No, SMS OTP Isn't Dead

Posted by Al Pascual - JAVELIN on Jul 31, 2016

Last week’s announcement from NIST that SMS one-time-passwords (OTP) were deprecated as a form of out-of-band (OOB) authentication put the industry in a tizzy.  Funny thing was that NIST did hedge a bit in its language, but it seemed that the agency was relegating SMS OTP to the junk pile when reading some of the posts out there.  

While NIST has since clarified the statement further in a blog of its own (“2FA is better than no 2FA, and SMS OTP isn’t prohibited”), there are questions as to what it all means for financial service providers as NIST guidance is closely followed by the industry (especially by forward-looking institutions).

There’s understandably some concern among our clients about existing investments and what a change would mean for customer experience (as consumers in general have just started to become accustomed to SMS OTP).  And you can bet that authentication vendors in the biometrics space were raising their glasses after the announcement, but they should put the glasses down.  My position is that while I agree with NIST’s assessment that SMS OTP is deprecated, SMS OTP isn’t going away. 

Why?  Three reasons:

  • On its own, SMS OTP still has value for low risk transactions
  • It can be bolstered to mitigate shortcomings
  • It is so broadly integrated across the industry (not quite like passwords, but you don’t sunset something like this overnight) 

Instead of tossing the baby out with the bath water, FIs should continue to consider a risk-weighted approach to authentication.  Lower risk activities are safe in the near term, but any doubts around the suitability of standalone SMS OTP for use in higher risk transactions should be settled – banking Trojans and phone forwarding have long been effective in intercepting these messages.  Supplemental forms of security can raise the level of assurance provided by SMS OTP – such as verifying the status of the receiving device or utilizing anti-malware to detect infected browsers where the OTP is to be entered.

So, will SMS OTP enjoy the same zombie-like status as “memorized secrets” (i.e., passwords – a solution that won’t die, despite already being dead)?  No, because it isn’t dead (not even half dead for all you Billy Crystal fans).  So if you use or are considering SMS OTP for OOB authentication, my suggestion would be stay calm and assess the situation.  Examine the use cases, the inherent levels of risk, and how supplementing SMS OTP with other solutions affects the underlying ROI.

If you work at NIST on the other hand, I have a few suggestions for language around passwords that would really get everyone excited.  But you have to mean it this time. 

About Al Pascual

Al Pascual, CFE, brings his industry experience and passion for fighting financial crime to bear when conducting in-depth research on issues that directly affect the security of financial transactions and the integrity of consumer identities.

Al explores a range of topics, including: the applicability of biometrics in banking and payments, the effect of data breaches on the integrity of consumer identities, the relationship between identity fraud and loyalty, and how to best secure payment data and transactions.

Al began his career with HSBC, where he performed due diligence investigations of high risk mortgage loans. Subsequently, Al was tapped by Goldman Sachs to join the Fixed Income, Currency, and Commodities division, serving on their mortgage fraud investigations team. He later transitioned to FIS Risk Operations department, where he successfully led complex, data driven investigations of organized payment fraud groups throughout the country.

Al has shared the findings from Javelin’s rigorous, leading research with attendees at conferences throughout the country, including BAI, CARTES, Money2020, NACHA, and RSA. His thoughts on a variety of fraud and security issues have been covered by media outlets such as Fox News, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Wired.

Al is a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators, and he serves on the Board of Advisers for Information Security Media Group and the CARTES Secure Connexions America Conference. He earned his Bachelor of the Arts degree in History from the University of South Florida.

Topics: Authentication

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