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The Coalfire Blog

War on Passwords? Check with Your QSA First!

March 14, 2013, Matt Getzelman, PCI Practice Director

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Matt Getzelman

Passwords have long been the workhorse of user authentication schemes, and many security experts are speaking out on the need for more effective controls. It seems like hardly a week goes by when we don’t see a password breach in the news.

Indeed, most passwords can be hacked, even ones that appear to be a ‘strong’. Wired’s Mat Honan had his personal accounts hacked and his digital data destroyed last summer and that prompted him to write his piece and forecast the demise of passwords. Google has announced a pilot program to replace passwords by using an USB-based log-on device. It works like your car keys --- you plug it into the computer to log on and it authenticates to  your online accounts.

I applaud Google’s efforts and hope they continue innovating on this front. However, it’s going to take a while before such innovations become acceptable controls in the eyes of the standards organizations like the PCI SSC, NIST and the government’s FedRAMP program.

This is especially true in the PCI DSS, where merchants have a contractual commitment to abide by the official standards or face fees and fines.  Qualified Security Assessors like Coalfire must abide by the official guidance provided by the PCI SSC.  That’s why it’s important to consult a Qualified Security Assessor before you deploy any new authentication schemes (or other controls, for that matter!) within your cardholder data environment.  
The truth is that technology innovation tends to move faster than security standards. A good QSA will help you monitor innovations, plan for them and feather them into your controls programs at a pace and budget that fits with your compliance requirements.

At Coalfire, we expect firms to rely passwords for years to come.  With that in mind, here are some creative thoughts on passwords from my colleague Mike Weber, the Director of Coalfire Labs.

As always, we’d love to hear what you think, or let us know if you have any questions or password management ideas you employ.

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