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Challenges and Solutions in SSO Security for Remote Work

Posted on in SafetyFebruary 19, 2024
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Single sign-on is a grossly underutilized security tool. As organizations embrace remote environments, the ability to access necessary systems seamlessly and securely is critical to maintaining productivity.

However, introducing SSO to a remote workforce is easier said than done. It's a deviation from traditional login methods and isn't immune to threats like social engineering or man-in-the-middle attacks. A combination of employee education and monitoring is required for successful application.

What is SSO?

Single Sign-On (SSO) is an authentication method that allows users to access multiple devices, applications, and services using a single set of login credentials. Instead of remembering and entering different usernames and passwords for each occasion, SSO simplifies password management by providing a centralized authentication mechanism.

The system creates a trust relationship between the identity provider and the platforms the user wants to access. Logging in through the single sign-on portal generates a token that grants access to all other connected platforms without requiring further logins.

One of the most essential tenets of password safety is to use unique, lengthy, and randomized sequences for each one. SSO logins eliminate the need to remember dozens of complex passwords and allow users to navigate between services without interruption seamlessly.

Advantages of SSO in Remote Work Scenarios

  1. Improved Productivity: SSO lowers the risk of workflow slowdowns due to forgotten login credentials. This is more important for remote operations because there isn't an on-site IT team to resolve the problem as quickly.
  2. Enhanced Security: A centralized authentication method enhances security by promoting stronger and unique passwords. Users don't experience 'password fatigue,' which leads to lazy password management and increased risk of compromise.
  3. Cloud Integration: Remote work significantly increases the importance of cloud sharing and storage. SSO seamlessly integrates into cloud-based applications and supports the remote work infrastructure.
  4. Scalability: Typical of software-as-a-service, SSO manages authentication without burdening the organization. This setup means additional IT resources aren't used when onboarding or offboarding users.

Understanding SSO Security

SSO security uses robust authentication protocols to ensure that every user is who they claim to be. During SSO, there are three entities at work.

  1. Users
  2. Identity Providers (IdP)
  3. Service Providers (SP)

When the user attempts to access a service, the provider requests authentication from the IdP. In return, the IdP guarantees that the user matches the information in the IdP's system. This trust relationship allows the user to skip a separate login process.

The most recognizable form of SSO is the "Login with Google" box seen on most major platforms. Services like Spotify, Dropbox, and various social media platforms use Google as a default SSO method.

Most IdPs communicate with one of two protocols: Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) or Open ID Authentication (OAuth).

SAML and OAuth are open federation standards that pass authentication tokens between users and service providers. These tokens have limited validity, high-grade encryptions, and do not include the user's login credentials.

Additionally, SAML assertions (tokens) only contain the user's access status and backup information like login time and authentication method. So, even if tokens are somehow intercepted and decrypted, they don't contain details that could lead to a data breach.

SSO is extremely secure from a technical standpoint, and it promotes similar benefits in reducing the likelihood of human error. During remote work, employees juggle several more login credentials and are likelier to fall into poor password habits like using a single character type, names, or personally significant dates.

SSO makes having dozens or hundreds of high-strength usernames and passwords less daunting because there's no underlying pressure to remember them all.

Challenges in SSO Security for Remote Work

SSO Security

Single-sign-on is an appealing authentication method but is also not widely adopted for personal use. This separation between "professional" and "personal" security measures is one of the biggest hurdles facing organizations switching to remote models.

Remote employees inevitably use their personal devices to access critical files and services. Because they're not accustomed to using SSO on these devices, they'll opt for more traditional but less optimal authentication methods.

Mandating SSO integration on an employee's existing devices might be possible, but what happens when they buy a new laptop or smartphone? Encouraging employees to integrate SSO as their primary authentication method is vital for staying protected against remote work scams.

