The Challenge of Security Questions

Jackson Shaw just wrote about a website called As the name indicates, it’s a site that purports to distinguish between good and bad questions to employ when setting up for your identity re-verification challenges (for when you forget your password or need to execute a high-value transaction, for instance). The same site also (correctly) points out that there are no good security questions (due to the inherent security issues in it), just better ones, based on the following criteria:

  1. The answer cannot be easily guessed or researched [Safe]
  2. The answer doesn’t change over time [Stable]
  3. The answer is memorable [Recall-ability]
  4. The answer is definitive or simple [Simplicity]

Good criteria to remember next time you are deciding between “What is your pet’s name?” and “What was the name of your first stuffed animal?”.

Of course, the service you are interacting with needs to allow you to choose from a large enough set or supply your own questions so you can adhere to this principle. And a highly sensitive application should go beyond just plain security questions. While most services are moving towards simpler yet more secure mechanisms – emailing the user short-lived password reset tokens, for instance – there are many cases where you still need a challenge-based mechanism (like when the forgotten password is the one used to access your email).

Knowledge-Based Authentication has gotten increasingly sophisticated over the last few years, and enterprises looking to leverage this can do better than just providing their users a few hard-coded questions to choose from. Oracle Adaptive Access Manager 11g brings features like Answer Logic (which employs fuzzy logic to increase the usability of security questions) and One-Time Passwords (delivered via SMS, email, IM or voice) into the mix, while also adding real-time risk analytics to make the overall process more secure, reliable, usable and cost-effective.

And all of this is delivered as a service so that enterprises can incorporate KBA into their various applications as needed. In fact, as part of the suite-wide integration design theme of Oracle Identity Management 11g, OAAM now has out-of-the-box integrations with Oracle Identity Manager and Oracle Access Manager. So if you deploy the suite, the real-time risk analytics and risk-based challenge mechanisms of OAAM are automatically leveraged by those other products. It is a sweet thing to behold.

Even as we sound out the call to kill passwords (an NPT for passwords; I like that), KBA will continue to be a critical tool in the identity proofing arena. So keep an eye out for all the innovation that will take place in this field.

Password Retrieval