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Identity Binding for Zero Trust Authentication


As organizations continue to undergo digital transformation, more and more users require access to systems and data. The reality that most employees have multiple identities, connect to the network with multiple devices, and collaborate with outside vendors significantly increases cyber risk. Add in remote work and cloud adoption, and you have a surge of identities, making traditional multi-factor authentication (MFA) methods ineffective.

Since most cyberattacks often result from stolen credentials, secure authentication is no longer optional. Secure authentication is your first line of defense and helps you enact zero trust security, which ensures that users have the least amount of data access needed to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, many organizations are still relying on legacy user authentication methods like passwords, traditional MFA, and hardware keys to verify identity. This poses several security risks and challenges:

  • Passwords and most traditional MFA are vulnerable to phishing attacks via social engineering and malicious websites
  • Passwords are easily forgotten, requiring resets and help desk calls
  • Password reuse makes it easier for cyber-criminals to gain access to multiple accounts
  • Traditional MFA is vulnerable to SIM hacking, malware, and notification flooding
  • Hardware keys are expensive to purchase, distribute, and replace  

Because passwords are a shared secret known by both the user and the service provider, attackers can breach them on either end. As long as organizations use passwords, attackers will continue to steal them, either from the user via phishing, or from the service provider through database breaches. 

Traditional 2FA and MFA methods offer a second authentication factor that is also vulnerable. Hackers hijack one-time passwords, send fake push notifications, and trick phone carriers into switching lines to compromise voice or text verifications. 

Hardware keys are often the first solution organizations think of to overcome these issues, but they have weaknesses as well. They add a second device to the equation (another thing to keep track of) and the key itself does nothing to authenticate the actual user behind the device. Because the only authentication factor a hardware key offers is possession, anyone with the key can access the device and your resources. 

In addition to these security risks, passwords and legacy MFA methods reduce productivity due to time spent dealing with login issues and calling the help desk. If you want to optimize your security posture without slowing down operations, you need a frictionless, cost-effective way to verify user identity accurately. 

Using an authentication method that binds user identity to the device allows you to authenticate users without sharing secrets that are vulnerable to phishing. By ending your reliance on passwords and other legacy authentication factors, you reduce time spent dealing with login issues, quickly enact security policies, and reduce cyberattacks.

Binding identity to user and device for secure Zero Trust Authentication

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), ISO Standards, the US Government, and other regulatory entities recommend using a zero trust framework built on phishing-resistant MFA and continuous authentication

The zero trust architecture:

  • Helps mitigate the risk of a breach by ensuring only approved users and devices are accessing your resources. 
  • Limits lateral movement within the network by continuously validating any user who interacts with your digital assets.
  • Secures your assets wherever they are—in your data center or the cloud

Zero Trust Authentication is one of the pillars of the zero trust framework. You’ll need strong assertion of user identity and device security to ensure you’re only granting access to authorized users on trusted devices. With Zero Trust Authentication, you approach identity and authentication from a security perspective. Binding identity to user and device is one of the seven tenets of Zero Trust Authentication:

  1. Passwordless
  2. Phishing resistant
  3. Capable of validating user devices (binding identity)
  4. Capable of assessing device security posture
  5. Capable of analyzing many types of risk signals
  6. Continuous risk assessment
  7. Integrated with the security infrastructure

Identity binding through public-private keys

The best way to authenticate your users without sharing secrets is to leverage an authentication solution that cryptographically binds the user’s identity with the device. This eliminates all phishable factors from the process. 

Cryptographic authentication, or key-based authentication, works by verifying the user’s possession of a cryptographic credential that’s embedded on their existing device. The credential is a private key created within the device’s secure enclave—or trusted platform module (TPM)—at enrollment. 

The private key cannot be tampered with, copied, or modified, and it is used to bind the user’s identity to their device and every subsequent device the user extends their credential to.

At the same time, a signed attestation for the corresponding public key is created. This certificate binds the user who owns the device to a hardware-protected key pair, so their possession of the secret credential is verifiable. When the user requests access to a resource, only the encrypted public key is shared. This provides the highest assurance of user identity without exposing secrets to threat actors. 

Solving for security and friction

Identity binding is more than an authentication solution. Utilizing key-based authentication reduces your exposure to threat actors, reduces time spent recovering forgotten passwords, and helps you more easily deploy security policies like zero trust.

Here are some of the other benefits of authenticating users with public-private keys: 

Ensure secure workforce access: Allowing network access based on permissions and authentication is a key zero trust principle. Identity binding makes it easy to control access levels for different user groups, i.e., employees, contractors, consultants, and agents.

Stop supply chain attacks: Software companies and their customers need to be able to validate the integrity of their products and ensure that no malicious code has been injected. Binding developer identities to trusted devices, and to the keys used to authenticate submissions, keeps code repositories secure.

Authenticate customers: Businesses lose customers who can’t successfully log in, recover forgotten credentials, or check out. Key-based authentication decreases revenue loss caused by forgotten passwords and eliminates account takeover and fraud.

How Beyond Identity can help

Not all authentication methods are created equal. Traditional MFA solutions are vulnerable to hacking and costly to support. Companies looking for frictionless, high-assurance user authentication can benefit from a solution that uses identity binding to verify users and devices. 

Beyond Identity leverages the technology built into modern devices to provide secure authentication through biometrics and asymmetric cryptography. That means no secrets are shared when an authentication request is sent—reducing the risk of stolen credentials and account takeover. By eliminating the need for passwords and other phishable authentication factors, our customers can boost their security posture, quickly implement security frameworks, and speed up business operations. 

In addition, Beyond Identity partners with leading cybersecurity organizations and vendors to provide high-assurance authentication and risk signals:

  • FIDO2-certified libraries and authenticators enable secure authentication and account recovery.
  • Crowdstrike Falcon integration provides access to a key endpoint-level risk signal that drives intelligent authentication decisions via policy directives.
  • Zscaler Private Access and Internet Access integrations help you ensure all connected devices meet your organization’s security requirements before and during an active session.

Beyond Identity’s unique approach to phishing-resistant, passwordless authentication is simple for both users and IT teams. By reducing friction and supporting easy adoption, we give enterprises a powerful tool to implement zero trust initiatives. Book a demo today.