RSA Security Sees Hope in Online Fraud

Filed under
Security

It was a Friday afternoon for the computer encryption folks at RSA Security Inc., and summertime greenery filled the countryside view from Art Coviello's office.

Even so, the RSA chief could have been excused if he didn't seem relaxed. RSA had just announced its second straight set of quarterly results that didn't dazzle Wall Street analysts, and RSA's stock was flirting with a 52-week low.

But Coviello shrugged it off. Analysts, schmanalysts. More importantly, he said, lots of factors are about to turn in RSA's favor, namely the need for more secure, traceable financial transactions in a world beset by online fraud and identity theft.

"The whole thing's moving a lot more slowly than it ought to," Coviello said. "We've got to keep pounding and pounding until we reach a tipping point, and we will take advantage of it."

The lack of an obsession over quarterly results isn't the only unusual thing about RSA, which still bears the marks of an academic past despite being a $300 million company with 1,200 employees and customers in government, banking and health care.

RSA is named for three Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Len Adelman. Though they are no longer involved with the company they founded in 1986, their invention of a seminal method of cryptography set the tone for the company and is crucial in online commerce.

Today RSA is perhaps best known for staging a prestigious annual security conference and for selling 20 million little devices that display a six-digit code computer users must type to gain access to computer networks. The code, which changes every minute as determined by an RSA-created algorithm, is unique to each "SecureID" token, making it useless to a snoop.

The requirement that users enter the code in addition to a password is known as two-factor authentication, an approach that figures to gain ground over simple passwords as more and more sensitive data move online.

Indeed, RSA's sales of authentication products jumped 16 percent last year, as RSA's overall profits more than doubled, to $35 million. E-Trade Financial Corp. and America Online Inc. began offering SecureID devices to some customers over the past year. The Associated Press also uses the tokens for network access.

"It is the Kleenex or Q-Tip of two-factor identification," said Gregg Moskowitz, an analyst with the Susquehanna Financial Group. "SecureID is the brand name."

But wide deployment in consumer applications has come slowly.

In theory, every institution that does business on a Web site could increase its security by offering its users RSA tokens.

But practically, it would be a nightmare to have 20 different devices with their own codes. And banks apparently don't trust one another enough to accept a competitor's authentication token.

RSA hopes to smash such hang-ups by acting as an intermediary, launching a new "hosted" service this fall in which its servers will check whether a consumer entered the proper token code - even if the token was made by an RSA rival - then relay the "yea" or "nay" back to the bank. RSA already provides such a service for companies' internal access control, but has yet to offer it for consumer applications.

Investors will be watching closely. Although Coviello is confident that wider trends in access control - such as rampant identity theft and abuse of Social Security numbers - should play to RSA's strengths, he acknowledges that RSA needs to do more to push the market rather than wait for it.

That means RSA has to be much more than the company known for authentication tokens - a product that some analysts say is coming down in price because of competition. RSA also hopes to expand its sales of software and security consulting services, where heftier rivals such as VeriSign Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. also lurk.

"When you consider all the identity theft that is taking place now, the challenge for RSA is to monetize that," Moskowitz said. "It's easier said than done."

RSA believes one key differentiator can be its research arm, including the eight people in "RSA Labs," a group so focused on the advanced mathematics behind cryptography that it is described as an academic institution within the company.

RSA researchers are expected to dream up ways to expand the use of two-factor authentication, though sometimes that puts the company a bit ahead of the market.

One system being developed would use radio-frequency chips in keyless office access cards so employees wearing one can automatically access their secured computers as soon as they near them. Such a system would use a fingerprint reader on the computer to confirm identity. That product won't be ready, though, for a year or two.

Then there's an effort, led by labs director Burt Kaliski, to give users a better way to confirm the legitimacy of Web sites - and avoid "phishers" who set up phony sites to lure passwords and account information from the unsuspecting.

Kaliski envisions a system in which Web browsers or even computer operating systems act as an intermediary between a user and a site. Through the principles of encryption, the intermediary software could tell the Web site that the user entered the proper password without sending the actual password.

In another realm, RSA has created a "blocker tag" that ensures that radio-frequency identification chips can be scanned only by designated readers. It could be an elegant answer to the question of whether RFID chips, which are designed to streamline corporate inventory systems, might pose privacy risks for consumers. (The chips also are coming to U.S. passports, raising fears that American travelers overseas could be surreptitiously, remotely tracked.)

But for now this and other RFID solutions sit on the shelf, since the deployment of such tags has been slower than predicted.

"That is the hardest thing for a technology company to do," Coviello said. "You have to anticipate a market, not get too far ahead of customers, but you want to be there when they come around."

But he quickly added: "We've been around 20 years, and I think the market opportunity ahead of us is richer than ever before."

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN
Associated Press