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What Is A Hardware Token?

What Is A Hardware Token

Date First Published: 5th April 2024

Topic: Cybersecurity

Subtopic: Security Mechanisms & Technologies

Article Type: Computer Terms & Definitions

Difficulty: Medium

Difficulty Level: 5/10

Learn about what a hardware token is in this article.

A hardware token, also known as a hard token, is a portable security device used to authenticate a user in a multi-factor authentication system. Examples of hardware tokens include USB flash drives, smart cards, electronic key fobs, or OTP tokens. They are designed to increase security when logging into a computer system.

How Do Hardware Tokens Work?

A user receives a hardware token in most hard token security systems. The security system then assumes that the owner of the hard token must be an authorised user if it is present. As a result, anyone who has that hard token can access the system.

To ensure that each hard token is unique, most of them use digital signals or signatures. Usually, keyfobs and keycards operate through a unique radio signal. USB keys often have an encrypted digital signature. Only security systems designed to identify and unlock hard tokens carrying a specific signal or signature can communicate with each digital signal or signature.

Forms Of Hardware Tokens

Hardware tokens come in several forms. These include:

  • OTP (One-Time Passcode) token - These do not plug into a computer and have a small screen that displays a one-time passcode when clicking a button on the device. This passcode is used to authenticate logging onto a network or service.
  • Connected token - This plugs into the USB port of a computer and it grants or denies access. It can authenticate a user by inserting a cryptographically generated passcode whenever a button is pressed on the device or by using a combination of private and public encryption keys to answer a cryptographic challenge issued during the login process. These tokens require compatible software and support for the service.

Advantages and Disadvantages Of Hardware Tokens

The advantages of hardware tokens are:
  • They are secure. Since hard tokens are isolated from the internet, they cannot be easily copied or remotely breached.
  • They add an extra layer of security by only allowing anyone who has the physical token to access a system.
  • They are often durable and long-lasting. Having hard tokens for logging in reduces password resets and forgotten passwords.
The disadvantages of hardware tokens are:
  • They can be expensive to purchase, especially for large organisations. Compared to other forms of authentication, they are generally more expensive.
  • They can be stolen. If stolen, it can be used to compromise multiple systems, which can cause a more severe data breach.
  • They can be inconvenient at times. Carrying a physical device around makes it more vulnerable to physical damage (e.g. spilling liquids over it or it being dropped), which can cause the hardware token to stop working.


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