Multifactor Authentication Delivers the Convenience and Security Online Shoppers Demand

January 21, 2019
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4 min read

Another holiday shopping season has ended, and for exhausted online consumers, this alone is good news. The National Retail Federation (NRF), the world’s largest retail trade association, reported that the number of online transactions surpassed that of in-store purchases during Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S. Online shopping is a growing, global trend that is boosted by big retailers and financial institutions.

However, according to a Javelin Strategy & Research study, many consumers remain skeptical about the security of online shopping and mobile banking systems. While 70 percent of those surveyed said they feel secure purchasing items from a physical store, the confidence level dropped to 56 percent for online purchases and 50 percent for mobile banking. How can retailers increase customer trust toward online transactions?

Security Versus Convenience: The Search for Equilibrium Continues

When we register for online services, we implicitly balance security and convenience. When we’re banking and shopping online, the need for security is greater. We are willing to spend more time to complete a transaction — for example, by entering a one-time password (OTP) received via SMS — in exchange for a safer experience. On the other hand, convenience becomes paramount when logging into social networks, often at the expense of security.

(Source: IBM Future of Identity Study 2018)

A growing number of users are finding the right balance between convenience and security in biometric authentication capabilities such as fingerprint scanning and facial recognition. Passwords have done the job so far, but they are destined for an inexorable decline due to the insecurity of traditional authentication systems.

According to the “IBM Future of Identity Study 2018,” a fingerprint scan is perceived as the most secure authentication method, while alphanumeric passwords and digital personal identification numbers (PINs) are decidedly inferior. However, even biometrics have their faults; there is already a number of documented break-ins, data breaches, viable attack schemes and limitations. For instance, how would facial recognition behave in front of twins?

The Future of Identity Verification and Multifactor Authentication

Multifactor authentication (MFA) represents a promising alternative. MFA combines multiple authentication factors so that if one is compromised, the overall system can remain secure. The familiar system already in use for many online services — based on the combination of a password and an SMS code to authorize a login or transaction — is a simple example of two-factor authentication (2FA).

Authentication factors that are not visible, such as device fingerprinting, geolocation, IP reputation, device reputation and mobile network operator (MNO) data, can contribute substantially to identity verification. Some threat intelligence platforms can already provide most of this information to third-party applications and solutions. These elements add context to the user and device used for the online transaction and assist in quantifying the risk level of each operation.

The new available features open the way to context-based access, which conditions access to the dynamic assessment of the risk associated with a single transaction, modulating additional verification actions when the risk level becomes too great.

Existing technologies for context-based access allow security teams to:

  • Register the user’s device, silently or subject to consent, and promptly identify any device substitution or attempt to impersonate the legitimate device;
  • Associate biometric credentials to registered devices, thus binding the legitimate device, user and online application;
  • Spot known users accessing data from unregistered devices and require additional authentication steps;
  • Move to passwordless login, based on scanning a time-based QR code without typing a password;
  • Verify the user presence, limiting the effectiveness of reply attacks and other automated attacks;
  • Use an authenticator app to access online services with 2FA that leverages the biometric device on the smartphone, such as the fingerprint reader, and stores biometric data only on the user’s device;
  • Use advanced authentication mechanisms, such as FIDO2, which standardizes the use of authentication devices for access to online services in mobile and desktop environments; and
  • Calculate the risk value for a transaction based on the user’s behavioral patterns.

Combining all these elements, context-based access solutions conduct a dynamic risk assessment of each transaction. The transaction risk score, compared against predefined policies, can allow or block an operation or request additional authentication elements.

Get Your Customers Excited About Security

The aforementioned “IBM Future of Identity Study 2018” revealed clear demographic, geographic and cultural differences regarding the acceptance of authentication methods. It is therefore necessary to favor the adoption of next-generation authentication mechanisms and other emerging alternatives to traditional passwords.

Imposing a particular method of identity verification in the name of improved security can lead to user frustration, missed opportunities and even loss of customers. Instead, you should present new authentication mechanisms as more practical and convenient — that way, your customers will perceive it as a step toward innovation and progress rather than an impediment. If your authentication method feels “cool,” your users will be more excited to show it to colleagues and friends and less frustrated with a clunky login experience. You may even want to consider offering a wide range of authentication options and letting your users choose which they prefer.

Multifactor authentication is here to stay as traditional passwords lose favor with both security professionals and increasingly privacy-aware customers. If retailers can frame these new techniques in a way that gets users excited about security, the future of identity verification in the industry looks bright.

Read the e-book: Govern users and identities

Pier Luigi Rotondo
Technical Enablment Specialist, IBM

Pier Luigi Rotondo works for the IBM Security Technical Enablement team, focusing on Identity and Access Management solutions. In the past, he has contribute...
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