Google Accounts Now Support Security Keys

People who use Gmail and other Google services now have an extra layer of security available when logging into Google accounts. The company today incorporated into these services the open Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) standard, a physical USB-based second factor sign-in component that only works after verifying the login site is truly a Google site.

A $17 U2F device made by Yubikey.

A $17 U2F device made by Yubico.

The U2F standard (PDF) is a product of the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance, an industry consortium that’s been working to come up with specifications that support a range of more robust authentication technologies, including biometric identifiers and USB security tokens.

The approach announced by Google today essentially offers a more secure way of using the company’s 2-step authentication process. For several years, Google has offered an approach that it calls “2-step verification,” which sends a one-time pass code to the user’s mobile or land line phone.

2-step verification makes it so that even if thieves manage to steal your password, they still need access to your mobile or land line phone if they’re trying to log in with your credentials from a device that Google has not previously seen associated with your account. As Google notes in a support document, security key “offers better protection against this kind of attack, because it uses cryptography instead of verification codes and automatically works only with the website it’s supposed to work with.”

Unlike a one-time token approach, the security key does not rely on mobile phones (so no batteries needed), but the downside is that it doesn’t work for mobile-only users because it requires a USB port. Also, the security key doesn’t work for Google properties on anything other than Chrome.

The move comes a day after Apple launched its Apple Pay platform, a wireless payment system that takes advantage of the near-field communication (NFC) technology built into the new iPhone 6, which allows users to pay for stuff at participating merchants merely by tapping the phone on the store’s payment terminal.

I find it remarkable that Google, Apple and other major tech companies continue to offer more secure and robust authentication options than are currently available to consumers by their financial institutions. I, for one, will be glad to see Apple, Google or any other legitimate player give the entire mag-stripe based payment infrastructure a run for its money. They could hardly do worse.

Soon enough, government Web sites may also offer consumers more authentication options than many financial sites.  An Executive Order announced last Friday by The White House requires the National Security Council Staff, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to submit a plan to ensure that all agencies making personal data accessible to citizens through digital applications implement multiple layers of identity assurance, including multi-factor authentication. Verizon Enterprise has a good post with additional details of this announcement.

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