are used to exhaust the service. Limiting the authentication verification scope is another means of protecting resources from being wasted unnecessarily.

When the verification criteria becomes tainted with an outside suggestion, the verification process will no longer work as controlled. The files that the authentication process relies on must be constantly monitored for integrity changes. If these files can change, then any intruder can add himself or herself to the list of those who should be accepted. Some malware and rootkits are designed to remove their signatures from scanners before they install themselves. Spammers are known to poison the black hole databases that ban them. Even attacks that poison DNS will provide access to systems that authenticate by domain name. Constant vigilance regarding integrity and/or total security for those information stores is needed to ensure that an authentication process keeps doing its job correctly.

Typically, however, attackers use disguises, which is why so many attacks focus on fraud and circumvention. Black lists are easiest to fool because they look for something specific to deny. Any change from what is expected will fool the authorization verification, much like wearing a costume might fool a sentry. White lists can also be fooled in the same way. Since a white list holds a list of all that is acceptable and denies anything that's not, all an attacker needs to do is be like something in the list. Wireless MAC filters that accept only certain MAC addresses are fooled by having the right MAC address sniffed from the air and duplicated via software on an unauthorized laptop. Oftentimes pay WiFi connection points use MAC authentication, and by sniffing the air for valid connecting laptops, attackers can hijack their usage minutes by just changing their MAC to match a paying one. IP address-based authentication, which exists to assure only certain servers can connect to a specific database, can be tricked by just faking the IP address of the request packets and sniffing or redirecting the replies from the network. Even so-called heuristics or anomaly detection is also no different than white list verification, in which a "good" or "normal" behavior is first established and then all behavior that does not match is flagged or rejected.

Fraud and circumvention can become a complicated affair where network protocols are twisted, attacks are launched according to specific timing sequences, and files self-mutate all to evade detection. Therefore, you need to control all interactions with the authentication process to assure it works properly.

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