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What type of protections should security question and answer authentication credentials have?

Identity management and access control expert Joel Dubin discusses how corporations can secure security question and answer authentication credentials.

For a customer portal application, once a user has successfully logged in, should he/she be allowed to see his/her current security password-retrieval answer? Does it matter if the portal uses a single sign-on (SSO) system?
Security questions and answers are still authentication credentials, just like a user ID and password, or any other login credential, for that matter. As such, they should have the same protections as a user ID and password. Whether or not the portal uses SSO is irrelevant. A login is a login, no matter whether it comes through a single authentication system, or a complex one, like SSO.

You wouldn't expose a user's password on a desktop or online, right? Think of a security question and answer as...

an extension to a password.

Just as a reminder, here are some rules, or best practices, for safe handling of passwords that should be applied to security questions and answers, as well.

  • The answers to a question, once answered by the user, should never be displayed again. In future instances when it would be displayed, it should be blanked out, or covered with asterisks, just like a password.
  • If a user needs to reset the answer to a question, he or she should be redirected to that question and asked to answer it again.
  • If a user forgets the answer to a question, again, just like resetting a password, he or she should be redirected to the question to re-answer it, or be sent to a question-reset page.
  • If the user wants to add, delete or change a question, the same rule applies. He or she should be asked to start the question-and-answer process again from scratch.

Now, keep in mind there's one key difference between a question reset and a password reset. When a password is reset, it's a best practice for a system administrator or the help desk to issue a temporary password good only once and then only for a short period, say 24 hours. Once the user logs on with the temporary password, he or she is prompted for a new password, and the temporary password is invalidated. This way, the password is always kept secret and isn't accessible even to system administrators or the help desk.

This is because, unlike a password, security answers are almost always initially set up by the user, while initial passwords are usually set up by an administrator or other IT staff.

For more information:

  • Joel Dubin discusses if the password security policies used in knowledge-based authentication systems are doing more harm than good.
  • Learn if implementing two-factor authentication satisfies FFIEC requirements.
  • This was last published in November 2007

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