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Chapter: Security in Computing : Protection in General-Purpose Operating Systems

The Authentication Process

Authentication usually operates as described previously. However, users occasionally mistype their passwords. A user who receives a message of INCORRECT LOGIN will carefully retype the login and gain access to the system.

The Authentication Process


Authentication usually operates as described previously. However, users occasionally mistype their passwords. A user who receives a message of INCORRECT LOGIN will carefully retype the login and gain access to the system. Even a user who is a terrible typist should be able to log in successfully in a few tries.


Some authentication procedures are intentionally slow. A legitimate user will not complain if the login process takes 5 or 10 seconds. To a penetrator who is trying an exhaustive search or a dictionary search, however, 5 or 10 seconds per trial makes this class of attack generally infeasible.


Someone whose login attempts continually fail may not be an authorized user. Systems commonly disconnect a user after a small number of failed logins, forcing the user to reestablish a connection with the system. (This action will slow down a penetrator who is trying to penetrate the system by telephone. After a small number of failures, the penetrator must reconnect, which takes a few seconds.)


Sidebar 4-4: Single Sign-On


Authenticating to multiple systems is unpopular with users. Left on their own, users will reuse the same password to avoid having to remember many different passwords. For example, users become frustrated at having to authenticate to a computer, a network, a mail system, an accounting system, and numerous web sites. The panacea for this frustration is called single sign-on. A user authenticates once per session, and the system forwards that authenticated identity to all other processes that would require authentication.


Obviously, the strength of single sign-on can be no better than the strength of the initial authentication, and quality diminishes if someone compromises that first authentication or the transmission of the authenticated identity. Trojan horses, sniffers and wiretaps, man-in-the-middle attacks, and guessing can all compromise a single sign-on.


Microsoft has developed a single sign-on solution for its .net users. Called a "passport," the single sign-on mechanism is effectively a folder in which the user can store login credentials for other sites. But, as the market research firm Gartner Group points out [PES01], users are skeptical about using single sign-on for the Internet, and they are especially wary of entrusting the security of credit card numbers to a single sign-on utility.


Although a desired feature, single sign-on raises doubt about what a computer is doing on behalf of or in the name of a user, perhaps without that user's knowledge.

In more secure installations, stopping penetrators is more important than tolerating users' mistakes. For example, some system administrators assume that all legitimate users can type their passwords correctly within three tries. After three successive password failures, the account for that user is disabled and only the security administrator can reenable it. This action identifies accounts that may be the target of attacks by penetrators.


Fixing Flaws in the Authentication Process


Password authentication assumes that anyone who knows a password is the user to whom the password belongs. As we have seen, passwords can be guessed, deduced, or inferred. Some people give out their passwords for the asking. Other passwords have been obtained just by someone watching a user typing in the password. The password can be considered as a preliminary or first-level piece of evidence, but skeptics will want more convincing proof.


There are several ways to provide a second level of protection, including another round of passwords or a challengeresponse interchange.


ChallengeResponse Systems


As we have just seen, the login is usually time invariant. Except when passwords are changed, each login looks like every other. A more sophisticated login requires a user ID and password, followed by a challengeresponse interchange. In such an interchange, the system prompts the user for a reply that will be different each time the user logs in. For example, the system might display a four-digit number, and the user would have to correctly enter a function such as the sum or product of the digits. Each user is assigned a different challenge function to compute. Because there are many possible challenge functions, a penetrator who captures the user ID and password cannot necessarily infer the proper function.


A physical device similar to a calculator can be used to implement a more complicated response function. The user enters the challenge number, and the device computes and displays the response for the user to type in order to log in. (For more examples, see Chapter 7's discussion of network authentication.)


Impersonation of Login


In the systems we have described, the proof is one-sided. The system demands certain identification of the user, but the user is supposed to trust the system. However, a programmer can easily write a program that displays the standard prompts for user ID and password, captures the pair entered, stores the pair in a file, displays SYSTEM ERROR; DISCONNECTED, and exits. This attack is a type of Trojan horse.


The perpetrator sets it up, leaves the terminal unattended, and waits for an innocent victim to attempt a login. The naïve victim may not even suspect that a security breach has occurred.


To foil this type of attack, the user should be sure the path to the system is reinitialized each time the system is used. On some systems, turning the terminal off and on again or pressing the BREAK key generates a clear signal to the computer to halt any running process for the terminal. (Microsoft chose <CTRLALTDELETE> as the path to the secure authorization mechanism for this reason.) Not every computer recognizes power-off or BREAK as an interruption of the current process, though. And computing systems are often accessed through networks, so physical reinitialization is impossible.


Alternatively, the user can be suspicious of the computing system, just as the system is suspicious of the user. The user will not enter confidential data (such as a password) until convinced that the computing system is legitimate. Of course, the computer acknowledges the user only after passing the authentication process. A computing system can display some information known only by the user and the system. For example, the system might read the user's name and reply "YOUR LAST LOGIN WAS 10 APRIL AT 09:47." The user can verify that the date and time are correct before entering a secret password. If higher security is desired, the system can send an encrypted timestamp. The user decrypts this and discovers that the time is current. The user then replies with an encrypted timestamp and password, to convince the system that a malicious intruder has not intercepted a password from some prior login.

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