Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FFIEC Authentication Guidance

The Federal Financial Institution Examination Council, the FFIEC, has finally passed its long-awaited "new" Authentication Guidance. It was hoped that this guidance would address the account take-over attacks that have resulted in both losses to, and disputes between, the banks and their customers. Those security professionals that had hoped that the guidance would address the credential re-play that is at the heart of this problem can only be disappointed. Indeed, almost everyone is disappointed with the exception of the banks and the regulators themselves.

The language is someplace between "wishy-washy" and largely "content free." For example, it says that "institutions should use effective methods to authenticate the identity of customers and that the techniques employed should be commensurate with the risks associated with the products and services offered and the protection of sensitive customer information."

On the other hand, it is silent on the relative effectiveness of measures and makes no recommendation among them.

It dismisses token-based strong-authentication on the basis that it might be vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks. While that may be true, we are not seeing any such attacks. On the other hand it is resistant to the re-play attacks that we are seeing.

The Guidance suggests that we need better questions in challenge-response systems. Of course, the problem is not the resistance of the questions to guessing but how many questions there are and how quickly they leak to a key-logger. Again, it is as if the authors do not really understand the attacks.

If there is anything in the Guidance that I agree with, it is the idea of layered security. The idea is that we should not rely exclusively on the authentication, regardless of how good we think that it is. We should have policy, application controls, monitoring, timely confirmations and reconciliation, Patco and Experi-Metals both could have been a lot worse without these controls. That said, these controls mitigate the fundamental problem of credential re-play, they do not compensate for it. Moreover, the document is labeled "Authentication Guidance;" we have a right to expect that it will speak to that.

Part of the problem is that the agencies do not want to preempt the responsibility of bank management. Thus, they emphasize "risk management." They even acknowledge that the risk has changed since they published their original guidance. Banks have the fundamental responsibility to protect the customer.

Part of the problem is that the FFIEC is made up of the five Federal agencies, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), The Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), and the new, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Each has different constituents and interests. The purpose of the council is to promote uniformity in regulation and limit institutional shopping among the regulators. Perhaps it is a little much to expect that five government agencies would ever arrive at strong guidance on anything.

However, the result is to set the bar at the lowest of all the agencies. As one of the authors put it, "The Guidance provided minimum (emphasis mine) supervisory expectations for effective authentication controls applicable to high-risk online transactions involving access to customer information or the movement of funds to other parties."

As I read the Guidance and the commentary on it, I kept coming back to the same question: "What part of 're-play' do they not understand?" Finally I scanned the document. The word does not appear. They do not understand any of it.

When they are criticized for not addressing re-play, their response is, "placing so much emphasis on what's 'missing' from the guidance detracts from regulators' intent." Perhaps. Perhaps they simply do not get it. Perhaps it is not even their job. Perhaps we expect too much of them. Perhaps it is our job.

Our job is not to debate whether or not guidance from the regulators is correct or complete. In fact, we have known since shortly after Sarbanes-Oxley that "security by compliance" encourages minimalist, not to say weak, security. No bank is going to have to change what it is doing to meet this "new" Guidance. Hopefully they will meet the requirement in spite of the Guidance, if not because of it. The Guidance sets a low bar but does not forbid high clearance.

Indeed, our job, without regard to the guidance, is to keep our principals out of the debate and to be sure that bad regulatory guidance is not used to justify weak security.

The good news is that we did not really need the Guidance to tell us what to do and now we can stop waiting for its magic. The bad news is that some management might decide to use it to justify continuing whatever they are already doing. It is our job to see that our principals do the right thing, whatever the Guidance says. It is for that that we are called professionals and are paid the big bucks.

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