Two-Factor Authentication: SMS or an authenticator app?

indecisiveI admit it: I’m dithering.

After agreeing that passwords are no longer enough, I continued my mission to explore strange new cyber security worlds and to boldly go where…oops, sorry. Anyway, I carried on looking into 2FA. The default, simplest and most easily understood (at least by me, and, I suspect, by many others) method of applying a second factor is to use SMS, a.k.a. text messages. I’ve experienced this, and it works. Trouble is, it’s far from foolproof: messages can be intercepted, my phone can be stolen and used to read them, or there’s a fiendish fraud trick called SIM swapping that can give the cyber-thief the information they need.

To overcome all these weaknesses, there’s an alternative called Time-Based One-Time Password (a.k.a. TOTP, which in my day always stood for Top of the Pops, but there you go). This method requires an app such as Google Authenticator or Authy, which is generally reckoned to be superior. In addition to overcoming the issues with SMS, Authy has other advantages.

So, having decided to try out the “Authy” 2FA app, I duly installed it on both my Android phone and my iPad. Here’s how the journey proceeded:

On opening Authy on my phone I was asked to enter my “cellphone” number (that’s mobile number to we Brits), consisting of the international code (i.e. 44 for the UK) and then the normal mobile number, which doesn’t need the leading zero and which Authy displays in typical American format. So if my number is 07123 123456, Authy shows it as 44 712-312-3456; slightly confusing but not a big deal.

I then entered an email address (although not sure what that’s used for yet…) and then had to choose between a voice call and SMS for initial verification of the mobile number. (Yes, it slightly goes against the grain to use an SMS verification code in this context – where the point of the app is not to use SMS for two-factor authentication – but as they point out I haven’t yet entered any confidential info in the app so the security risk is extremely low.) After receiving the verification code, Authy was ready to add 2FA accounts.

But first I wanted to install it in other places, because one of the advantages of Authy over, say, Google Authenticator, is supposed to be that it’s much less troublesome if my phone is lost or stolen, or if I port my number to a new phone. I read this Authy page and got slightly perturbed at a potential delay of several days. Nevertheless I decided to press on, so I installed it on the iPad, entered my mobile number and, as before, entered the verification code that was sent to my mobile (by SMS).

Finally, I installed it on a Win 10 desktop PC. This too required an authentication process.

Being the cautious type, before actually setting up any 2FA I wanted to clarify various Authy options, PINs, protection passwords and the like. But although I set out to read the Help info on those topics, I ended up reading an FAQ about the “phone change process“.

And I was alarmed.

It was all starting to sound rather involved and potentially complicated. Now I’m torn; I know that SMS-only 2FA is insecure, insofar as it can be bypassed by various nefarious means, but do I really want to go this more complex route??

I’m going to do some more reading before taking the plunge. I understand all the arguments for not using SMS, but my brain just hasn’t yet got to grips with all the scenarios. It whispers to me: “What’s the point of increasing the security of your online accounts if you can end up being locked out of them for days – or even permanently?”

Have you used an authenticator app? What do you think about my hesitation? Shall I just quit dithering and dive in?

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Two-Factor Authentication: Is it worth the hassle?

Passwords are no longer enough. That’s what we keep hearing. Bad people are constantly battering at the door of my digital life looking for a way in, and I need more layers of defence, even if I avoid these classic password boo-boos.

2fa_picEnter two-factor authentication (abbreviated 2FA, a.k.a. 2-step verification if you’re Google, and hashtagged as #2FA on that Twitter thingy). (“Universal 2nd Factor” or U2F is a related technology requiring special bits of hardware. We’ll not go there just yet.)

Like you, I have lots of online accounts, some of which don’t currently use 2FA (I’m not telling you which ones as you might hunt me down in order to cyber-attack me). My first introduction to 2FA was with the UK HMRC web site. They didn’t force me to set it up, as I recall, but I was happy to do so. Now, whenever I need to log in they text me a code which I have to enter in addition to my user name and password.

At this point you (like me) may have some questions, such as:

What problem does 2FA fix?

Sticking with the HMRC example, if someone steals or cracks my HMRC credentials, they still can’t log in as me because they don’t have my phone and can’t receive the 2FA code.

But what if they steal your phone as well?

