Mobile Security Moving to Biometric Authentication: Gartner

Gartner recommends that security leaders evaluate biometric authentication methods where higher-assurance authentication is required.

By 2016, 30 percent of organizations will use biometric authentication on mobile devices, up from 5 percent today, as the consumerization of IT and business bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs have resulted in potential security problems for IT leaders, according to a report from IT research firm Gartner.

With user expectations of a clean and simple mobile user experience often outweighing security concerns, the same valuable data guarded by complex passwords and security measures on PCs can be left vulnerable on mobile devices.

In addition, implementing standard power-on password policies is made much more complex by the acceptance of BYOD practices, with the inevitable clash over user rights and privacy.

Gartner recommends that security leaders evaluate biometric authentication methods where higher-assurance authentication is required. Suitable authentication modes include interface interactivity, voice recognition, face topography and iris structure.

These modes can be used in conjunction with passwords to provide higher-assurance authentication without requiring any significant change in user behavior.

"Mobile users staunchly resist authentication methods that were tolerable on PCs and are still needed to bolster secure access on mobile devices," Ant Allan, research vice president at Gartner, said in a statement. "Security leaders must manage users' expectations and take into account the user experience without comprising security."

Gartner also recommends that a password policy requiring use of at least six alphanumeric characters, and prohibiting dictionary words, is enforced on devices with access to corporate information through mobile device management (MDM) tools.

While most organizations require robust passwords on laptops, smartphones and tablet devices often have access to the same applications and critical data but not the same levels of security. The increased number of devices in play also exacerbates the exposure of critical information.

"An eight-digit numeric password will require hours to recover, and that will discourage casual hackers with toolkits," John Girard, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said in a statement. "However, even a six-character lowercase alphanumeric password can provide billions of values. For most practical purposes, hackers are not prepared to pursue this large a set of combinations due to the relatively slow speeds involved in brute force attacks against smartphones and tablets."

Software tokens, such as X.509 credentials on the endpoint, provide options in this case, but often need MDM tools to be implemented properly and still require additional controls to provide the higher-assurance authentication necessary in some organizations.

While complex passwords can be especially problematic for users to type on mobile devices, if these devices hold corporate data or provide access to corporate systems such as email without further login, even a default four-digit password is inappropriate.

"Adopting significantly different authentication methods for different devices will eventually be unsustainable," Allan continued. "Mobile-apt authentication methods must also be PC apt. Combinations of X.509 credentials on the endpoint, low-friction biometric modes and contextual authentication will likely fit the bill."