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Testing Multiple Factors Authentication (OWASP-AT-009)

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OWASP Testing Guide v3 Table of Contents

This article is part of the OWASP Testing Guide v3. The entire OWASP Testing Guide v3 can be downloaded here.

OWASP at the moment is working at the OWASP Testing Guide v4: you can browse the Guide here

Brief Summary

Evaluating the strength of a “Multiple Factors Authentication System” (MFAS) is a critical task for the Penetration tester. Banks and other financial institutions are going to spend considerable amounts of money on expensive MFAS; therefore performing accurate tests before the adoption of a particular solution is absolutely suggested. In addition, a further responsibility of the Penetration Testers is to acknowledge if the currently adopted MFAS is effectively able to defend the organization assets from the threats that generally drive the adoption of a MFAS.

Description of the Issue

Generally, the aim of a two factor authentication system is to enhance the strength of the authentication process [1]. This goal is achieved by checking an additional factor, or “something you have” as well as “something you know”, making sure that the user holds a hardware device of some kind in addition to the password. The hardware device provided to the user may be able to communicate directly and independently with the authentication infrastructure using an additional communication channel; this particular feature is something known as “separation of channels”.

Bruce Schneier in 2005 observed that some years ago “the threats were all passive: eavesdropping and offline password guessing. Today, the threats are more active: phishing and Trojan horses” [2]. Actually the common threats that a MFAS in a Web environment should correctly address include:

  1. Credential Theft (Phishing, Eavesdropping, MITM e.g. Banking from compromised network)
  2. Weak Credentials (Credentials Password guessing and Password Bruteforcing attacks)
  3. Session based attacks (Session Riding, Session Fixation)
  4. Trojan and Malware attacks (Banking from compromised clients)
  5. Password Reuse (Using the same password for different purposes or operations, e.g. different transactions)

The optimal solution should be able to address all the possible attacks related to the 5 categories above. Since the strength of an authentication solution is generally classified depending on how many “authentication factors” are checked when the user gets in touch with the computing system, the typical IT professional’s advise is: “If you are not happy with your current authentication solution, just add another authentication factor and it will be all right”. [3] Unfortunately, as we will see in the next paragraphs, the risk associated with attacks performed by motivated attackers cannot be totally eliminated; in addition some MFAS solutions are more flexible and secure compared to the others.

Considering the 5-Threats (5T) above we could analyze the strength of a particular MFAS solution, since the solution may be able to Address, Mitigate or Not Remediate that particular Web Attack.

Gray Box testing and example

A minimum amount of information about the authentication schema in use is necessary for testing the security of the MFAS solution in place. This is the main reason why the “Black Box Testing” section has been omitted. In particular, a general knowledge about the whole authentication infrastructure is important because:

  • MFAS solutions are principally implemented to authenticate disposal operations. Disposal actions are supposed to be performed in the inner parts of the secure website.
  • Attacks carried out successfully against MFAS are performed with a high degree of control over what is happening. This statement is usually true because attackers can “grab” detailed information about a particular authentication infrastructure by harvesting any data they can intercept through Malware attacks. Assuming that an attacker must be a customer to know how the authentication of a banking website works is not always correct; the attackers just need to get control of a single customer to study the entire security infrastructure of a particular website (Authors of SilentBanker Trojan [4] are known for continuously collecting information about visited websites while infected users browse the internet. Another example is the attack performed against the Swedish Nordea bank in 2005 [5]).

The following examples are about a security evaluation of different MFAS, based upon the 5T model presented above.

The most common authentication solution for Web applications is User ID and password authentication. In this case, an additional password for authorizing wire transfers is often required. MFAS solutions add “something you have” to the authentication process. This component is usually a:

  • One-time password (OTP) generator token.
  • Grid Card, Scratch Card or any information that only the legitimate user is supposed to have in his wallet
  • Crypto devices like USB tokens or smart cards, equipped with X.509 certificates.
  • Randomly generated OTPs transmitted through a GSM SMS messages [SMSOTP] [6]

The following examples are about the testing and evaluation of different implementations of MFAS similar to the ones above. Penetration Testers should consider all possible weaknesses of the current solution to propose the correct mitigating factors if the infrastructure is already in place. A correct evaluation may also permit one to choose the right MFAS for the infrastructure during a preliminary solution selection.

A mitigating factor is any additional component or countermeasure that might result in reduced likelihood of exploitation of a particular vulnerability. Credit cards are a perfect example. Notice how little attention is paid to cardholder authentication. Clerks barely check signatures. People use their cards over the phone and on the Internet, where the card's existence isn't even verified . The credit card companies spend their security dollar “controlling” the transaction, not the cardholder [6]. The transactions could be effectively controlled by behavioral algorithms that automatically fill up a risk score chart while the user uses his own credit card. Anything that is marked as suspected could be temporarily blocked by the circuit.

Another mitigating factor is also informing the customer about what is happening through a separate and secure channel. The Credit Card industry uses this method for informing the user about credit card transactions via SMS messages. If a fraudulent action is taken, the user knows immediately that something has gone wrong with his credit card. Real time information through separate channels can also have a higher accuracy by informing the user about transactions, before those transactions are successful.

Common "User ID, password, and Disposal password" usually protect from (3), partially from (2). They usually do not protect from (1), (4) and (5). From a Penetration tester's point of view, for correctly testing this kind of authentication system, we should concentrate on what the solution should protect from.

In other words, the adopters of a “User ID, Password, and Disposal password” authentication solution should be protected from (2) and from (3). A penetration tester should check if the current implementation effectively enforces the adoption of strong passwords and if it is resilient to Session Based attacks (e.g. Cross Site Request Forgeries attacks in order to force the user to submitting unwanted disposal operations).

