We previously announced that starting with Chrome 76, most latest-generation Chromebooks gained the option to enable a built-in FIDO authenticator backed by hardware-based Titan security. For supported services (e.g. G Suite, Google Cloud Platform), enterprise administrators can now allow end users to use the power button on these devices to protect against certain classes of account takeover attempts. This feature is disabled by default, however, administrators can enable it by changing DeviceSecondFactorAuthentication policy in the Google Admin console.
Before we dive deeper into this capability, let’s first cover the main use cases FIDO technology solves, and then explore how this new enhancement can satisfy an advanced requirement that can help enterprise organizations.
Main use casesFIDO technology
aims to solve three separate use cases for relying parties (or otherwise referred to as Internet services) by helping to:
- Prevent phishing during initial login to a service on a new device;
- Reverify a user’s identity to a service on a device on which they’ve already logged in to;
- Confirm that the device a user is connecting from is still the original device where they logged in from previously. This is typically needed in the enterprise.
Security-savvy professionals may interpret the third use case as a special instance of use case #2. However, there are some differences, which we break down a bit further below:
- In case #2, the problem that FIDO technology tries to solve is re-verifying a user’s identity by unlocking a private key stored on the device.
- In case #3, FIDO technology helps to determine whether a previously created key is still available on the original device without any proof of who the user is.
How use case #1 works: Roaming security keys
Because the whole premise of this use case is one in which the user logs in on a brand new device they’ve never authenticated before, this requires the user to have a FIDO security key (removeable, cross-platform, or a roaming authenticator). By this definition, a built-in FIDO authenticator on Chrome OS devices would not be able to satisfy this requirement, because it would not be able to help verify the user’s identity without being set up previously. Upon initial log-in, the user’s identity is verified together with the presence of a security key (such as Google’s Titan Security Key
) previously tied to their account.
Titan Security Keys
Once the user is successfully logged in, trust is conferred from the security key to the device on which the user is logging on, usually by placing a cookie or other token on the device in order for the relying party to “remember” that the user already performed a second factor authenticator on this device. Once this step is completed, it is no longer necessary to require a physical second factor on this device because the presence of the cookie signals to the relying party that this device is to be trusted.
Optionally, some services might require the user to still periodically verify that it’s the correct user in front of the already recognized device (for example, particularly sensitive and regulated services such as financial services companies). In almost all cases, it shouldn’t be necessary for the user to also-in addition to providing their knowledge factor (such as a password) – re-present their second factor when re-authenticating as they’ve already done that during initial bootstrapping.
Note that on Chrome OS devices, your data is encrypted when you’re not logged on, which further protects your data against malicious access.
How use case #2 works: Re-authentication
Frequently referred to as “re-authentication,” use case #2 allows a relying party to reverify that the same user is still interacting with the service from a previously verified device. This mainly happens when a user performs an action that’s particularly sensitive, such as changing their password or when interacting with regulated services, such as financial services companies. In this case, a built-in biometric authenticator (e.g. a fingerprint sensor or PIN on Android devices) can be registered, which offers users a more convenient way to re-verify their identity to the service in question. In fact, we have recently enabled this use case on Android devices for some Google services.
Additionally, there are security benefits to this particular solution, as the relying party doesn’t only have to trust a previously issued cookie, but can now both verify that the right user is present (by means of a biometric) and that a particular private key is available on this particular device. Sometimes this promise is made based on key material stored in hardware (e.g. Titan security in Pixel Slate), which can be a strong indicator that the relying party is interacting with the right user on the right device.
How use case #3 works: Built-in device authenticator
The challenge of verifying that a device a user has previously logged in on is still the device from which they’re interacting with the relying party, is what the built-in FIDO authenticator on most latest-generation Chromebooks is able to help solve.
Earlier we noted that upon initial log-in, relying parties regularly place cookies or tokens on a user’s device, so they can remember that a user has previously authenticated. Under some circumstances, such as when there’s malware present on a device, it might be possible for these tokens to be exfiltrated. Asking for the “touch of a built-in authenticator” at regular intervals helps the relying party know that the user is still interacting from a legitimate device which has previously been issued a token. It also helps verify that the token has not been exfiltrated to a different device since FIDO authenticators offer increased protection against the exfiltration of the private key. This is because it’s usually housed in the hardware itself. For example, in the case of most latest-generation Chromebooks (e.g. Pixel Slate), it’s protected by hardware-based Titan security.
Pixel Slate devices are built with hardware-based Titan security
In the case of our implementation on Chrome OS, the FIDO keys are also scoped to the specific logged in user, meaning that every user on the device essentially gets their own FIDO authenticator that can’t be accessed across user boundaries. We expect this use case to be particularly useful in enterprise environments, which is why the feature is not enabled by default. Administrators can enable it in the Google Admin console.
Enabling the built-in FIDO authenticator in the Google Admin console
Even though it’s technically possible to register the built-in FIDO authenticator on a Chrome OS device as a “security key” with services, it’s best to avoid this instance as users can run an increased risk of account lockout if they ever need to sign in to the service from a different machine.
Starting with Chrome 76, most latest-generation Chromebooks gained the option to enable a built-in FIDO authenticator backed by hardware-based Titan security. To see if your Chromebook can be enabled with this capability, you can navigate to chrome://system and check the “tpm-version” entry. If “vendor” equals “43524f53”, then your Chromebook is backed by Titan security.
Navigating to chrome://system on your Chromebook
In summary, we believe that this new enhancement can provide value to enterprise organizations that want to confirm that the device a user is connecting from is still the original device from which a user logged in from in the past. Most users, however, should be using roaming FIDO security keys, such as Titan Security Key
, their Android phone
, or security keys from other vendors, in order to avoid account lockouts.