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NIST Guidelines Require Second Auth Factor When Using Biometrics

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On January 30, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a public draft of new Digital Identity Guidelines. Described as "a significant update from past revisions," the new guidelines reflect evolving industry innovation and more advanced threats since the publication of the Electronic Authentication Guideline in August 2013.

One of the motivations for revising the guidelines was an Executive Order issued by President Obama in October 2014, requiring "…that all agencies making personal data accessible to citizens through digital applications require the use of multiple factors of authentication and an effective identity proofing process, as appropriate."

The guidelines describe acceptable use of multi-factor authentication (MFA), comprised of a combination of something you know (ex. a password), something you have (ex. a cryptographic key) and/or something you are (biometric data). Furthermore, when using biometric data as one authentication factor, it must be combined with something you have.

During a call for feedback on the previous NIST guideline, Hitoshi Kokumai, President of Mnemonic Security, Inc., provided recommendations regarding safe use of biometrics. He appreciates the new requirement that does not permit falling back to a password.

Hitoshi Kokumai - "Users of biometric products, if they are security-conscious, are advised to turn off the biometrics when a password login is offered as a fallback means. The password-only authentication is securer. They could keep the biometrics with a fallback password activated only where they are happy with "below-password-only" security in return for better convenience."

The guidelines are available for a public comment period until . NIST is utilizing a GitHub repo for editor collaboration and public comment. The full text of the guidelines, and instructions for commenting are available at

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