AOL, RSA, VeriSign push authentication services

VeriSign's program focuses on mutlifactor authentication

Responding to a scourge of online fraud and identity theft that threatens to undermine public confidence in Internet commerce, major companies are rolling out new services to encourage the adoption of better technology to identify customers, business partners and employees online.

RSA Security Inc. and America Online Inc. plan to announce a new program today called AOL PassCode that will encourage AOL customers to use secure tokens to protect account information. Also today, VeriSign Inc. plans to unveil a new service called Unified Authentication that's designed to reduce the cost of so-called strong authentication, such as one-time passwords or hardware smart cards.

The announcements are the latest signs of increasing interest from companies and online merchants in the use of "two-factor authentication" -- which combines an account password with another "factor" such as a smart card, USB token or a one-time password -- to combat a steep increase in online crimes that trick people into divulging sensitive financial information, the companies said.

Multifactor authentication is the focus of VeriSign's Unified Authentication program. The new service is an extension of the company's Intelligence and ControlSM Services, which offer businesses network security information and tools.

Companies can use VeriSign's infrastructure to validate strong authentication information for users while relying on existing user directory services, such as Microsoft Corp. Active Directory and Radius servers, or single-sign on technology, such as IBM Corp.'s Tivoli Identity Management software, VeriSign said.

User log-in and permissions information will reside in the customer's user directory, but will be linked to a unique serial number for a secure token or other authentication device stored on a VeriSign server. Log-in requests by users will be passed to the VeriSign server where a stored algorithm will validate that the serial number of the secure token or the one-time password is valid for the user requesting access, said Mark Griffiths, vice president of security services at VeriSign.

Unified Authentication customers will have the option of deploying the authentication verification service internally or using it as a managed service hosted by VeriSign, the company said.

"Technology companies, us included, have tended to offer point solutions. But now companies are saying, 'I want to issue employees or business partners a different kind of credential ... and I want something integrated,'" Griffiths said.

VeriSign will initially deploy the services with either a USB smart card that contains a digital certificate or a clientless one-time password token that generates a unique password for use at Internet kiosks or with home computers or handheld devices, he said. The company plans to add support for other credentials including cellular telephones with built-in certificates and low-cost "soft certificates" like scratch cards containing one-time passwords.

On the back end, VeriSign will distribute a plug-in program for Microsoft's Management Console allowing customers to link user accounts with a particular strong authentication device for validation. Separate plug-ins will redirect authentication requests from Active Directory or other Lightweight Direction Access Protocol directories to the Unified Authentication service for verification, he said.

AOL's new PassCode program will offer AOL-branded SecurID tokens from RSA to AOL customers for added account protection, said John Worrall, vice president of worldwide marketing at Bedford, Mass.-based RSA.

The program is the first major rollout of multifactor authentication to consumers, according to Ned Brody, senior vice president of premium services at AOL.

Likening the RSA SecurID token to a deadbolt lock on a door, Brody said the service will let security-conscious consumers feel more confident that their AOL account information is secure, especially with the increase in phishing scams. This type of fraud uses spam and Web sites designed to look like legitimate e-commerce sites to trick people into revealing sensitive information such as user names, passwords and credit card information.

While AOL doesn't store customer financial information in its accounts, customers increasingly use free storage linked to their AOL accounts to store confidential data such as photos and personal files, including financial files, in addition to e-mail. Company data shows that AOL customers know that static passwords should be updated frequently but few do so. The PassCode token will also enforce strong passwords by requiring a unique value to be entered each time users log onto the service, Brody said.

AOL customers can sign up through the company's Web page for the premium service and will pay a $9.95 one-time fee to receive a keychain token by mail. The company will charge $1.95 per month to secure one screen name through PassCode and $4.95 a month for up to seven screen names, AOL said.

Once the token is received, AOL customers can activate it through their AOL accounts. Customers then log in using their AOL user name and password, after which they will be presented with an additional screen asking them to enter the unique, six-digit value displayed on their PassCode token. Behind the scenes, AOL maintains a database that links the SecurID token to the AOL user account and tracks the passwords generated by the device, which change every 60 seconds, Brody said.

The new system will protect users from having their AOL account information stolen in a phishing attack because having an AOL customer's username and password will no longer be adequate to access an account, he said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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