A look at hardware security tokens

What are hardware security tokens, and how do they improve your security? Here, we take a closer look at what hardware security tokens do.

16-04-2024 - 6 minute read. Posted in: cybercrime.

A look at hardware security tokens

We’ve once lived in a world where a simple password was considered a great and secure way to protect your data and accounts. That seems like a fairytale in today's world as technology and hacking have developed into a threat to many users and organizations.

We’ll take a closer look at another good way to secure your data with hardware security tokens and compare this with its relative, software security tokens.

What are hardware security tokens?

First, we should take a look at what hardware security tokens actually are. The tech world generally distinguishes between two types of hardware security tokens; disconnected and connected tokens.

The disconnected tokens are probably the most common type of hardware security token. These do not require a direct connection with the device you’re using to log onto e.g. a website. This type usually requires the user to enter credentials to activate the token and get access to wherever they wish to enter.

The connected hardware security token is a bit different since you need a direct connection between the security token and the device. This is required to transfer data between the token and the device. A connected hardware security token is usually a USB stick, a small Bluetooth device, or the like.

What both types have in common is that they are small physical devices that the user brings with them.

How does it work?

The next thing we should settle is how a hardware security token works.

A hardware security token is typically handed out by the IT department within the organization. Beforehand, the IT department has registered the hardware token to belong to a specific device and thus grants access to this specific employee.

In that way, the IT department can control what each employee has access to and thus limit access and follow the principle of privilege – which is another great element to implement for better cyber security.

The system registers the hardware security token and assumes that only authorized tokens and accepted credentials should access the organization’s data including operating systems, accounts and storage.

An example of a hardware security token is access cards that many organizations use – if employees want to access offices or company areas, they need to use their physical access cards and a designated PIN code. This is essentially a two-factor authentication method, as you’d need both the access card and the specific PIN code.

Access cards and hardware security tokens are similar to normal keys we use for our car or home – they are specified to only work for your keyhole.

Hardware tokens vs. software tokens

You can use two kinds of security tokens, namely hardware tokens and software tokens. So, let’s take a look at the differences between the two:

As we’ve established, hardware tokens are some sort of physical token whereas software tokens are digital tokens. Software tokens are, as the name suggests, a software installation you can get on your device like a multi-factor authentication app.

  • This does, however, require that you’re connected to a Wi-Fi connection – otherwise, the token won’t work, and you won’t be able to access it wherever you wish to log in.

The hardware tokens are physical tokens you connect with your device. They use encryption methods to be as secure as possible – and they come in the aforementioned disconnected or connected forms.

In the cyberworld we usually recommend hardware security tokens as they are more secure against cybercriminals – they would need to steal the physical token in order to use it and access the device. However, we do understand that software security tokens are more flexible and convenient than physical keys. We’re essentially just happy if you’re using any type of security token!

Advantages and disadvantages of hardware tokens

We’ve already mentioned one of the biggest advantages of using a hardware security token, namely that it is a lot harder to exploit for hackers.

Another advantage is that they are fairly easy to use for any user – it’s pretty much plug-and-play, so even the employees who aren’t as tech-savvy as others won’t have a hard time using it.

Hardware security tokens furthermore secure the physical working environment with e.g. access cards to enter areas and offices. If every employee needs to use a key card to access different locations within an organization, you avoid theft and unauthorized access from outsiders.

There are, unfortunately, also some disadvantages to consider with hardware security tokens.

Firstly, it can be a bit costly for an organization to establish hardware security tokens; they need locks and card readers as well as actual key cards for every employee. There is furthermore the maintenance of the card readers and making sure every employee has an activated card or token.

Another disadvantage regarding hardware security tokens is that if your token gets stolen by a hacker – and thus becomes compromised – it poses a pretty severe security threat. Often a token will give the user access to different files and systems, and if a hacker gets their hands on the token, they will be able to access these systems and files. And as with most hackers, they will then use this for financial gain.

A solution for your cybersecurity

You might be wondering what you should do when it comes to your cybersecurity; whether you should use a software security token or get a hardware security token. As mentioned, we recommend that you first and foremost get a security token.

With modern technology, our phones can function as a security token with multi-factor authentication and one-time passwords, which essentially makes it a lot more difficult for hackers to get access to your accounts and systems.

  • The essence here is that you have some type of additional authentication connected to your files and data – this additional layer of security can really help you out when it comes to securing your assets.

An organization’s security relies on internal security meaning that if one employee or security token is compromised, the entire organization can become a target. So, to stay secure, you might want to consider a solution that suits the organization and employees in the best way possible.

Author Caroline Preisler

Caroline Preisler

Caroline is a copywriter here at Moxso beside her education. She is doing her Master's in English and specializes in translation and the psychology of language. Both fields deal with communication between people and how to create a common understanding - these elements are incorporated into the copywriting work she does here at Moxso.

View all posts by Caroline Preisler

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