• article
04/04/2024

Enhancing Security with Advanced Mobile Authentication Techniques

As mobile payments boom, securing transactions is crucial. What’s the role of authentication in secure purchases?

Dorota Jasińska

Content Specialist

Szymon Hanzel

Head of Mobile

Authorization, along with authentication, are security processes used to protect systems and information. They sound alike but have different functions and are equally important when it comes to securing applications and data. Together, they ensure a secure solution.

Importance of authorization and authentication in the mobile context

Mobile authorization and authentication are crucial for many reasons, such as increased security, preventing fraud and identity theft, and protection of sensitive data. Multi-level authentication is often used as an extra layer of security. It may include one-time passcodes (OTP), push notifications in authentication apps, or hardware security tokens.

Currently, many smartphone users can leverage biometric authentication like fingerprint or facial recognition as another layer of security.

Authentication vs. authorization

In the mobile context, authentication and authorization are essential to ensure payment security. Authentication can help protect from fraudsters taking one’s identity, and authorization limits possible damages a hacker can do when they get past authentication.

Authentication means proving your identity. The user’s identity can be verified by, for example, entering a password or PIN known only to a specific person. Nowadays, biometric authentication, such as fingerprint scans or facial recognition, is also popular. It’s also possible to combine a few authorization methods (Two-factor authentication or Multi-factor authentication) for extra security.

Authorization is the process of finding out what actions a user can perform after authentication. This security process checks the user’s level of access and if they can get permission to perform an action. This includes determining the transaction limit, payment restrictions, or access to personal or financial information.

For example, authentication is showing your ID at a store to prove your age allows you to buy age-restricted items. The possibility of purchasing the item is determined by authorization. So, if a document proves your age and your eligibility for the transaction, you can buy the restricted item—you are authorized to do so.

Overview of mobile security challenges

There are a few challenges connected with the security of mobile authentication and authorization. Nowadays, mobile device users need to be careful when it comes to opening links from unknown sources, using unsecured wi-fi networks, and many more. Here are the main threats when using such equipment:

Malicious apps

Hackers create apps that can contain malware and spyware or act as attack gateways. That’s why it’s important to install apps from trusted sources. And even though you use an app from a reliable source, it can still be a target for hackers.

Phishing and smishing

Currently, phishing and smishing attacks are very frequent and popular. People need to be very careful when they get suspicious messages in their mailboxes. Apart from phishing messages, people are targeted by smishing (SMS phishing) and may be tricked into revealing personal information or downloading malware.

Unsecured networks

Using public Wi-Fi networks can also be very dangerous. Such networks may lack proper encryption and make it easier for attackers to intercept one’s data. It could happen that the connection is hijacked by a Man-in-the-Middle attack. These actions lead to the stealing of sensitive data.

Device loss

As our smartphones often contain banking and other apps with sensitive data, losing one or having it stolen also puts our personal data in danger. That’s why it’s important to use protection measures, such as passwords and biometric authentication, to prevent unwanted access to one’s account.

Traditional vs. advanced authentication techniques

Authentication techniques have evolved with time from simple, traditional ones to more advanced methods. Now, we see a trend of passwordless or multi-level authentication for logins or transaction confirmations.

Traditional mobile authentication techniques

The traditional authentication techniques are still widely used. However, in the case of long and complicated password strings, people are replacing them with other methods on mobile devices.

Apart from passwords, PIN codes are also very popular for unlocking devices. Yet, these codes are usually short and thus easy to hack. An alternative to PINs is unlocking patterns. The downside is that there is a limit of unique patterns and they’re also pretty easy to copy.

These authentication methods are well known to users and don’t need a complex implementation in apps. They’re vetted for both new and old devices. However, they’re also easy to break. Due to low complexity, patterns, and PINs can be guessed or observed. Such security measures may not be enough to secure a device in case it gets stolen.

Still, they’re a great solution for low-risk apps with no sensitive data. PINs, passwords and patterns can be strengthened by another layer of security like biometric verification. It is essential to protect the passwords, create unique strings, and set up automatic screen locks.

