In recent years, multi-factor authentication (MFA) has become a central focus of a safe approach to cybersecurity. Nearly every account that a user has (whether for personal or business use) will implement MFA before allowing access.
Passwordless authentication is another feature that has grown in use over recent years. It is impractical to ask a user to remember different, complex passwords for each account, so passwordless authentication simplifies the process. Verification tokens can then be shared with applications and services, granting the user access without having to re-input their credentials.
How do we authenticate if not with a password? An increasingly popular method is hardware authentication tools.
Hardware authentication tools are dedicated physical devices that allow users to authenticate themselves and gain access to their digital services. These hardware devices can take different forms, from USB keys to devices that can scan biometric information such as face scans or fingerprint scans.
Hardware authentication technology is substantially more secure than passwords or secret questions. Passwords can be stolen, guessed, or shared. Secret questions can be researched – the name of your first pet is something that could well be on your social media profiles, for example. Hardware authentication tools, on the other hand, must be physically present when you log in. This means that the attacker would have to physically steal the device and then successfully log in – which is much more difficult than simply guessing your password.
Authentication has become a central focus in the identity and access management (IAM) space. In this article, we’ve listed the best hardware authentication tools on the market today. In each listing, we’ll cover the background of the device as well as some key features to help you decide which solution is best suited to your organization.
Hardware Authentication Tools: Everything You Need To Know (FAQs)
What Are Hardware Authentication Tools?
Hardware authentication is a way of verifying that a user is who they say they are. Hardware authentication requires a dedicated physical device to confirm identity, in addition to or instead of the conventional method of username and password logins. A hardware device will be linked to a specific user, meaning that only the registered user can use a device to gain access.
Some hardware authentication devices generate a unique, one-time code that must be entered at the time of login before granting access. Others use a biometric check, such as a fingerprint or face scan, to confirm a user’s identity and then allow access. This is effective as it means that even if an attacker has access to the correct login credentials, they are still unable to access the relevant accounts.
Only someone who is in possession of the correct login details, the hardware device, and possibly the correct biometric identifiers, is able to access the account.
Some hardware authentication devices offer additional features such as built-in storage. This allows you to store sensitive documents using advanced encryption, making them multi-use security devices. Some also have hidden storage compartments. This enables users to hide their most sensitive documents so that, if they’re asked to show what data they have, they can do so without revealing everything.
How Do Hardware Authentication Tools Work?
Hardware authentication tools work in different ways, depending on the authentication factor they use. Token-based hardware authenticators, like electronic key fobs, one-time password (OTP) tokens, or USB flash drives, create a unique authorization certificate when a user attempts to log in to their account. When these details are corroborated with the successful login, access can be granted. For example, a fob may give you an OTP that must be entered at the time of login. If the code is not entered or it does not match, access is denied.
Token-based hardware authenticators often use public and private key cryptography. In these cases, there are two keys: one private and one public. The private key is secret, while the public key is not. Users authenticate their identity by using the private key to “sign” a message, and the public key allows the server to be able to verify that signature. This is a very secure method of encrypting information. It makes it very easy for data to be encrypted quickly, but immensely difficult to decrypt and understand that data. That is, unless you have the corresponding key.
Different methods include:
- Asymmetric Cryptography: This method uses both public and private key cryptography
- Static Password Token: This device has a password that the user cannot see, but this is transmitted for each authentication
- Synchronous Dynamic Password Token: This method uses a timer to rotate various password combinations that are produced by a cryptographic algorithm. The token and the authentication server must have synchronized clocks. When prompted, the user must enter the generated password supplied by the device, then they’re granted access
- Asynchronous Password Token: A one-time password is generated without a timer, either using a cryptographic algorithm or a one-time pad
- Challenge–Response Token: This uses public key cryptography without revealing the private key. The authentication server encrypts a challenge with a public key and the device verifies it has a copy of the private key by providing the decrypted challenge
Biometric-based hardware authentication works in a similar way, but instead of asking the user to input an OTP, they require a face or fingerprint scan to confirm identity. Once the user successfully completes this scan, the validated certificate allows access. Most biometric hardware authenticators use physiological biometrics to authenticate the user, i.e., the user’s physical characteristics, such as their fingerprint. However, some companies have developed solutions that use behavioral biometrics to authenticate a user’s identity. These measure the way the user interacts with their device, e.g., their typing patterns.
Features To Look For In Hardware Authentication Tools
- Durability: Depending on your work environment, your authentication device may have to put up with varying levels of abuse and rough-handedness. Just the fact that it will be used every day means that there are likely to be some signs of wear. Ensuring that your device is tough and durable – perhaps even waterproof – can save you the hassle of having to replace devices.
- Ease Of Use: Tools that do not require batteries or even a mobile connection can prove useful, as it makes the device easier to use. In some work environments – such as factories or high-security environments – having mobile devices may not be permitted.
- Support: Your chosen vendor and their authentication tools should support multiple authentication protocols (such as WebAuthn, FIDO2, FIDO U2F, smart card (PIV), OpenPGP, and OATH-TOTP) and be compatible with a wide range of applications, sites, and services. Compatibility with leading password managers is also a bonus.
- Encryption: Authentication devices, while simple, still contain a lot of important and sensitive information that could be valuable to a threat actor. Making sure the device comes with robust encryption features is imperative. Everything on the device should be secure, meaning that if it is lost or stolen, the data on it will be unreadable.
- Tamper-Resistant: Devices should be tamper-proof, ensuring that they cannot be altered and used as an attack vector by hackers. Some vendors also ensure that their devices are delivered in tamper-proof packaging. If there has been any sign of tampering, the device should warn you (often using a light).