Two-factor authentication for Outlook and Office 2013 clients

I don’t usually put on my old man hat, but indulge me for a second. Back in February 2000, in my long-forgotten column for TechNet, here’s what I said about single-factor passwords:

I’m going to let you in on a secret that’s little discussed outside the security world: reusable passwords are evil.

I stand by the second half of that statement: reusable passwords are still evil, 14 years later, but at least the word is getting out, and multi-factor authentication is becoming more and more common in both consumer and business systems. I was wrong when I assumed that smart cards would become ubiquitous as a second authentication factor; instead, the “something you have” role is increasingly often filled by a mobile phone that can receive SMS messages. Microsoft bought into that trend with their 2012 purchase of PhoneFactor, which is now integrated into Azure. Now Microsoft is extending MFA support into Outlook and the rest of the Office 2013 client applications, with a few caveats. I attended a great session at MEC 2014 presented by Microsoft’s Erik Ashby and Franklin Williams that both outlined the current state of Office 365-integrated MFA and outlined Microsoft’s plans to extend MFA to Outlook.

First, keep in mind that Office 365 already offers multi-factor authentication, once you enable it, for your web-based clients. You can use SMS-based authentication, have the service call you via phone, or use a mobile app that generates authentication codes, and you can define “app passwords” that are used instead of your primary credentials for applications— like Outlook, as it happens— that don’t currently understand MFA. You have to enable MFA for your tenant, then enable it for individual users. All of these services are included with Office 365 SKUs, and they rely on the Azure MFA service. You can, if you wish, buy a separate subscription to Azure MFA if you want additional functionality, like the ability to customize the caller ID that appears when the service calls your users.

With that said, here’s what Erik and Franklin talked about…

To start with, we have to distinguish between the three types of identities that can be used to authenticate against the service. Without going into every detail, it’s fair to summarize these as follows:

  • Cloud identities are homed in Azure Active Directory (AAD). There’s no synchronization with on-premises AD because there isn’t one.
  • Directory sync (or just “dirsync”) uses Microsoft’s dirsync tool, or an equivalent third-party tool, to sync an on-premises account with AAD. This essentially gives services that consume AAD a mostly-read-only copy of your organization’s AD.
  • Federated identity uses a federation broker or service such as Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), Okta, Centrify, and Ping to allow your organization’s AD to answer authentication queries from Office 365 services. In January 2014 Microsoft announced a “Works With Office 365 – Identity” logo program, so if you don’t want to use AD FS you can choose another federation toolset that better meets your requirements.

Client updates are coming to the Office 2013 clients: Outlook, Lync, Word, Excel,  PowerPoint, and SkyDrive Pro. With these updates, you’ll see a single unified authentication window for all of the clients, similar (but not necessarily identical) to the existing login window you get on Windows when signing into a SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro library from within an Office client. From that authentication window, you’ll be able to enter the second authentication factor that you received via phone call, SMS, or authentication app. During the presentation, Franklin (or maybe Erik?) said “if you can authenticate in a web browser, you can authenticate in Office clients”— very cool. (PowerShell will be getting MFA support too, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly when that was happening).

These client updates will also provide support for two specific types of smart cards: the US Department of Defense Common Access Card (CAC) and the similar-but-civilian Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card. Instead of using a separate authentication token provided by the service, you’ll plug in your smart card, authenticate to it with your PIN, and away you go.

All three of the identity types of these methods provide support for MFA; federated identity will gain the ability to do true single sign-on (SSO) jn Office 2013 clients, which will be a welcome usability improvement. Outlook will get SSO capabilities with the other two identity types, too.

How do the updates work? That’s where the magic part comes in. The Azure Active Directory Authentication Library (ADAL) is being extended to provide support for MFA. When the Office client makes a request to the service the service will return a header that instructs the client to visit a security token service (STS) using OAuth. At that point, Office uses ADAL to launch the browser control that displays the authentication page, then, as Erik puts it, “MFA and federation magic happens transparent to Office.” If the authentication succeeds, Office gets security tokens that it caches and uses for service authentication. (The flow is described in more detail in the video from the session, which is available now for MEC attendees and will be available in 60 days or so for non-attendees).

There are two important caveats that were a little buried in the presentation. First is that MFA in Outlook 2013 will require the use of MAPI/HTTP. More seriously, MFA will not be available to on-premises Exchange 2013 deployments until some time in the future. This aligns with Microsoft’s cloud-first strategy, but it is going to aggravate on-premises customers something fierce. In fairness, because you need the MFA infrastructure hosted in the Microsoft cloud to take advantage of this feature, I’m not sure there’s a feasible way to deliver SMS- or voice-based MFA for purely on-prem environments, and if you’re in a hybrid, then you’re good to go.

Microsoft hasn’t announced a specific timeframe for these updates (other than “second half calendar 2014”), and they didn’t say anything about Mac support, though I would imagine that the rumored v.next of Mac Office would provide this same functionality. The ability to use MFA across all the Office client apps will make it easier for end users, reducing the chance that they’ll depend solely on reusable passwords and thus reducing the net amount of evil in the world— a blessing to us all.

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1 Comment

Filed under Office 365, UC&C

One response to “Two-factor authentication for Outlook and Office 2013 clients

  1. Hi Paul. I believe I am in the public preview for modern auth. When I launch my Outlook 2013 desktop client I am prompted for my usual authentication. Its not a 2 factor auth. When i launch word i am prompted for 2 factor auth. Why does Outlook 2013 respond differently.

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