Cisco and the Two-Factor Two-Step

In case you missed the news, Cisco announced yesterday that they are buying Duo Security. This is a great move on Cisco’s part. They need to beef up their security portfolio to compete against not only Palo Alto Networks but also against all the up-and-coming startups that are trying to solve problems that are largely being ignored by large enterprise security vendors. But how does an authentication vendor help Cisco?

Who Are You?

The world relies on passwords to run. Banks, email, and even your mobile device has some kind of passcode. We memorize them, write them down, or sometimes just use a password manager (like 1Password) to keep them safe. But passwords can be guessed. Trivial passwords are especially vulnerable. And when you factor in things like rainbow tables, it gets even scarier.

The most secure systems require you to have some additional form of authentication. You may have heard this termed as Two Factor Authentication (2FA). 2FA makes sure that no one is just going to be able to guess your password. The most commonly accepted forms of multi-factor authentication are:

  • Something You Know – Password, PIN, etc
  • Something You Have – Credit Card, Auth token, etc
  • Something You Are – Biometrics

You need at least two of these in order to successfully log into a system. Not having an additional form means you’re locked out. And that also means that the individual components of the scheme are useless in isolation. Knowing someone’s password without having their security token means little. Stealing a token without having their fingerprint is worthless.

But, people are starting to get more and more sophisticated with their attacks. One of the most popular forms of 2FA is the SMS authentication. It combines What You Know, in this case you password for your account, with Something You Have, which is a phone capable of receiving an SMS text message. When you log in, the authentication system sends an SMS to the authorized number and you have to type in the short-lived code to get into the system.

Ask Reddit how that worked out for them recently. A hacker (or group) was able to intercept the 2FA SMS codes for certain accounts and use both factors to log in and gather account data. It’s actually not as trivial as one might think to intercept SMS codes. It’s much, much harder to crack the algorithm of something like a security token. You’d need access to the source code and months to download everything. Like exactly what happened in 2011 to RSA.

In order for 2FA to work effectively, it needs to be something like an app on your mobile device that can be updated and changed when necessary to validate new algorithms and expire old credentials. It needs to be modern. It needs to be something that people don’t think twice about. That’s what Duo Security is all about. And, from their customer base and the fact that Cisco payed about $2.3 billion for them, they must do it well.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

How does Duo help Cisco? Well, first and foremost I hope that Duo puts an end to telnet access to routers forever. Telnet is the lazy way we enable remote access to devices. SSH is ten times better and a thousand times more secure. But setting it up properly to authenticate with certificate authentication is a huge pain. People want it to work when they need it to work. And tying it to a specific machine or location isn’t the easiest or more convenient thing.

Duo can give Cisco the ability to introduce real 2FA login security to their devices. IOS could be modified to require Duo Security app login authentication. That means that only users authorized to log into that device would get the login codes. No more guessed remote passwords!

Think about integrating Duo with Cisco ISE. That could be a huge boon for systems that need additional security. You could have groups of system that need 2FA and others that don’t. You could easily manage those lists and move systems in and out as needed. Or, you could start a policy that all systems needs 2FA and phase in the requirements over time to make people understand how important it is and give them time to download the app and get it set up. The ISE possibilities are endless.

One caveat is that Duo is a program that works with a large number of third party programs right now. Including integrations with Juniper Networks. As you can imagine, that list might change once Cisco takes control of the company. Some organizations that use Duo will probably see a price increase and will continue to offer the service to their users. Others, possibly Juniper as an example, may be frozen out as Cisco tries to keep the best parts of the company for their own use. If Cisco is smart, they’ll keep Duo available for any third party that wants to use the platform or integrate. It’s the best solution out there for solving this problem and everyone deserves to have good security.


Tom’s Take

Cisco buying a security company is no shock. They need the horsepower to compete in a world where firewalls are impediments at best and hackers have long since figured out how to get around static defenses. They need to get involved in software too. Security isn’t fought in silicon any more. It’s all in code and beefing up the software side of the equation. Duo gives them a component to compete in the broader authentication market. And the acquisition strategy is straight out of the Chambers playbook.

A plea to Cisco: Don’t lock everyone out of the best parts of Duo because you want to bundle them with recurring Cisco software revenue. Let people integrate. Take a page from the Samsung playbook. Just because you compete with Apple doesn’t mean you can’t make chips for them. Keep your competitors close and make they use your software and you’ll make more money than freezing everyone out and claiming your software is the best and least used of the bunch.

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