Unlocking the Secrets of Passwordless Authentication: Discover the Future of Cybersecurity
Kill'em dumb passwords!
· Identity & Access Management · Updated
By Jan Brennenstuhl · 10min read
In the context of internet security, implementing passwordless authentication really is a game changer. Say goodbye to traditional, complicated, and insecure passwords! It’s time for us to investigate the myriad advantages of implementing passwordless authentication and understand why it’s necessary for improving cybersecurity.
In this detailed introduction, I’ll delve deep into the realm of how passwordless authentication works, its various forms, and how it might improve security. Let’s get this party started!
Passwordless Authentication: A New Era of Security
What is Passwordless Authentication?
Passwordless authentication refers to a way of validating a user’s identity that does not require the use of passwords. Instead of remembering long strings of characters, this solution depends on biometrics, one-time codes, or hardware token for verification. By minimizing the usage of weak or reused passwords, it gives a more secure and user-friendly experience.
Passwordless Authentication vs. MFA
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a layered authentication method that includes at least two of the following authentication factors:
- something the user knows (knowledge-based, such as a long password),
- something the user has (possession-based, such as a hardware token), or
- something the user is (biometric, such as a retinal scan).
This approach assures that even if one authentication factor is compromised, an attacker must still penetrate the additional strong authentication layers to get unauthorized access.
Passwordless authentication occurs whenever a user or device is authenticated using a method other than a knowledge-based authentication process. It is related to MFA in the sense that it can be utilized as a supplementary verification requirement, often on top of a user’s account and passwords, in any multi-factor authentication process.
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Why is Passwordless Authentication Important?
In the age of rampant cyberattacks, securing online accounts has never been more important. Passwordless authentication has several advantages over traditional password-based approaches:
- Enhanced security – Passwordless authentication solves the inherent risks of password-based systems by eliminating the requirement for traditional login credentials. Password reuse, weak passwords, compromised credentials and phishing scams become obsolete when users no longer need to remember, store, or enter passwords in order to access their accounts. Credential stuffing and other classical brute-force attacks come to nothing.
- Improved user experience – By removing the need for passwords, users are relieved of the tedious task of creating, remembering, and keeping several complex passwords for different accounts. There will be no more forgotten passwords, lengthy password resets, or irritating lockouts due to erroneous password authentication. With no need for corrupt password strength meters or restrictive password-based authentication policies, there is less friction during sign-up and sign-in processes. Your conversion rate will be happy!
How Does Passwordless Authentication Work?
Passwordless authentication may appear to be a difficult concept at first, but it is actually a comprehensive authentication method, that streamlines and secures user access to online services and apps. Passwordless authentication, as opposed to standard passwords, uses a combination of modern technology and unique identifiers to authenticate a user’s identity.
Typically, the process starts with the user initiating an authentication request, such as signing into an account or accessing a protected resource. Instead of requesting a password, the system demands the user enters an alternative, pre-configured authentication factor, such as a fingerprint, face recognition, or a one-time passcode. These solutions are more secure and personal by definition, making it extremely difficult for attackers to impersonate the legitimate user and steal credentials.
When the user enters the requested authentication factor into the login box, the system verifies the information and, if it matches, grants the user access. The beauty of passwordless authentication is its ability to simplify the login process while also increasing security, resulting in a smooth and secure user experience that is changing the way we interact with the digital world.
Types of Passwordless Authentication Methods
Biometric Authentication Factors
Biometric authentication is based on distinguishing bodily traits such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans. The controversial authentication method gained popularity with the rise of Face ID and fingerprint sensors in mobile devices. Biometric data is claimed to be harder to falsify or steal, and offers a level of convenience for endusers.
One-Time Passcodes (OTP)
OTPs are temporary codes that are delivered to a user’s registered mobile device, typically by SMS, email or push notifications. Users enter the code for authentication, giving a secure and simple way that does not require static passwords.
Hardware tokens, such as the popular YubiKeys, are physical devices that create authentication codes. Commonly these security token are plugged into a computer via USB or use near-field communication (NFC) for user identity verification. These tokens give an extra degree of security because attackers must physically possess the security token in order gain access.
YubiKeys are great to secure online accounts and devices. I use them wherever they are supported!
Passwordless authentication with software tokens is a popular, adaptable, and cost-effective solution. Software tokens, as opposed to hardware tokens, are digital representations of cryptographic keys that are safely held on a user’s device, such as a smartphone or computer. Users can quickly authenticate themselves by creating and submitting an unique, time-sensitive code via dedicated authenticator apps or a system function.
