YubiKey and OpenID: Two great tastes that taste better together

In some communities, this is sort of old news, however I’ve recently become aware of an exciting and affordable security product called the YubiKey, manufactured by Yubico. The YubiKey is a $35 USD one-time password second-factor authentication token that uses 128-bit AES encryption to provide identity verification. That’s a mouthful, but what it really means is this: using a YubiKey to log in to stuff makes your logins about as secure as a military installation. Here’s how.

When you log in to just about any Web site or Internet-enabled service, say Basecamp for example, you traditionally simply type in a user name and matching password. This is known as one-factor authentication because all you need to do to log in successfully is use a matching pair of user names and their passwords. Since the user name is not hidden, the only piece of the puzzle that’s providing any security is your password.

Now, a password is something you have to remember, so this factor is called "something you know." Of course, if someone else also knows your password, this means that person can log in pretending to be you. Thus enters the need for a second factor for authentication.

The YubiKey is a physical USB fob device with a unique ID. That is, each YubiKey in the world has its own ID, meaning that no two are identical. This implies that if you have a YubiKey with you, no one else can have that same YubiKey anywhere else in the universe. Thus, this gives you a second factor with which to authenticate yourself, specifically it’s "something you have."

When you combine something you know (for instance, a password) with something you have (such as a YubiKey), you have two-factor authentication. Authenticating yourself with both of these factors is obviously more secure than relying solely on one factor because in order to compromise it an attacker needs to compromise both factors; the attacker would need to know what you know (figure out your password) and steal something you have (physically obtain your YubiKey).

If you’re familiar with one-time credit cards such as those that PayPal offers, you can think of the YubiKey like one of these cards, but instead of being used to make online purchases, it’s used for logging into stuff (and, of course, you don’t need more than one physical YubiKey). Of course, for authentication to work with the YubiKey the application or service you are logging into has to be able to understand that you’re using one of these authentication devices.

The good news here is that the entire process of using a YubiKey is a well-documented, open-source, and open-spec scheme so it’s easy for service providers to implement. And, because Yubico is also an OpenID identity provider, you can use your YubiKey to log into any site that supports the OpenID protocol right now, such as (you guessed it) Basecamp! There’s even a WordPress YubiKey plugin so you could theoretically use your YubiKey to secure your authentication to any of your WordPress blogs.

The YubiKey spec is, itself, completely independant of the OpenID spec and vice versa, which is what makes the combination so formidable. What’s so cool about this process is that the site you’re authenticating to, such as Basecamp or your WordPress blog, doesn’t have to know anything about how you’re authenticating because the OpenID provider (Yubico in this example) simply returns the answer—a perfect example of a well-constructed API at work. Either you have successfully authenticated to your OpenID provider or you haven’t, and the site can respond accordingly.

And if that’s not cool enough, want to know the coolest thing about the YubiKey? It’s environmentally friendly! The YubiKey web site states that the robust, ultra-thin and battery-free design increases lifetime and reduces environmental impact.

I’m more than seriously considering getting one of these myself, and even beyond that, getting one for all of my fellow site editors on some of the community web sites I help maintain. This is especially important for sites dealing in confidential or otherwise sensitive information, such as those which hold financial records or have other privacy concerns. Securing the authentication of privileged users such as the site administrators seems a natural step.

Even better yet, because the only cost to implementing this system is developer resources and the cost of the physical YubiKey device, I’m also seriously considering baking this right into any new sites I develop. At $35, a YubiKey is actually cheaper than an SSL certificate, and even though they don’t protect against all the same attack vectors, I think a device like the YubiKey is clearly a vastly superior solution in the majority of use cases.

I never really had a compelling reason to begin to propagate an OpenID identity before but now, at last, I do.

One comment

  1. Jenecai says:

    The hypocritical Yubico. The nightmare of working for Yubico.

    Seeing the Yubikey popularity growing, I’m supposed to be
    happy and take credts, revenue sharing out of it. Since I’m
    one of the earliest full-time employee in Yubico. But I just
    want people to know the truth behind the fraudulent skin, it
    has been full of lies, abuse on people, slack on security,
    and rip-off of all Yubikey users/customers.

    Without me, there won’t be Yubikey validation server, PAM, etc.

    It has been my nightmarish experience that still haunts me all
    the time. I was fired when I’m suffering illness and severe
    pains after working for 2 weeks almost without any sleep for
    Yubico.

    And the slack on security is unforseen. The executives keep on
    ignoring warnings of security holes that can leak the entire
    Yubikey secret key database to hackers. There are no intrusion
    detection, not even a vulnerability scanner! And it is hosted
    in one of the least secure infrastructure in Plug-n-Play center
    that is aimed for start-ups in college.

    Falsely promised stock options, working like a slave for months
    without getting paid, all I got in return was a cold-blooded email
    telling me “You are fired”.

    They think they hide under the Swedish law and I can’t go there
    to sue them? I’ll be back, I’ll be back for sure.

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