Two factor authentication, using secure tokens is being backed as an alternative to digital certificates by a UK company, which is enjoying support from the Parliamentary All Party Export Group.
At an event in the Houses of Parliament yesterday, London-based Quizid Technologies launched its outsourced authentication solution. This it hopes will deliver a cost effective alternative to PKI to businesses, and eventually consumers.
The company has developed a two-fold security system that incorporates a physical security token (the Quizid Card - a credit card size authentication device that dynamically generates unique authentication key codes) and an ASP-based authentication centre (the Quizid Vault - where authentication key codes are referenced and access granted).
As a first step Quizid is promoting the technology as a means to replace static passwords within organisations, and for the delivery of Web services. It already has clients (including executive search firm Calibre One) using its technology to replace Windows log-in. This is an innovation in the established field of two-factor authentication, where RSA Security is the established market leader.
However Quizid has wider ambitions for the technology and wants to get it into the hands of consumers and citizens, as what Quizid CEO Peter Newport described as a "sensibly priced and easy to use method of proving identity over insecure networks or via the telephone".
The essential pitch here is that static passwords are rubbish and digital certificates have failed to take off as promised, but people still need to be able to prove their identity online.
Enter a physical hardware device, like the Quizid card, which has the sole function of authentication. It doesn't have a photo or contain any information about a user beyond reference to a user name. This isn't a national identity card.
Quizid cards would be sold as a service and banks and shareholding services might be able to offer them to consumers for £10 to £15 per year, the pitch goes. The same card, once issued to an employee, might be used in banking or to receive government services online, in Quizid's scheme.
That's one way of reducing the cost of putting digital identities in the hands of citizens, though it goes against the prevailing culture among retailers and banks of wanting to control and manage their relationship with customers themselves. Then there's the possible data protection issues.
When a similar scheme was introduced in Sweden people ended up with multiple hardware token and we're not convinced the same thing wouldn't happen here.
Richard Barrington, Industry Director of the e-Envoy's Office, struck a node of cautious enthusiasm in welcoming Quizid's approach.
He says the government is engaged in discussions with the industry about Quizid's device and about whether it can accept somebody's identity with trust and confidence based on credentials issued by third party companies.
Digital certificates are pants
Earlier this week we reported how single sign-on via digital certificates is "on life support" at the UK Government Gateway, and we pondered whether the government would get involved in issuing certificates itself.
The problem here is that government IT projects have a disastrous history and the failure of the Post Office's recently aborted ViaCode digital certificate business hardly inspires confidence.
Barrington said the Quizid scheme would allow government to leverage what industry is doing. The Quizid cards provide authentication without loss of privacy, he added.
So will hardware-based token become the preferred method for citizens to access government services in say two years time, we wondered?
Barrington said government was keeping its options open but he did point out the shortcomings of alternative approaches like digital certificates and smart cards.
"The digital certificates market has so far failed to deliver robust certification that meets government needs," he told us. "ViaCode didn't achieve mass market acceptance. Small business simply doesn't understand digital certificates."
"The business processes behind digital certificates weren't in place, for example there was very little non-repudiation," he added
Smart cards, which were expected to occupy this niche, need a widespread installed base of smart card readers to take off.
Hardware tokens don't have this problem and require only small changes to Web sites and call centres, so they represent an attractive alternative, he added.
Quizid cards are activated using a personal colour key entered into the card. If a card is lost it can be cancelled, in much the same way as you'd cancel a credit card.
All eggs in one basket?
But what of the other security issues?
We quizzed Quizid's Newport about whether the Quizid vault represents a single point of failure and might therefore become subject to DdoS attacks.
First of all connections to the Quizid vault can only be made through VPN connections (and it has looked at the issue of spoofing), Newport told us. The company uses two data centres with triple redundancy on servers. Audit servers record transactions. Routers are configured to only accept VPN traffic.
This, and the fact that these servers only run lightweight applications, appears to take care of the capacity issue, which has plagued schemes like the Census and Nectar of late.
Also the scheme would grow from a small base, which helps.
Nobody's heard of Quizid before but the firm does have friends in the corridors of power. They persuaded the Labour chairman of the Commons Export Committee, Ken Peckham MP, to wax lyrical about its export potential. Not to be outdone, his Tory counterpart Nigel Evans also described it as a potential worldbeater.
We'll see. ®