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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice : Mutual Trust : User Authentication

Remote User-Authentication Principles

In most computer security contexts, user authentication is the fundamental building block and the primary line of defense. User authentication is the basis for most types of access control and for user accountability. RFC 2828 defines user authentication as shown on the following page.


In most computer security contexts, user authentication is the fundamental building block and the primary line of defense. User authentication is the basis for most types of access control and for user accountability. RFC 2828 defines user authentication as shown on the following page.

For example, user Alice Toklas could have the user identifier ABTOKLAS. This information needs to be stored on any server or computer system that Alice wishes to use and could be known to system administrators and other users. A typi- cal item of authentication information associated with this user ID is a password, which is kept secret (known only to Alice and to the system). If no one is able  to  obtain or guess Alice’s password, then the combination of Alice’s user ID and password enables administrators to set up Alice’s access permissions and audit her activity. Because Alice’s ID is not secret, system users can send her e-mail, but because her password is secret, no one can pretend to be Alice.



The process of verifying an identity claimed by or for a system entity. An authentication process consists of two steps:

        Identification step: Presenting an identifier to the security system. (Identifiers should be assigned carefully, because authenticated identities are the basis for other security services, such as access control service.)

        Verification step: Presenting or generating authentication information that corroborates the binding between the entity and the identifier.




In essence, identification is the means by which a user provides a claimed iden- tity to the system; user authentication is the means of establishing the validity of the claim. Note that user authentication is distinct from message authentication. As defined in Chapter 12, message authentication is a procedure that allows communi- cating parties to verify that the contents of a received message have not been altered and that the source is authentic. This chapter is concerned solely with user authentication.

There are four general means of authenticating a user’s identity, which can be used alone or in combination:

                           Something the individual knows: Examples include a password, a personal identification number (PIN), or answers to a prearranged set of questions.

                           Something the individual possesses: Examples include cryptographic keys, electronic keycards, smart cards, and physical keys. This type of authenticator is referred to as a token.

                           Something the individual is (static biometrics): Examples include recognition by fingerprint, retina, and face.

                           Something the individual does (dynamic biometrics): Examples include recog- nition by voice pattern, handwriting characteristics, and typing   rhythm.

All of these methods, properly implemented and used, can provide secure user authentication. However, each method has problems. An adversary may be able to guess or steal a password. Similarly, an adversary may be able to forge or steal a token. A user may forget a password or lose a token. Furthermore, there is a signifi- cant administrative overhead for managing password and token information on systems and securing such information on systems. With respect to biometric authenticators, there are a variety of problems, including dealing with false positives and false negatives, user acceptance, cost, and convenience. For network-based user authentication, the most important methods involve cryptographic keys and some- thing the individual knows, such as a password.


Mutual Authentication

An important application area is that of mutual authentication protocols. Such protocols enable communicating parties to satisfy themselves mutually about each other’s identity and to exchange session keys. This topic was examined in Chapter 14. There, the focus was key distribution. We return to this topic here to consider the wider implications of authentication.

Central to the problem of authenticated key exchange are two issues: confiden- tiality and timeliness. To prevent masquerade and to prevent compromise of session keys, essential identification and session-key information must be communicated in encrypted form. This requires the prior existence of secret or public keys that can be used for this purpose. The second issue, timeliness, is important because of the threat of message replays. Such replays, at worst, could allow an opponent to compromise a ses- sion key or successfully impersonate another party.At minimum, a successful replay can disrupt operations by presenting parties with messages that appear genuine but are not.

[GONG93] lists the following examples of replay attacks:

                 Simple replay: The opponent simply copies a message and replays it  later.

                 Repetition that can be logged: An opponent can replay a timestamped message within the valid time window.

                 Repetition that cannot be detected: This situation could arise because the original message could have been suppressed and thus did not arrive at its destination; only the replay message arrives.

                 Backward replay without modification: This is a replay back to the message sender. This attack is possible if symmetric encryption is used and the sender cannot easily recognize the difference between messages sent and messages received on the basis of content.

One approach to coping with replay attacks is to attach a sequence number to each message used in an authentication exchange. A new message is accepted only if its sequence number is in the proper order. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires each party to keep track of the last sequence number for each claimant it has dealt with. Because of this overhead, sequence numbers are generally not used for authentication and key exchange. Instead, one of the following two general approaches is used:

                 Timestamps: Party A accepts a message as fresh only if the message contains a timestamp that, in A’s judgment, is close enough to A’s knowledge of current time. This approach requires that clocks among the various participants be synchronized.

                 Challenge/response: Party A, expecting a fresh message from B, first sends B a nonce (challenge) and requires that the subsequent message (response) received from B contain the correct nonce value.

It can be argued (e.g., [LAM92a]) that the timestamp approach should not be used for connection-oriented applications because of the inherent difficulties with this technique. First, some sort of protocol is needed to maintain synchronization among the various processor clocks. This protocol must be both fault tolerant,  to cope with network errors, and secure, to cope with hostile attacks. Second, the oppor- tunity for a successful attack will arise if there is a temporary loss of synchronization resulting from a fault in the clock mechanism of one of the parties. Finally, because of the variable and unpredictable nature of network delays, distributed clocks cannot be expected to maintain precise synchronization. Therefore, any timestamp-based procedure must allow for a window of time sufficiently large to accommodate net- work delays yet sufficiently small to minimize the opportunity for attack.

On the other hand, the challenge-response approach is unsuitable for a con- nectionless type of application, because it requires the overhead of a handshake before any connectionless transmission, effectively negating the chief characteristic of a connectionless transaction. For such applications, reliance on some sort of secure time server and a consistent attempt by each party to keep its clocks in syn- chronization may be the best approach (e.g., [LAM92b]).


One-Way Authentication

One application for which encryption is growing in popularity is electronic mail (e-mail). The very nature of electronic mail, and its chief benefit, is that it is not necessary for the sender and receiver to be online at the same time. Instead, the e-mail message is forwarded to the receiver’s electronic mailbox, where it is buffered until the receiver is available to read it.

The “envelope” or header of the e-mail message must be in the clear, so that the message can be handled by the store-and-forward e-mail protocol, such as the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) or X.400. However, it is often desirable that the mail-handling protocol not require access to the plaintext form of the message, because that would require trusting the mail-handling mechanism. Accordingly, the e-mail message should be encrypted such that the mail-handling system is not in possession of the decryption key.

A second requirement is that of authentication. Typically, the recipient wants some assurance that the message is from the alleged sender.

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