Not very likely, is it? It could happen, I guess, so let’s assume I’ve been assaulted, they’ve tortured me for my HMRC login and then nicked me phone. I was about to say they’d need to crack my phone security as well, but then I remembered that text messages show a notification on the lock screen – so they might still be able to read the code. Dang it.

Not only that, I did hear of a scammer who managed to scam the mobile phone company as well as the target company so that they were able to receive 2FA codes. No torture or physical theft required. The phone company were negligent and it was a very complex scam, but it worked. (I’d like to include a link to the story but I can’t find it online and, hey, I’m not Wikipedia.)

So the answer is – 2FA could be defeated. Boo.

Aha! And what if you just lose your phone?

That would also be a pain in the proverbial. But HMRC, like all reputable 2FA systems, provides for backup authentication methods. It may be a landline number, another mobile number or even a set of one-time codes you can download and keep for just such a calamitous occasion. (No good keeping them on your phone, naturally.)

So, when configuring 2FA I do need to consider the Plan B option as well.

Do you have to enter a code every time you log in?

With HMRC, yes – that’s how I’ve set it. I don’t use it that often, and the data is highly confidential. But for other accounts, I do live in the slightly troubled territory of Remember me on this computer. We all do it – who wants to log in to everything, every time, on every device? Browsers (or the systems themselves) offer to remember us, or keep us signed in. It’s that balance of security and convenience.

With most systems it’s possible to only require a 2FA code when signing in to a new device. There’s a logic to that because if my account credentials are stolen, chances are that the criminal will try to use them on a computer other than mine. And 2FA will thwart them. (Always assuming they haven’t stolen my phone.) But, as before, there’s a slim chance that the hacking happens directly on my own computer (say with a keylogger loaded by a Trojan). In that case, if I’ve selected “keep me signed in on this computer”, and the digital baddie has control of my PC, I’m doomed. 2FA will not save me. The baddie will access all my secrets and ruin my life.

Boo.

Is 2FA worth the bother then?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Cyber security is all about risk management, just like physical security. The fact that my front door lock isn’t impenetrable doesn’t stop me using it, because it significantly reduces the chances of a burglary. It makes life harder for would-be thieves. If I add a second factor (like an alarm, security lights or a savage guard dog), it mitigates the risk further. A determined criminal could still bypass it all – but the chances are they won’t bother.

Is 2FA using text messages perfect? Nope. Can it be beaten? Yep. (And not just by stealing my phone, by the way; text messages are unencrypted and can theoretically be intercepted during transmission.) Will it help if I’m already signed in, stay signed in and the criminal has access to my device? Nope.

But…

Will 2FA with text messages usually stop a thief accessing my account on another device? Indeed. And theft of my credentials without loss of my phoneI would submit, your honour, is by far the most likely scenario. Why? Because most credential thefts or cracks don’t involve anyone accessing my computer (or my phone) directly. They’re stolen when a company web site is breached or when I’m dumb enough to be social-engineered or phished.

OK. So you recommend using 2FA?

Definitely.

Although…it’s worth being aware that companies mess up sometimes. Not naming any names, but Facebook have angered people with what they now say is a bug causing users to receive spam texts after setting up 2FA. That particular failing hasn’t caused a security problem – just extreme annoyance. Facebook’s 2FA is relatively new (at the time of writing) so it may be prudent to avoid being among the early adopters when a service first offers 2FA.

Which accounts did you say you don’t have 2FA configured for?

Nice try.

Android Irritations: How I stopped Google Play Services demanding that I update my phone number

I have a confession to make: Despite being an IT type of many years’ standing I’ve only recently acquired a smartphone. I know! For various reasons, until 2017 I stuck to a distinctly non-smart but very compact Nokia 2332. Finally prompted by the withdrawal of my pay-as-you-go tariff by TalkTalk and not wanting to be shunted to Vodafone, I entered the wonderful world of Android.

(For the phone geeks out there, my weapon of choice was a Huawei P8 Lite 2017. Yes, I do like it, no, this isn’t a review.)

Anyhoo, I soon discovered that every time the phone restarted, I would get a cheery notification from Google Play Services a bit like this:

google_play_services

(Actually mine said, “It looks like you changed your phone number…”.)

