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3 best enterprise mobile app authentication methods

Mobile app authentication is a foundational security strategy for remote and hybrid workforces. Learn how to choose between passwords, multifactor authentication and biometrics.

Building and securing mobile apps requires a firm grasp of app authentication methods, as enterprise and consumer apps often contain valuable data.

Mobile app authentication confirms a user's identity through one or more verification methods on a mobile device. Popular verification methods include passwords, soft tokens and security questions.

As the first defense against unauthorized access, it protects user data and prevents cyberthreats. Effective authentication helps maintain the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive information, which is crucial for individual privacy and corporate security.

Mobile app authentication vs. user authentication

It's important to understand that app authentication isn't the same thing as user authentication. The two mainly differ in the context and methods of verifying identity. User authentication typically refers to verifying a user's identity within a broader system. Mobile app authentication, by contrast, is specifically about ensuring the person attempting to access a mobile application is who they claim to be.

Android and iOS devices have different input methods and limitations, which can lead to a preference for simpler passwords or less secure PINs. This presents unique challenges compared to cloud or SaaS applications. Mobile apps often use stateless authentication, storing user-identifying information in a client-side token.

Common mobile app authentication challenges

As with any security measure, there are some common problems that organizations might encounter with mobile app authentication. IT teams should be prepared to deal with the following challenges:

  • Storing passwords or tokens insecurely on a mobile device can result in security breaches.
  • Weak password policies make it easier for attackers to gain unauthorized access.
  • Due to the risk of biometric spoofing, developers should avoid relying on biometrics for mobile app authentication if they can't integrate them correctly.
  • Failure to properly implement two-factor authentication (2FA) and one-time passwords can introduce security vulnerabilities.
  • Even if a trusted device tries to access the corporate app, a trusted user might not be behind it. Attackers can bypass local user authentication on a compromised device. To handle this vulnerability, dev teams must standardize server-side authentication.
  • Balancing security and user experience is crucial. A complex authentication process can deter users, while overly simplistic methods compromise security.

To stave off authentication challenges, organizations can follow a few best practices. Balance security and user experience by enforcing multifactor authentication (MFA) judiciously. IT should also avoid local-only validations and use server-side checks to confirm the end user's identity. Additionally, encrypt and store sensitive data using platform data encryption tools such as Apple's iCloud Keychain and Android's Keystore.

3 mobile app authentication methods for the enterprise

When developing a mobile app, choose an authentication method that balances security and user experience. Other considerations to keep in mind include the following:

  • Scalability to accommodate the growing and shrinking of users and services.
  • Compliance with regulations, such as HIPAA and GDPR, that apply to the app's industry or user base.
  • Recovery via secure methods to regain access in the event of lost credentials.
  • Integration with the existing IT infrastructure and third-party services.
  • Aligning implementation and maintenance costs with the organization's budget.

Dev teams should look into the different types of authentication options they have to find a good fit for their enterprise app. The best methods to consider are password-based authentication, MFA and biometric authentication.

1. Password-based authentication

Requiring a username and password is a simple way to authenticate mobile app users across different endpoints.

Drawbacks of using password authentication for mobile apps include user password fatigue and maintenance issues. This method is also more vulnerable to social engineering and brute-force attacks.

The best use cases for password authentication include general consumer apps, where ease of use is a priority and security requirements are moderate. Password security is still an option for some enterprise mobile apps. In those cases, however, 2FA or other more advanced security measures must augment app security.

The best use cases for password authentication include general consumer apps, where ease of use is a priority and security requirements are moderate.

Developers should implement password authentication via the following process:

  1. Design a user-friendly and straightforward authentication flow. The user interface design must include login, password and registration processes.
  2. Use secure password storage techniques, such as password salting.
  3. Enforce account lockout after multiple failed attempts. Use the Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security, or SSL/TLS, protocol for secure data transmission.
  4. Integrate the authentication system with the organization's backend cloud services for user management and session handling.
  5. Test the authentication mechanism to ensure it is secure and works as intended across different devices and OSes.

Best practices for password-based authentication include the following:

  • Require users to create strong passwords, which should include a mix of letters, numbers and special characters.
  • Support an option for 2FA to add an extra layer of security.
  • Perform regular app updates to protect against known vulnerabilities.

Brute-force attacks are a key risk with password-based authentication. Ensure secure password storage and use account lockout controls to curb this threat.

2. Multifactor authentication

A more secure authentication approach is MFA. This method involves combining two or more independent credentials, such as a user password, a security token and biometric verification. Financial, healthcare and enterprise mobile apps are all candidates for MFA due to the importance of data security and regulatory compliance in these sectors.

The complexity, both in implementation and user experience, is the main drawback to using MFA.

Take the following steps to implement MFA in a mobile app development project:

  1. Choose the authentication factors to use, such as passwords, security tokens, SMS codes or biometrics.
  2. Configure the user flow to include MFA prompts at critical points. Ensure that the process is as intuitive and frictionless as possible.
  3. Use encryption to securely transmit all MFA communications, especially codes or tokens.
  4. Provide users with alternatives for authentication. This way, if their primary MFA method is unavailable, they can use backup codes or other secondary authentication methods.
  5. Test the MFA process across the devices and platforms that the organization supports.

Best practices for MFA include the following:

  • Educate users about the role of MFA and guide them through setting it up and using it effectively.
  • Limit the number of retries for MFA inputs to prevent brute-force attacks.
  • Update the MFA system components regularly to protect the app against new threats and vulnerabilities.
  • Ensure the MFA implementation respects user privacy and complies with data protection regulations.

Developers must balance the level of security with user experience, as MFA can complicate the login process.

3. Biometric authentication

Mobile apps can also use biological characteristics such as fingerprints, facial recognition or retina scans for authentication. Biometric authentication has a strong security reputation due to the assumption that these characteristics are harder to forge. Mobile banking, healthcare and enterprise apps are all candidates for this authentication method.

There are many drawbacks to using biometric authentication, including costs, privacy concerns and the possibility of false positives and negatives.

Diagram showing the different types of biometric authentication.
There are many different identifiers biometric authentication can use to verify an end user's identity.

Take the following steps to implement biometric authentication:

  1. Ensure the target devices support the required biometric hardware and that the app can access the necessary APIs.
  2. Set up a secure and user-friendly process for enrolling biometric data. Capturing the data accurately and storing it securely is essential.
  3. Integrate biometric authentication seamlessly into the app's login flow. Provide fallback mechanisms, such as a PIN or password, in case the biometric system fails or is unavailable.
  4. Put robust encryption and secure storage mechanisms in place to protect biometric data at rest and in transit.
  5. Adhere to legal and regulatory requirements around biometric data. This includes obtaining user consent and ensuring data privacy.

Best practices for biometric authentication include the following:

  • Use biometrics as part of a multifactor authentication strategy.
  • Test and update the biometric authentication system frequently to address new vulnerabilities and improve accuracy.
  • Instruct users on how the organization will use, store and secure their biometric data.

Will Kelly is a freelance writer and content strategist who has written about cloud, DevOps, AI and enterprise mobility.

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