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Risk-based multifactor authentication implementation best practices

A multifactor authentication implementation can be a hard sell to enterprise executives and users alike. In this tip, learn four key strategies to ensure that both groups understand and support the project.

Identity and access management (IAM) -- the processes and technologies that manage user information and the relationship...

among users, networks and applications -- is enjoying more attention than ever before, and strong multifactor authentication is one of the core components of an enterprise IAM strategy.

While executives are comfortable with the concept of implementing multifactor authentication, getting them to provide the necessary resources is a real struggle for security and risk professionals.

Multifactor authentication is often the first port of call on the IAM journey. It's well understood: Everyone knows that relying solely on passwords is problematic, so the idea of replacing them is easy to relate to. Multifactor authentication also tops the list of IAM components that enterprises have already adopted.

But while executives are comfortable with the concept of implementing multifactor authentication, getting them to provide the necessary resources is a real struggle for security and risk professionals. Forrester Research Inc. recently interviewed several firms that have successfully completed a multifactor authentication implementation to learn the best ways of doing so. Four best practices emerged from these discussions:

1. Understand how users work.
The best security is that which people actually use -- and the key to user acceptance of security measures is to make those measures as unobtrusive and painless as possible. Security should not be an afterthought bolted onto an IT system; likewise, strong authentication measures must be integrated as deeply as possible into the fabric of employees' daily life.

Organizations should assess the actual effect on their users. Thoroughly understanding how people do their jobs and having a clear picture of what a day in the life of a typical user entails are key aspects of making sure employee productivity goes unhindered. Communication is the key to eventual user buy-in -- including warning them of the change well in advance -- regardless of the chosen technology.

As with other large-scale technology projects, incomplete research, insufficient testing and weak mandates can turn a multifactor authentication implementation into an expensive boondoggle. Usually these are technological problems, but issues on the personnel side can be just as troublesome. For instance, organizations sometimes mistake IT personnel and execs for typical users. While it's easy to keep a pilot program within the friendly confines of the IT department or the power-user community for efficiency's sake, it can result in wildly underestimating the support resources that the full rollout will require, costing time and money.

For more information
Learn more about multifactor authentication in IAM suites.

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What should an enterprise look for in a password token and a vendor? Read more.

2. Determine what the business needs and be proactive.
On the business side, multifactor authentication can be seen as an irretrievable cost with no ROI -- a problem faced by CISOs around the globe when pitching security projects to non-IT execs. Security pros need to scour their organizations' business landscapes for opportunities to apply MFA to particular pressing business needs and to understand the business problems they are trying to solve. While this may seem obvious, it not only pertains to applying the appropriate technology, but also to marketing the multifactor authentication project internally. Depending on industry vertical, ensuring regulatory compliance may be a more powerful sales pitch, but there is the risk the project will be put off until the compliance deadline is uncomfortably close. Instead, try tying the project to protecting customer data and promoting this as a competitive advantage.

Many IT people have a tendency to view everything in terms of a technology widget that can solve security problems -- it beats the messy uncertainties of dealing with people and processes. Waxing poetic over the simplicity of this token or the elegance of that MFA solution will just make a CEO's eyes glaze over. When trying to sell an MFA implementation to senior executives, don't present authentication as a technology solution; rather, sell it as business solution that secures and protects the company's data.

3. Anticipate and mitigate technology challenges.
Nearly everyone interviewed in the Forrester survey, no matter how experienced an IT security pro, encountered some unexpected technology problems in the course of their multifactor authentication implementations. Their advice? Map the technology to the problem that needs solving; have a detailed picture of existing systems; don't underestimate the time and resources needed for the project; test early and often. Testing is key to a smooth implementation, and the more the better -- all the more reason to avoid doing the project in a rush. Testing will expose unexpected system interactions, up to and including the need to replace outdated technology, like legacy physical access systems or remote access software.

Glossing too quickly over the evaluation of existing installed technology, or assuming that once the MFA switch has been turned on it can be left to run by itself, can have negative consequences for the implementation, such as unexpected delays and unanticipated interactions with subsequently installed technology. Don't fall victim to testing and forgetting!

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4. Develop a strategy to get support in the right places.
Start the internal sales process early, and get high-level sponsorship as soon as possible. The latter is usually easier said than done, but fortunately, in recent years security has finally received the C-level attention it deserves. The use of passwords as the sole means of gatekeeping access to IT resources is a large and well-defined security weakness -- put it at the forefront of a multiyear, multiproject IAM plan. And once the organization buys in, don't compromise trust by not delivering or by overpromising on the financial return.

Usability is a key concern here, so it's also important to win the users over, or risk spending a lot of time dealing with people who are unhappy with the technology after it's implemented. For large rollouts, initiate a groundswell of support by getting influential employees (team leaders, coaches, mentors, etc.) from all over the company on board at an early stage. Naturally, there will be criticisms and pushback -- so present the extensive research that identified the best technology option to the influencer group and solicit suggestions for improvement.

It'll pay dividends later on.

About the author:
Bill Nagel is an analyst at Forrester Research where he serves security & risk professionals. He focuses on digital identity and how companies can use the technologies, policies and processes that enable it to secure both internal-facing and external-facing business processes and ensure a greater degree of regulatory compliance.


This was last published in December 2009

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