A simple technology invented by Bell Labs over 20 years ago (and widely used today) could have prevented the Colonial Pipeline attack.
In 1880, the French government awarded Alexander Graham Bell roughly the equivalent of $300K as a prize for inventing the telephone. He used the award to fund the research laboratory that became colloquially known as Bell Labs. If you’re not familiar with Bell Labs, you should be. In the 140+ years that followed, researchers at Bell Labs invented radio astronomy, transistors, lasers, solar cells, information theory, and UNIX, just to name a few of the many accomplishments. Among the many prestigious awards granted to Bell Labs researchers are nine Nobel prizes and twenty-two IEEE Medals of Honor.
In 1998, I joined AT&T Labs, which was a research group that the company retained when they spun out most of Bell Labs to Lucent Technologies in 1996. I was a Web Application developer; one of the least technical roles in the Labs. If I ever thought for a moment that I knew technology, I was quickly humbled when I built an app that tracked the Labs' actually important projects. The experience of working in the Labs stuck with me in the form of humility and curiosity. I accepted that I may never be the foremost expert in any given technology and I assumed the mindset of a forever student. Even today, I constantly question what I think I know because there are always holes in my knowledge or perspectives that I haven’t seen.
1998 was the same year that researchers at AT&T Labs were issued a patent (filed in 1995) for what became known in our industry as Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). As a Product Manager at a tech firm, I don’t review patents for legal reasons. But I recently saw an excerpt of the abstract for the AT&T patent and there was one line that I found entertaining: “A preferred method of alerting the customer and receiving a confirmation to authorize the transaction back from the customer is illustratively afforded by conventional two-way pagers.” Not much has changed in 23 years. Pagers have been largely replaced by SMS but text messaging through the telecom provider’s network remains one of the most popular delivery mechanisms for MFA (despite some potential security flaws).
I have no personal insight into AT&T’s
motivations at the time, but I read Kevin Mitnick’s book a few years ago (Ghost in the Wires)
and can’t help but wonder if AT&T was at the forefront of developing
security technologies because they were such a target of hackers for so many years. I also reached out to Steve Greenspan, one of the inventors named in the patent to get his thoughts on the project. He noted:
"Two-way pagers had just come out (1994-1995), and our cybersecurity
friends were debating whether quantum computing would undermine
password-based security. The goal was to explore business applications for
two-way pagers and to put humans in-the-loop for secure access."
Quantum computing is a a pretty interesting business driver for MFA, especially in the mid-1990's. The concern is even more relevant today as we inch closer to quantum compute becoming a practical reality. Today's authentication systems should store password data in non-reversible hashes (theoretically preventing the quantum threat), but it's clear that credentials are being stolen all the time (often via large databases that are just left unprotected) and MFA remains a top solution to mitigate the damage. Steve and team were clearly on the right track when they dreamed up out-of-band authentication and deserve some credit and recognition for the foresight.
Of course, authentication isn’t the end of the story. Today’s widely distributed and highly dynamic environments require multiple layers of security. We all know how popular email and phishing attacks have become. It only takes one person inside a network to open an email, click a link, or logon to a phishing site to give an adversary a foothold in the network. We have to assume that will happen and build layers of strong security between any one user and the potential targets.
To illustrate the point, here’s a quick example:
Grocery stores who sell small, high-value items have traditionally struggled with theft. (Ask me over a beer sometime about how I helped take down a recurring thief when I worked at a grocery store.) If the only answer was to authenticate users (check ID) on the way into the store, it wouldn't be enough. Once inside, someone can still pocket items and walk out without paying. If you walk into a grocery store today, you’ll see cameras in the healthcare aisle where small, expensive medications line the shelves. But that’s not enough either. Each item is also locked in an anti-theft device that’s removed at the register. And some items are found in a locked cabinet that requires employee assistance. Theft still happens, but each layer reduces the risk. Our IT environments are much more complicated in terms of the various pathways to theft and our responses to reduce risk typically require more than a few layers of security.
Sensitive data should only be stored in a secure area of the network with access controls and Least Privilege enforcement. Access should be limited to specific hosts or networks. Data should be encrypted (inside the file when possible - so if the file is stolen, the data is still unusable). There should be strong authentication to get into the network and monitoring of all activity. There should be alerts on unusual behavior and Data Loss Prevention (DLP) to evaluate the sensitivity of data moving across the network. The environment should be scanned regularly for vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. And on and on. Any one of these security mechanisms alone is not enough. This multi-layered approach to security is critical in developing a strong security posture that minimizes risk.
We could argue about where to start or which security controls are most important. But, it seems like a no-brainer to implement MFA for employees accessing corporate data and applications. Microsoft, who deals with 300 million fraudulent sign-in attempts daily concluded that “MFA can block over 99.9 percent of account compromise attacks.” That sounds about right. While targeted attacks have increased in prevalence, most attacks are not targeted at specific companies or individuals. Most start with automated scripting or broad-scale phishing attacks that span across potentially thousands of companies and/or millions of people at the same time. When a foothold is found (a script finds a vulnerability or an open port, a user enters credentials into the phishing site, etc.), the attack begins. Implementing a few simple security technologies like automated vulnerability scanning and MFA can prevent most attacks before they begin. Even if a sophisticated phishing attack succeeds despite MFA, the credentials will not be very useful beyond the initial session (which should be limited in scope by other controls).
No single technology will solve all cybersecurity problems. But, implementing MFA is low-cost, easy-to-implement, and highly effective. It may even make life easier for end-users. Password requirements can be loosened because there’s less risk associated with cracked passwords. And there are numerous implementations of passwordless authentication that, while they may not always meet the strict definition of MFA, provide similar (sometimes higher) levels of security as MFA without requiring a password. Combined with context-aware adaptive security (that verifies device, network, location, time-of-day, etc.), these passwordless authentication options may provide the right level of balance between security and user experience. At this point, this isn’t scare tactics or FUD. Attacks on National infrastructure or other high-profile targets can impact the lives of millions with a single execute command. MFA is an easy layer to add to improve security and it’s commonly included with authentication solutions, so there’s really no excuse. It’s time to get it done.