The anatomy of the Twitter breach as detailed in TechCrunch speaks clearly to the lengths that a determined attacker will go to gain access to proprietary information. The specifics of the attack are complex and involve a number of ingenious inter-related actions on the part of the attacker who did ultimately gain access to a single user credential at Twitter. Although the methods used are complex and much of the post game discussion has focused on high level security risks associated with Google Apps, the fundamental architectural characteristic that makes this type of attack possible at all is the publicly available web form for collecting user names and passwords.
The attacker was able to manipulate all of the publicly available functionality that is set up to support web form authentication and gain access to sensitive information as a result. Exposing password resets, question based authentication, email notification – (i.e. all of the machinery required to support the public web form) to anyone with a browser is an invitation to serious mischief.
The Twitter breach is a teachable moment for companies adopting cloud applications. In simple terms – since the fundamental risk is having web authentication forms on the public Internet, it follows that the best place for authentication of enterprise users to occur is behind the firewall. Technology designed to make it simple for companies to leverage an existing secure authentication (that happens on a secure network ) to provide access to cloud based applications is the most secure, least intrusive, and most cost effective way of addressing security risks like the ones that were exposed at Twitter.
In my five years and counting at Ping Identity we’ve built from zero to a customer roster of over 370 companies around the world, including 42 of the fortune 100. To a large extent, the credit for Ping’s growth goes to the simple premise that there is inevitable trend that continues to move credential collection to the most secure location available. The recent news about Twitter and their struggle with authentication to Google Apps fits this pattern perfectly.
The implications of this trend for emerging cloud based Identity Provider solutions are an interesting related topic. Ultimately, credential collection can be done securely on the public Internet - but it requires well thought out layering of single sign on, monitoring, and strong forms of authentication. More on the best practices developing around Cloud based Identity Providers in a future post...