When this first appeared I dutifully followed the prompts, logged into my Google account and discovered – as I’d thought – that my phone number was already there, and was already correct. Mild irritation.

Next time I switched on my phone, same thing. And the next time. And the next time. And…you get the idea.

Being an IT pro, I called on all my accumulated experience and detailed technical knowledge by searching Google. I found other people similarly irritated but no fix.

I thought it might be because my phone number was wrong in the system settings (it showed the number given me by my new provider before I ported my old one), so duly contacted the provider and asked for a network refresh (or some such term). This did the trick as far as the system phone number was concerned but didn’t stop Mr Google greeting me each morning.

Boo.

App Data

Finally, after putting up with it for several months, I conquered it, courtesy of MultiMatt (whose problem was almost identical to mine) and Ed Nisley (whose proposed fix did the trick). The fix was: Clear the app data for “Google Play Services”, as described in Ed’s post.

After clearing the data I restarted the phone and it told me I now had no backup account (i.e. my apps, photos, etc. were no longer being backed up to Google). So I just picked an account and all was happy again. I’ve not seen the unwelcome notification since.rejoicing

You’re welcome.

Passwords: Three ways to let the baddies win

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the Internet is new. Really new. I mean, you might think space travel, computers and fridges are new, but compared to the Internet they’re positively ancient.

I know, I know. The technology historians will tell you the Internet had its roots waaaay back in the seventies, but really, for 99.9% of us, “The Web” was just a 1947 crime movie until the mid-nineties. Strictly, the “WWW” appeared in 1991, but come on – how many of you had even heard of it (let alone used it) until well into the era of Cool Britannia, New Labour and England’s agonising penalty shootout defeat at Euro 96? Exactly.

So, by my reckoning the Internet is barely 20 years old. Not much more than a teenager, in fact. Like many teenagers, it’s grown really fast. Some of the things it gets up to aren’t very savoury. And it’s always demanding attention. (Excuse me while I go check my emails, tweets and status updates…) Despite its youth, immaturity and anarchic setup, however, we all know it’s been the most runaway of runaway successes.

“Fascinating,” I hear you say, as you simultaneously stifle a yawn and check your watch / phone / tablet / blood pressure. “But I thought this was about passwords.” And so it is. The point about the Internet being new is that, by and large, it still has a culture of trust. Oh, we hear the stories of scammers, viruses and hackers but tend to assume it won’t happen to us. Regretfully, that’s a naïve assumption.

They really are out to get you

Cyberthief

Back in the “olden days” (or perhaps still, in a few remote locations), we’re told that nobody locked their front doors. Crime happened back then, of course, but generally speaking, it tended not to happen and there was that culture of trust. As time went on and burglary increased, we started locking our doors. If we didn’t, and then expected sympathy after being robbed, we’d be laughed at. Not only that, but as time went by we added more sophisticated locks, shoot bolts, window locks and burglar alarms. Multiple defences to make it harder for the baddies. We moved from a culture of trust to a culture of protection and prevention.

In that regard, the online world is like rural England several decades ago. Many of us are touchingly innocent about the malevolent, sophisticated and heartless elements out there in cyberspace. (Does anyone say “cyberspace” any more? Or has it gone the same way as “the information superhighway”?) Not to put the frighteners on you, but I can say with some confidence that there are digital baddies out to get you. They are modern-day highwaymen out to relieve you of your cash. And, yes, although there are multiple routes they take, it all boils down to cold, hard money.

OK, I believe you. But why are they interested in me?

  • They want your identity so they can steal your money.
  • They want your confidential information so they can steal your identity so they can steal your money.
  • They want to blackmail you so they can steal your money.
  • They want to hijack your computer, your phone, your tablet and anything else connected to the Internet so they can disguise their criminal activities, attack other computers, and probably ruin your files while they’re at it.

My conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Interweb Age, is that it’s time to move from a culture of trust to a culture of protection and prevention.

Ah, so that’s where passwords come in

Precisely. Although, to be honest, passwords are only a small part of the picture. There are other technical tactics, attitudes and habits we need in order reduce the chances of being taken for a cyber-ride. But passwords are fundamental, much as we may loathe them. They’re like fitting that first lock to your front door. Even a cheap rim lock is better than no lock. And if the next door is unlocked, guess which one the villain will choose?

