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The four major U.S. wireless carriers today detailed a new initiative that may soon let Web sites eschew passwords and instead authenticate visitors by leveraging data elements unique to each customer’s phone and mobile subscriber account, such as location, customer reputation, and physical attributes of the device. Here’s a look at what’s coming, and the potential security and privacy trade-offs of trusting the carriers to handle online authentication on your behalf.

Tentatively dubbed “Project Verify” and still in the private beta testing phase, the new authentication initiative is being pitched as a way to give consumers both a more streamlined method of proving one’s identity when creating a new account at a given Web site, as well as replacing passwords and one-time codes for logging in to existing accounts at participating sites.

Here’s a promotional and explanatory video about Project Verify produced by the Mobile Authentication Task Force, whose members include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHShXwsER0I]

The mobile companies say Project Verify can improve online authentication because they alone have access to several unique signals and capabilities that can be used to validate each customer and their mobile device(s). This includes knowing the approximate real-time location of the customer; how long they have been a customer and used the device in question; and information about components inside the customer’s phone that are only accessible to the carriers themselves, such as cryptographic signatures tied to the device’s SIM card.

The Task Force currently is working on building its Project Verify app into the software that gets pre-loaded onto mobile devices sold by the four major carriers. The basic idea is that third-party Web sites could let the app (and, by extension, the user’s mobile provider) handle the process of authenticating the user’s identity, at which point the app would interactively log the user in without the need of a username and password.

In another example, participating sites could use Project Verify to supplement or replace existing authentication processes, such as two-factor methods that currently rely on sending the user a one-time passcode via SMS/text messages, which can be intercepted by cybercrooks.

The carriers also are pitching their offering as a way for consumers to pre-populate data fields on a Web site — such as name, address, credit card number and other information typically entered when someone wants to sign up for a new user account at a Web site or make purchases online.

Johannes Jaskolski, general manager for Mobile Authentication Task Force and assistant vice president of identity security at AT&T, said the group is betting that Project Verify will be attractive to online retailers partly because it can help them capture more sign-ups and sales from users who might otherwise balk at having to manually provide lots of data via a mobile device.

“We can be a primary authenticator where, just by authenticating to our app, you can then use that service,” Jaskolski said. “That can be on your mobile, but it could also be on another device. With subscriber consent, we can populate that information and make it much more effortless to sign up for or sign into services online. In other markets, we have found this type of approach reduced [customer] fall-out rates, so it can make third-party businesses more successful in capturing that.”

Jaskolski said customers who take advantage of Project Verify will be able to choose what types of data get shared between their wireless provider and a Web site on a per-site basis, or opt to share certain data elements across the board with sites that leverage the app for authentication and e-commerce.

“Many companies already rely on the mobile device today in their customer authentication flows, but what we’re saying is there’s going to be a better way to do this in a method that is intended from the start to serve authentication use cases,” Jaskolski said. “This is what everyone has been seeking from us already in co-opting other mobile features that were simply never designed for authentication.”

‘A DISMAL TRACK RECORD’

A key question about adoption of this fledgling initiative will be how much trust consumers place with the wireless companies, which have struggled mightily over the past several years to validate that their own customers are who they say they are.

All four major mobile providers currently are struggling to protect customers against scams designed to seize control over a target’s mobile phone number. In an increasingly common scenario, attackers impersonate the customer over the phone or in mobile retail stores in a bid to get the target’s number transferred to a device they control. When successful, these attacks — known as SIM swaps and mobile number port-out scams —  allow thieves to intercept one-time authentication codes sent to a customer’s mobile device via text message or automated phone-call.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and lecturer at UC Berkeley, said this new solution could make mobile phones and their associated numbers even more of an attractive target for cyber thieves.

Weaver said after he became a victim of a SIM swapping attack a few years back, he was blown away when he learned how simple it was for thieves to impersonate him to his mobile provider.

“SIM swapping is very much in the news now, but it’s been a big problem for at least the last half-decade,” he said. “In my case, someone went into a Verizon store, took over the account, and added themselves as an authorized user under their name — not even under my name — and told the store he needed a replacement phone because his broke. It took me three days to regain control of the account in a way that the person wasn’t able to take it back away from me.”

Weaver said Project Verify could become an extremely useful way for Web sites to onboard new users. But he said he’s skeptical of the idea that the solution would be much of an improvement for multi-factor authentication on third-party Web sites.

“The carriers have a dismal track record of authenticating the user,” he said. “If the carriers were trustworthy, I think this would be unequivocally a good idea. The problem is I don’t trust the carriers.”

It probably doesn’t help that all of the carriers participating in this effort were recently caught selling the real-time location data of their customers’ mobile devices to a host of third-party companies that utterly failed to secure online access to that sensitive data.

On May 10, The New York Times broke the news that a cell phone location tracking company called Securus Technologies had been selling or giving away location data on customers of virtually any major mobile network provider to local police forces across the United States.

A few weeks after the NYT scoop, KrebsOnSecurity broke the story that LocationSmart — a wireless data aggregator — hosted a public demo page on its Web site that would let anyone look up the real-time location data on virtually any U.S. mobile subscriber.

In response, all of the major mobile companies said they had terminated location data sharing agreements with LocationSmart and several other companies that were buying the information. The carriers each insisted that they only shared this data with customer consent, although it soon emerged that the mobile giants were instead counting on these data aggregators to obtain customer consent before sharing this location data with third parties, a sort of transitive trust relationship that appears to have been completely flawed from the get-go.

AT&T’s Jaskolski said the mobile giants are planning to use their new solution to further protect customers against SIM swaps.

“We are planning to use this as an additional preventative control,” Jaskolski said. “For example, just because you swap in a new SIM, that doesn’t mean the mobile authentication profile we’ve created is ported as well. In this case, porting your sim won’t necessarily port your mobile authentication profile.”

Jaskolski emphasized that Project Verify would not seek to centralize subscriber data into some new giant cross-carrier database.

“We’re not going to be aggregating and centralizing this subscriber data, which will remain with each carrier separately,” he said. “And this is very much a pro-competition solution, because it will be portable by design and is not designed to keep a subscriber stuck to one specific carrier. More importantly, the user will be in control of whatever gets shared with third parties.”

My take? The carriers can make whatever claims they wish about the security and trustworthiness of this new offering, but it’s difficult to gauge the sincerity and accuracy of those claims until the program is broadly available for beta testing and use — which is currently slated for sometime in 2019.

I am not likely to ever take the carriers up on this offer. In fact, I’ve been working hard of late to disconnect my digital life from these mobile providers. And I’m not about to volunteer more information than necessary beyond the bare minimum needed to have wireless service.

As with most things related to cybersecurity and identity online, much will depend on the default settings the carriers decide to stitch into their apps, and more importantly the default settings of third-party Web site apps designed to interact with Project Verify.

Jaskolski said the coalition is hoping to kick off the program next year in collaboration with some major online e-commerce platforms that have expressed interest in the initiative, although he declined to talk specifics on that front. He added that the mobile providers are currently working through exactly what those defaults might look like, but also acknowledged that some of those platforms have expressed an interest in forcing users to opt-out of sharing specific subscriber data elements.

“Users will be able to see exactly what attributes will be shared, and they can say yes or no to those,” he said. “In some cases, the [third-party site] can say here are some things I absolutely need, and here are some things we’d like to have. Those are some of the things we’re working through now.”

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