  • Vulnerability Chart for “UserID + Password + Disposal Password” based authentication:
    • Known Weaknesses: 1, 4, 5
    • Known Weaknesses (Details): This technology doesn’t protect from (1) because the password is static and can be stolen through blended threat attacks [8] (e.g. MITM attack against a SSLv2 connection). It doesn’t protect from (4) and (5) because it’s possible to submit multiple transactions with the same disposal password.
    • Strengths (if well implemented): 2, 3
    • Strengths (Details): This technology protects from (2) only if password enforcement rules are in place. It protects from (3) because the need for a disposal password does not permit an attacker to abuse the current user session to submit disposal operations. [9]

Now let’s analyze some different implementations of MFASs:

"One Time Password Tokens" protect from (1), (2) and (3) if well implemented. Do not always protect from (5). Almost never protect from (4).

  • Vulnerability Chart for "One Time Password Tokens" based authentication:
    • Known Weaknesses: 4, sometimes 5
    • Known Weaknesses (Details): OTP tokens do not protect from (4), because Banking Malware is able to modify the Web Traffic in real-time upon pre-configured rules; examples of this kind include malicious codes SilentBanker, Mebroot, and Trojan Anserin . Banking Malware works like a web proxy interacting with HTTPS pages. Since Malware takes total control over a compromised client, any action that a user performs is registered and controlled: Malware may stop a legitimate transaction and redirect the wire transfer to a different location. Password Reuse (5) is a vulnerability that may affect OTP tokens. Tokens are valid for a certain amount of time e.g. 30 seconds; if the authentication does not discard tokens that have been already used, it could be possible that a single token may authenticate multiple transactions during its 30 second lifetime.
    • Strengths (if well implemented): 1,2,3
    • Strengths (Details): OTP tokens mitigate effectively (1), because token lifetime is usually very short. In 30 seconds the attacker should be able to steal the token, enter the banking website and perform a transaction. It could be feasible, but it’s not usually going to happen in large-scale attacks. They usually protect from (2) because OTP HMAC are at least 6 digits long. Penetration Testers should check that the algorithm implemented by the OTP tokens under the test is safe enough and not predictable. Finally, they usually protect from (3) because the disposal token is always required. Penetration testers should verify that the procedure of requesting the validation token could not be bypassed.

"Grid Cards, Scratch Cards and any information that only the legitimate user is supposed to have in his Wallet" should protect from (1), (2), (3). Like OTP tokens, they cannot protect from (4). During testing activities grid cards in particular have been found vulnerable to (5). Scratch card are not vulnerable to password reuse, because any code can be used just one time.
The penetration tester, during the assessment of technologies of this kind, should pay particular attention to Password Reuse attacks (5) for grid cards. A grid card based system commonly would request the same code multiple times. An attacker would just need to know a single valid disposal code (e.g one of those inside the grid card), and to wait until the system requests the code that he knows. Tested grid cards that contain a limited number of combinations are usually prone to this vulnerability. (e.g., if a grid card contains 50 combinations the attacker just needs to ask for a disposal, filling up the fields, checking the challenge, and so on. This attack is not about bruteforcing the disposal code, it’s about bruteforcing the challenge). Other common mistakes include a weak password policy. Any disposal password contained inside the gridcard should have a length of at least 6 numbers. Attacks could be very effective in combination with blended threats or Cross Site Request forgeries.

"Crypto Devices with certificates (Token USB, Smart Cards)" offer a good layer of defense from (1), (2). It’s a common mistake to believe that they would always protect from (3), (4) and (5). Unfortunately technologies offer the best security promises and at the same time some of the worst implementations around. USB tokens vary from vendor to vendor. Some of them authorize a user when they are plugged in, and do not authorize operations when they are unplugged. It seems to be a good behavior, but what it looks like is that some of them add further layers of implicit authentication. Those devices do not protect users from (3) (e.g. Session Riding and Cross Site Scripting code for automating transfers).

Custom “Randomly generated OTPs transmitted through a GSM SMS messages [SMSOTP]” could protect effectively from (1), (2), (3) and (5). Could also mitigate effectively (4) if well implemented. This solution, compared to the previous one, is the only one that uses an independent channel to communicate with the banking infrastructure. This solution is usually very effective if well implemented. By separating the communication channels, it’s possible to inform the user about what is going on.

Ex. of a disposal token sent via SMS:

"This token: 32982747 authorizes a wire transfer of $ 1250.4 to bank account 2345623 Bank of NY".

The previous token authorizes a unique transaction, that is reported inside the text of the SMS message. In this way, the user can control that the intended transfer is effectively going to be directed to the right bank account.

The approach described in this section is intended to provide a simple methodology to evaluate Multiple Factor Authentication Systems. The examples shown are taken from real-case scenarios and can be used as a starting point for analyzing the efficacy of a custom MFAS.


[1] [Definition] Wikipedia, Definition of Two Factor Authentication

[2] [SCHNEIER] Bruce Schneier, Blog Posts about two factor authentication 2005,

[3] [Finetti] Guido Mario Finetti, "Web application security in un-trusted client scenarios"

[4] [SilentBanker Trojan] Symantec, Banking in Silence

[5] [Nordea] Finextra, Phishing attacks against two factor authentication, 2005

[6] [SMSOTP] Bruce Schneier, “Two-Factor Authentication with Cell Phones”, November 2004,

[7] [Transaction Authentication Mindset] Bruce Schneier, "Fighting Fraudulent Transactions"

[8] [Blended Threat]

[9] [GUNTEROLLMANN] Gunter Ollmann, “Web Based Session Management. Best practices in managing HTTP-based client sessions”,