fido universal 2nd factor authentication

In the time since my rant about passwords, more and more sites adopt OAuth. I don’t like this development. Usually they offer login with facebook, sometimes with google or twitter and rarely with linkedin. The problem with OAuth is that the site operator decides what providers are supported. With OpenID on the other hand, I can host my own OpenID provider and secure it with whatever 2nd factor authentication I choose. It’s sad to see that OpenID lost traction, and is actually removed in many places. One concern about OAuth is that exactly the companies that track you the most, get this extra information about where you log into and when. And on top of that you usually have to grant the site you log into the permission to tweet or post on your behalf. But what bothers me most, is that you grant your id provider more power than you are probably ready to admit. Say for example you use google as your id provider for every site you can, because it is just so convenient. Then one day google decides for whatever reason to block your account. As a result you are locked out not just from all google services, but out of most of the sites you care. And it does happen that google blocks accounts for no good reason.

Most BitCoin exchanges these days offer some sort of 2nd factor authentication. Some use YubiKeys, some use GoogleAuthenticator and some send you text messages. They are somewhat similar as they all use something called “one time passwords“. Only how the user gets them is different. Text messages seem like an ugly hack, and phones known to be insecure.  That’s also why I don’t like the Google Authenticator as it is just software running on the regular processor of your smart phone. The YubiKey is clearly the best option out of these, but it also has its weakness. If you use it for different purposes, an OTP generated for one site could be reused for a different site. As it emulates a keyboard it’s a one way track and it has no way of knowing where it is used. This is why the now defunct MtGox distributed dedicated YubiKeys. At least some parts they did right .But there is something in the works to solve all of this…

Last week I received a new USB security token. It’s a PlugUp fido u2fa device. It has exactly the same form factor as the HW1 BitCoin hardware wallet. And that is actually how I paid it. Not directly, but through Brawker. The device implements the new FIDO universal 2nd factor authenticator standard. Finally a conglomerate of big name companies got together to solve the password authentication problem.

When I first read up on it, I found lots of marketing speech, and overly detailed specification, but not the kind of technical overview I was looking for. But it seemed interesting enough to give it a try. So far, there are USB devices available from only two vendors: Yubico and PlugUp. Even though I love the YubiKey NEO, the price was too high just to give it a try. The PlugUp device is much cheaper but also less rigid. Also there are not a lot of places where you can use it so far. But looking at all the companies that form the alliance, that is hopefully going to change.  The only place I could use was to log into my google account, and only with the Chromium browser. My browser of choice is Firefox, but it doesn’t look as if fido support is imminent. I did like what I saw so far. You can register multiple devices per account. And you can use the same device for multiple accounts. There were no technical hiccups. It just worked.

But still I thought, I would prefer a solution based on OpenPGP Card with EnigForm. With GPG, I can manage my identity myself, how I want it. Of course this is great for power users, but not something regular users want or can do. FIDO is targeted at regular users, and I think they found a good compromise. It appeared that from the security standpoint they should be similar, in that both work in a challenge response scheme. The server knows the public key, and lets the device sign something.

Then I found the technical information I was looking for on this blog. Now that looks promising. The device generates a new set of keys for every site. That is perfect for authentication, i.e. making sure it’s the same user as last time. If you want to compartmentalize your identity, you don’t even have to do it by hand. But it doesn’t help with identification. GPG would be better in that regard. So while GPG would be enough to identify a user, with fido the user will still have to fill in some required information. But most important, with both approaches fido and GPG/EnigForm, you don’t need a central service like with OpenID or OAuth that can track you.

Once fido gains more traction, the new YubiKey NEO will be perfect, as it combines fido u2fa with an OpenPGP applet. In the meantime, you can check which sites offer what type of 2nd factor auth at







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