Single Sign-On: Benefits and Risks

    Every day, users access multiple applications in the workplace in order to get their work done. No wonder that the average user suffers from an extreme case of persistent “password fatigue.” They end up using simple, easy-to-remember passwords to make their tasks convenient. The long-term implications are a lack of efficiency and also a lack of data protection. The remedy: Single Sign-On, or SSO.

    What is Single Sign-On?

    In IT, Single Sign-On defines an authentication method that practically always runs as below:

    1. A user logs on to his workstation once.

    2. As long as they are at the same workstation, they gain access to all applications and resources (including the cloud) for which they are locally approved.

    3. The access privileges no longer exist as soon as the user logs off from their workstation. This occurs either after a pre-defined time or when a Single Sign-Out or Single Sign-Off is performed manually by the user.

    Therefore, SSO is an access method for several linked yet separate applications in which the user has to log in only once instead of entering his access data for each software individually. Single Sign-On procedures are leveraged both in the private sector (web applications and private clouds) and in the technical sector (applications and portals used in the intranet within the company) because of their user-friendliness.

    Single Sign-On: The Benefits

    The greatest benefit is that users do not have to recall so many passwords anymore. This relieves the user from having to manage passwords, which is why it is often known that Single Sign-On procedures are an alternative to password managers. SSO solutions are used both in private and in professional settings because they are hassle-free and save time.

    Businesses that incorporate SSO in their operations anticipate more efficiency from their workers and fewer helpdesk calls owing to significantly reduced forgotten passwords. Consequently, IT has less work and costs less. At the same time, granting accounts to new employees or removing the access of former employees makes it simpler for IT specialists.

    In reality, SSO solutions provide benefits for internal company data protection. If workers have to recall only one password, they will create a difficult one. In this way, standard password selection errors can be avoided, which are often the reason for active hacking attacks. It is only necessary to enter a password on a single interface, which decreases the potential for phishing and man-in-the-browser attacks. In these circumstances, the organization can afford to concentrate all security efforts in one area, such as SSL certificates.

    Single Sign-On: The Risks

    The SSO system has some inherent weaknesses as well. In essence, it is possible to use only those programs that are supported by the respective SSO scheme. Entry to the related applications would be limited or impossible if the SSO device fails. This is the case when embedded social media accounts are blocked by the network in libraries and educational institutions, in some workplaces for production purposes, or in countries with active censorship.

    It is also important to recognize the actual protection of a Single Sign-On. A third party may potentially use the time before the automated ‘single sign-out’ takes place if a user leaves their workstation in order to take advantage of the access provided by the Sign-On. In case the “master password” for the SSO interface is compromised, it becomes problematic, allowing the attacker direct access to all related services.

    The data privacy regulations, in which the standards for protecting personal data are strict and comprehensive, also raise concerns. Specific consent must now be obtained from the users to be able to use a Single Sign-On. This arrangement was also necessary in the past, but the laws concerning the situation have changed so much that the situation is very stringent now.

    It is important to pay particular attention to the security of the data stored on the server-side, in view of these possible risks. It makes sense to use multi-factor authentication to improve the protection of SSO features or other solutions, such as smart cards or tokens.

    Conclusion Despite some inherent limitations, SSO solutions are a great option to ensure a better user experience, improve efficiency, and enhance data security. This especially holds for large enterprises that have multiple resources, interfaces, and applications for users.

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