The architecture of Windows logon and its extensibility model is described in a highly informative piece by Dan Griffin focusing on custom credential providers. (While that article dates back to 2007 and refers to Vista, the same principles apply to Windows 7 and 8. ) The MSDN article even provides code sample for a credential provider implementing local smart card logon– exactly the functionality of interest discussed in the previous post. A closer look at the implementation turns up one of the unexpected design properties: they leverage built-in authentication schemes which are in turn built on passwords. Regardless of what the user is doing on the outside such as presenting a smart card with PKI capabilities, at the end of the day the operating system is still receiving a static password for verification. EIDAuthenticate follows the same model. The tell-tale sign is a prompt for existing local account password during the association sequence described earlier. FAQ on the implementation says as much:
A workaround is to store the password, encrypted by the public key and decrypted when the logon is done. Password change is handled by a password package which intercepts the new password and encrypts it using the public key stored in the LSA.
In plain terms, the password is encrypted using the public key located in the certificate from the card. The resulting ciphertext is stored on the local drive. As the smart card contains the corresponding private key, it can decrypt that ciphertext to reveal the original password, to be presented to the operating system just as if the user typed it into a text prompt. (The second sentence about intercepting password changes and re-encrypting the new password using the public key of the card is a critical part of the scheme. Otherwise smart card logon would break after a password change because the decrypted password is no longer valid.)
This is decidedly not the same situation as enterprise use of smart cards. Domain logon built into Windows does not use smart cards to recover a glorified password. Instead it uses an extension to Kerberos called PKinit. Standardized by RFC4556, pkinit bootstraps initial authentication to the domain controller using a private key held by the card. Unlike the local equivalents, there is no “password equivalent” that can be used to complete that step in the protocol. While smart cards may coexist with passwords in an enterprise (eg depending on security policy, some “low security” scenarios permit passwords while sensitive operations require smart card logon) these two modes of authentication do not converge to an identical path from the perspective of the domain controller. For example the company can implement a policy that certain users with highly privileged accounts such as domain administrators, must log in with smart cards. It would not be possible to work around such a policy by somehow emulating the protocol with passwords.
It is tempting to label EIDAuthenticate and solutions in the same vein as not being “true” smart card logon because they degenerate into passwords downstream in the process. While that criticism is accurate in a strict sense, the more relevant question is how these solutions stack up compared to using plain passwords typed into the logon screen each time. It’s difficult to render a verdict here, because the risks/benefits depend on the threat model. In particular, for stand alone PCs the security concerns about console logon, eg while sitting in front of the machine, are closely linked to security of the data stored on the machine. The next post in the series will attempt to answer this question.