Dangers of Downtime

Businesses must check the reliability and trustworthiness of their service. SSO is the user's gateway to all, or at least many, of the services necessary to complete their work. So, if the authentication method goes down for any amount of time, progress halts. Independent studies have found that even relatively small businesses can lose up to $427 per minute of downtime.

Remote Work's Influence on SSO Security

The decentralization of workplaces has caused cybercriminals to switch their tactics. Unfortunately, remote work creates an expanded attack surface with employees accessing networks from various devices and locations.

Physical threats like shoulder surfing and device theft become more likely and may catch employees off guard. To cope with these risks, organizations introduce stricter cybersecurity protocols, including SSO. While these measures help, they can't solve everything.

Because SSO services still use a master login, losing those credentials hands over access to every other account. This is far more dangerous than other methods for multi-account hacking, like credential stuffing. The huge payoff of breaking through SSO motivates cybercriminals to devise new ways of directly targeting those credentials.

For example, attackers are updating the fake login pages they send through phishing emails. Initially, fake websites tricked people into entering their login credentials by mirroring the official brand's design. However, SSO doesn't require users to input their information for the service provider.

In response, cybercriminals are adding fake SSO login options to these malicious websites. Users click on an option to "Login with Google," which leads to another fake login page mimicking Google.

If the user enters their Google credentials, they hand over every account partnered with Google's Identity Provider.

Solutions to Strengthen SSO Security

On the surface, SSO security is a massive risk. Attackers who successfully break into an SSO service gain immediate access to all the user's connected accounts. It's like keeping all your valuables in one place.

Just as cybercriminals can adapt to SSO, businesses can strengthen it through diligent management and supporting authentication mechanisms.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication is a security measure that requires users to provide multiple forms of identification before logging in. It typically involves a combination of passwords, biometrics, or one-time codes sent through a text or application.

One of the weaknesses of SSO is that it puts a massive target on the master username and password. Introducing MFA adds another layer of protection for those credentials and prevents hackers from accessing other accounts.

Regular Software Updates

No system is perfect forever. Cybercrime is a massive field, and countless people are progressing its tactics. Staying on top of new updates and patches is crucial for addressing newly found vulnerabilities.

Nowadays, most services learn about successful or attempted cyberattacks from global data. There are also various machine learning programs for detecting potential vulnerabilities before an attack. These tools allow SSO providers to improve security more consistently than before.

The number of patches may seem annoying, but there's not much worse than causing a data breach because you chose to ignore an update.

Employee Training and Awareness

In remote settings, it's up to individual employees to update their software. So, all of them must understand the importance of keeping up with SSO practices even when the IT team isn't looking over their shoulder.

Implement comprehensive and routine security training for remote workers. The main themes should cover secure password practices, software updates, identifying phishing attacks, and adhering to secondary authentication like MFA.

Remote workers should also understand their role-based access permissions. They may need increased access, which is a decision that will affect their overall threat.

Regular Security Audits

Security audits are crucial for identifying vulnerabilities and staying protected against evolving threats. In the case of remote work and SSO, security audits help remind employees about their training.

An audit checklist is a great way to review cybersecurity health and poke your infrastructure for potential vulnerabilities. You can even hire white-hat hackers to attack your systems while prioritizing the following features:

  1. Continuing MFA use
  2. Proper SSO password complexity and length
  3. Checking if all software is up to date
  4. Strict access controls
  5. Cloud security hygiene
  6. Pre-established monitoring and incident response protocols
  7. Regularly scheduled employee training

Conclusion

Single sign-on is a powerful security tool streamlining access to several systems and applications. It allows employees to operate without tracking down the login credentials for dozens of accounts.

While the token login process is valuable, SSO shines at shoring up users' tendency to weaken passwords over time. This fact, in combination with the technology's compatibility with cloud-based infrastructures, makes it a match made in heaven for remote environments.

As time passes, the traditional username and password model becomes increasingly outdated. New authentication mechanisms must replace it and SSO is one of the forefront options. Early integration is heavily advised, as bad actors always target the slowest in the pack.

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