How will authentication standards evolve in 2021 and beyond?

April 29, 2021 6 minute read

Authentication standards development is like a slow-moving, winding river. It often takes years of dedicated work to reach new milestones, yet it feeds the entire security ecosystem and sustains digital workflow safety throughout the enterprise. While the benefits of this river are often invisible to the end-user, CISOs and developers are thinking about the river’s health every day. 

Yubico is right there with them, monitoring the river and playing a leading role in developing modern authentication standards like FIDO2, which encompasses both the Web Authentication API (WebAuthn) and Client to Authenticator Protocol (CTAP2). CISOs standing on the bank of the river don’t want to be caught just watching the water go by. Ideally, they’re looking around the bend, already anticipating where those standards will go years into the future. 

Today, we discuss where standards are headed in 2021 and beyond with two Yubico experts, senior architect John Bradley (JB) and program manager for standards John Fontana (JF). They are permanently perched on the river bank, “working in the future” to help develop new standards and keep the internet safe. 

Q: What’s the focus for authentication standards in 2021 and beyond? 

JF: There’s a confluence of standards emerging that eventually will unify to support the evolution of the Web and online computing. These advancements will finally support both ease-of-use and strong security. WebAuthn, FIDO and OpenID are all different standards that will come together under this umbrella and provide more sophisticated enterprise systems and new innovations. It may not happen tomorrow, but that’s where it’s headed.

WebAuthn is the current standout here. The second iteration of the spec was finalized just earlier this month, on April 8. The Working Group added a handful of features including new credential types, the ability to store data related to certificates, and limited use of iframes. The FIDO companion to the W3C’s WebAuthn specification — the Client to Authenticator Protocol (CTAP) 2.1 — is due later this summer, and will define passwordless, second-factor, or multi-factor authentication using FIDO2-enabled browsers and operating systems. 

JB: You have to temper expectations because of the lag between standards being developed and accepted, and when they actually get adopted in the market. The big tech giants will always take a year to catch up once a standard is accepted, but we want to make sure we’re contributing far ahead of time to shape what those standards will look like.

I’d say one of the biggest trends shaping our authentication standards work at the moment is remote and hybrid work. More specifically, how do we solve for things like securely onboarding someone who may not physically be at a site to get credentialed, and how do we enable it to be done at scale. If the enterprise can do this — onboard people without even seeing them — and do it securely, that’s going to save big companies a lot of money in a time when remote work is exploding.

There are other trends that are driving standards adoption. With Apple just recently adopting WebAuthn and supporting it in MacOS 11 and iOS 14.3, that’s opened up the floodgates for adoption by enterprise and consumer applications. 

Q: What are some future applications for these standards? 

JF: There’s a lot of standards work happening in the payments area, because that’s where financial institutions are asking for an integrated flow within the web browser, with no redirects that might interrupt the payment process. We could start seeing that get fully implemented by late 2021. 3D Secure standards (think of the “Verified by Visa” tool, which is not an open standard) are also evolving to make this flow easier to integrate into all the common web browsers and platforms. 

JB: We’re also looking at biometrics. The CTAP 2.1 standards are going to make biometric authentication flows much better and deliver a more consistent user experience, which is one important area of development for Yubico as well. These were things that were not well thought out in the first generation of FIDO2 platforms and devices. 

Q: What about historically laggard industries like the public sector? Do you think that government agencies will be looking to move beyond PIV and CAC this year with modern authentication standards like FIDO and WebAuthn?

JF: We’re always “working in the future,” when it comes to standards, so we’re developing for what we know, or what we think we know, and for what is coming next year or the year after. U.S government agencies may be slow to adopt and are still relying on PIV and CAC standards, physical readers, and smart cards, but the pandemic and the move to remote work has raised a sense of urgency in a lot of government agencies. They need better tools that are additive to current tools (PIV/CAC), especially those with more modern architectures and features rather than replacements. While U.S. agencies were shut down for months, they watched European agencies manage to get their remote processes active faster and with much less effort. European systems were ready for remote services such as identity proofing. U.S. agencies now clearly see the need for robust remote options that aren’t attached to a particular location or workstation. NIST and other agencies are not abandoning PIV and CAC, but they are working to incorporate newer technologies into their digital identity guidelines.

JB: Big agencies like Social Security or the IRS, or even states’ unemployment benefits agencies, are looking for multi-factor authentication (MFA) options in the near future that can be deployed at scale to citizens. That will drive a lot of government-based demand. They will want all of those features I mentioned before that are essential for the system to work, such as an easy remote onboarding process.

Those following the authentication standards agenda will have plenty to see in 2021. The latest breaches, including the SolarWinds debacle, and the push toward more remote work, will likely drive an acceleration in standards, opening the way for remote identity proofing, faster onboarding processes, and streamlined payment flows. This will be welcome news to many CISOs who are looking for more secure authentication alternatives for an era of remote work.

To stay up to date on the latest developments related to authentication standards, and for early access to new FIDO2 and WebAuthn resources, sign up for the Yubico Developer Program mailing list here