Overview of Remote User Authentication Principles


What is User Authentication?

Defines User Authentication as the process of verifying an identity claimed by or for a system entity. This 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.

Identification is the means by which a user provides a claimed identity to the system; user authentication is the means of establishing the validity of the claim. Note that user authentication is distinct from message authentication.

Means of 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: Examples include recognition by fingerprint, retina, and face.
  • Something the individual does: Examples include recognition by voice pattern, handwriting characteristics, and typing rhythm.

All of these methods, properly implemented and used, can provide secure user authentication.

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.

Central to the problem of authenticated key exchange are two issues: confidentiality 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 session 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.

Replay attacks

  1. The simplest replay attack is one in which the opponent simply copies a message and replays it later.
  2. An opponent can replay a timestamped message within the valid time window. If both the original and the replay arrive within then time window, this incident can be logged.
  3. As with example (2), an opponent can replay a timestamped message within the valid time window, but in addition, the opponent suppresses the original message. Thus, the repetition cannot be detected.
  4. Another attack involves a 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.

Coping with replay attacks

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.

One-Way Authentication

The “envelope” or header of the email message must be in the clear, so that the message can be handled by the store-and-forward email 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 email 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.

Also Read: How to secure the Computer Network?

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