Advanced mobile authentication techniques

With the development of technology, the protection measures also had to evolve. Today, we can use advanced authentication techniques to prevent any unwanted use of our devices or accounts.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication requires at least two authentication factors to grant user access. Such a combination of, for example, a password and a fingerprint highly increases security. The factors include something the user knows (password, PIN, etc.), something the user has (phone, security key, etc.), and something the user is (biometric authentication). MFA is much more secure than single-factor authentication. Even if the password is leaked, the second factor is still necessary.

MFA is often used by bank apps. Some banks require two-factor authentication (2FA) to log into the app or confirm a transaction. So, apart from using a PIN or passcode, the user has to enter a security code sent via text message.

Biometric authentication

Biometric authentication covers the “what the user is” part. Many smartphones use fingerprints or facial recognition to unlock devices. This method is also used to access some apps. It’s fast and convenient but also hard to forge. With biometrics, users don’t need to remember a password.

However, this technology may not always work. In poor conditions, the device may have a problem when reading the fingerprint. The same issue is with facial recognition. The accuracy is sometimes questionable, and access may be difficult when the user places the finger in the wrong position.

Yet, technological advancements will soon overcome such problems. Even now, the newest devices can recognize faces with sunglasses or face masks. Mobile device producers are perfecting biometric authentication by addressing face-covering issues, etc. For example, Apple has implemented the Bionic engine to handle this type of authentication better.

This method is often used as an extra factor of multi-factor authorization.

Token-based authentication

Token-based authentication uses a token to enable login. The tokens may be generated by a server or a physical device. They can be used only once or within a specific period of time. There are a few token types, and not all involve a user entering a generated token. For example, session tokens are kept by a browser and allow to log into a website automatically.

In many cases, the user is not required to enter a token physically and the authentication process with tokens is handled by browsers or APIs. However, it’s possible to use an app, like Google Authenticator, that generates a token for the user to ensure an extra layer of security.

Some companies require such apps to ensure security. Every time a user tries to log in to an organization, it’s required to enter a code from an authenticating application or confirm the login with a push notification.

Behavioral authentication

Behavioral authentication analyzes the user’s interaction with the device and behavior patterns. This includes touch gestures, typing habits, device movement, pressure on the screen, speed of typing, etc. With machine learning, it’s possible to create a unique behavior profile for every user. Any deviations from the profile will require authentication.

How users interact with apps may also be analyzed by, for example, banks. In the case of suspicious transactions, additional authentication might be required. This kind of security control is used for fraud detection. That’s why banks sometimes call their customers to verify the transactions or actions the system marks as suspicious.

This type of authentication is almost invisible to the user but provides ongoing security.

Location-based authentication

Location-based authentication uses the device’s location to verify one’s identity. The device may use GPS, Wi-Fi networks, or trusted locations to determine if user activity is suspicious. This, however, requires the user to share their location details with apps.

This authentication method is a great way to add another layer of security to traditional ones. It may be problematic to verify one’s identity from every new location, but this prevents fraud risk. In the case someone uses your credentials in a new location, you are informed about it and can block the access.

For example, if someone tries to use a stolen credit card in a new location, the bank may flag the transaction and block it.

Future trends in mobile authorization and authentication

Looking at how the authorization and authentication techniques have evolved over time, their development will likely include passwordless solutions. More and more devices offer biometric authentication. The adoption of biometry may include new forms, such as voice recognition and behavioral patterns.
The FIDO Alliance advocates solutions like passkeys that are popular among big tech companies, such as Amazon or Google. FIDO Alliance tries to address the problem of weak and stolen passwords, the increasing threat of malicious phishing emails, etc. There’s a great chance other businesses will follow the trend and implement passkeys to ensure security.

Behavioral biometrics is a new approach to security, and the way people interact with their devices may be the key to identity assessment. How we hold the device, press the screen, swipe or type can create a unique authentication profile.

There’s no doubt AI can be leveraged to analyze huge datasets for suspicious patterns. Machine learning may be used to help monitor and detect anomalies in real-time.

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