If you upgrade to a stronger Yale lock or a 5-lever mortice lock, your chances of resisting attack increase. And so with passwords.

OK, so get to that “Three ways…” stuff

Quite so. Here, then, are my top Three Ways To Let The Baddies Win when it comes to your passwords. If you’ve heard them all before, I trust you’re not doing them. And if you’ve never heard them before, please stop doing them. Now.

Way #1: Use Simple Passwords

There are a bazillion articles on the web about how you shouldn’t use simple passwords such as:

  • 123456
  • Fred
  • Christmas
  • ManchesterUnited

Yes, even that last one is lousy and could be cracked in a little over 2 minutes:

 

weak_password
Oh. Dear. Password assessment courtesy of My1Login.com.

 

Cyber Villains United would thank you for using any of the above or similar.

Way #2: Use the Same Password for Multiple Sites

Why does this matter? ‘Cos if Joe Evilhacker gets hold of one of your passwords he’s going to try it on loads of popular sites and, in your case, he’ll strike gold because you use the same one on Amazon, eBay and Facebook.

Do not do this. If you’re doing this, don’t do it any more. With immediate effect.

Way #3: Make Your Passwords Conveniently Available

<preacher_mode>

If you’re going to physically write them down, treat that document like your front door key. Don’t write your passwords on sticky notes on the PC. Don’t leave them lying about on the desk. Don’t put them in a notebook entitled Computer Passwords. Make it difficult for anyone who shouldn’t have access to even recognise what the document is, let alone get hold of it.

If you keep passwords on your computer, at least make sure there’s a password on that document. (And, yes, you must also protect the password to that document…) A “password manager” is better than a simple document for various reasons – but whatever approach you take assume that the worst could happen. (And, of course, if the information is in a computer file of some sort, it must be backed up somewhere – otherwise, it might be you that’s locked out of your accounts, not just the criminals.)

</preacher_mode>

A note of clarification

At the (severe) risk of insulting your intelligence, I should emphasise that the above are what not to do. Was that blindingly obvious anyway? It was? Sorry.

Enjoy the Internet, that stroppy teenager, and may your digital defences never be breached.

 

Normally I hate blog posts about blogging, but…

…I’ll make an exception today because I’m writing one 🙂

My WordPress blog goes through long periods of neglect (like my squash playing or cleaning the bath) but then the mood strikes and here I am again. How come?

  • Firstly because my To-Do app on the iPad prompted me that it’s time to back up my blog. Actually there’s not a lot of point me backing up this blog since the last post was in March and I backed it up in April. Although, since I’m now writing a new post…
  • Secondly because when I do blog I sometimes try a different theme and I knew that I really didn’t like my last choice. But of course, you can’t see my last choice because I’ve now changed it. And if you read this at some point in the future (what else might you do? read it in the past…?) you might not be seeing the theme I chose today ‘cos I might have changed it again…
  • Thirdly because I was thinking about writing a tech-based post due to the increasing frequency with which I’m being notified that my devices / software aren’t up to scratch to run the latest stuff. More on this below.

Hence, I sit and type.

On my 2009 Compaq desktop running Windows VistaVista???!! Yep. On which I run Internet Explorer 9, the latest Vista can understand. And which, Twitter, now tells me, is inadequate and therefore I am reduced to viewing Twitter Mobile. On my desktop.

twitter_ie9

Humph.

My other ageing device is a second generation iPod Touch, circa January 2009. I recently tried to add a Gmail account to the mail app and Gmail refused, saying the device wasn’t secure enough. Can’t complain about that, what with me being an IT guy and all. Then yesterday YouTube on the iPod started warning me it no longer fully supported my device.

Dang it. Inevitable really.

And so I muse on changing the PC, upgrading the PC to Windows 8.1 (and thence to Windows 10), and whether to keep the iPod for music only and invest in – gasp – a smartphone that can handle my email and YouTube thingies. (My current phone is distinctly unsmart – it makes calls and sends texts, end of story. Until my iPod started showing these signs of obsolescence I thought I’d hang on to my old phone until it broke. But maybe not.)

If you have absolutely nothing better to do, watch this space for further developments. And if you really have absolutely nothing better to do than that, I suggest you seek help.