Magic links have long been recognized in computer systems as a user-friendly and convenient alternative to other, more elaborate passwordless login techniques. These one-time-only URLs are delivered to a user’s registered email address, allowing them to access a secure service or application with a single click. After clicking the magic link, the user is immediately authenticated and logged into the system without the need for a password.
The Challenges of Passwordless Authentication
To make passwordless authentication work, significant changes to an organization’s existing infrastructure may be required, which can be time-consuming and costly. Distributing hardware tokens to all employees and managing their life-cycle might be a challenge for some organisations.
Passwordless authentication requires user acceptance in order to be successful. Some users may be hesitant to adopt new passwordless solutions, especially if they’re not familiar with them or perceive them as less convenient. To steer user adoption, educate your users and staff about the new passwordless system benefits, recommended practices, and support them on any problems they may have.
Passwordless Authentication in Action
FIDO2 Web Authentication (WebAuthn)
The FIDO2 Web Authentication (WebAuthn) standard describes a passwordless authentication mechanisms that enable users to access websites and apps using biometrics, mobile devices, or security keys. This standard is supported by major browsers and platforms such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple.
Apple Face ID & Touch ID
With its Face ID and Touch ID fingerprint scanning technology, Apple has been a pioneer in passwordless authentication. Users can access their mobile devices and authenticate transactions utilizing only their face or fingerprint via these two biometric authentication technologies.
Google has also embraced passwordless implementations, employing a variety of approaches such as biometrics and security keys. Google’s strategy has made it easier for users to gain secure access to their accounts, leading to increasing adoption.
Microsoft Windows Hello
Microsoft has been among the pioneers in the adoption of passwordless authentication solutions. Users can sign in using Windows Hello, Microsoft Authenticator, or security keys in their implementation. This change has greatly increased security while also streamlining the user experience.
The Rise of Passwordless Authentication Startups
As passwordless authentication gets more popular, multiple businesses have started to provide novel solutions in this field. Passwordless technology and authentication-as-a-service providers such as HYPR, Trusona, and Beyond Identity assist enterprises in improving their security posture and user experience with off-the-shelf solutions. But also established players such as Okta (Fastpass) and Auth0 provide and implement passwordless authentication solutions as part of their authentication system to their customers.
Passwordless Authentication FAQs
Is passwordless authentication safe & truly secure?
Yes, passwordless authentication is more secure than traditional password-based techniques and password management in general. It decreases the risk of unwantedly granted access by eliminating the usage of weak or reused passwords. No stolen passwords and no lost or stolen credentials anymore! The overall security depends on the private keys being securely stored.
How can I implement passwordless authentication in my organization?
To enable passwordless authentication, select a suitable solution (biometrics, OTP, etc.) and perform the necessary infrastructure adjustments. It is also critical to educate users on the new authentication system and its advantages.
Can I still use two-factor authentication (2FA) with passwordless authentication?
Absolutely! In fact, passwordless authentication methods can be paired with additional other authentication methods and factors to increase security even further. For example, biometrics combined with a hardware token can be used for multi-factor authentication.
What happens if I lose my hardware token or registered device?
In such circumstances, having a backup authentication solution in place is critical. To ensure that you don’t lose access to your account, you can set up backup procedures like biometrics, OTP, or even an alternative device or hardware token.
How does passwordless authentication affect user privacy?
Biometric authentication processes, such as passwordless authentication, can pose privacy concerns. Users may be cautious to submit sensitive information since there is no way to avoid biometric surveillance because, unlike passwords, biometric data cannot be changed. Only recently the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) restored an U.S. military biometrics database from unused former military biometric devices containing fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs of more than 2,600 Afghans and Iraqis.
Are there any drawbacks to passwordless authentication?
While implementing passwordless authentication has numerous advantages, it can come with certain drawbacks, such as required investment in infrastructure and user acceptance. However, the benefits of better security and user experience frequently outweigh the disadvantages.
Passkeys: The Future of Passwordless Authentication
Passwordless authentication is clearly the way forward as technology progresses and security concerns about data breaches grow. We can anticipate big improvements in online security, access management and user experience as more organizations adopt this method. One of these innovations are passkeys!
Passkeys are gaining the attention of both consumers and security experts in the quickly evolving world of passwordless authentication. By seamlessly merging the greatest parts of existing passwordless authentication mechanisms, this cutting-edge technology promises to transform online security and user experience. I recently wrote about the Passkey controversies, make sure to read!
What are Passkeys?
Passkeys are digital credentials enabling a novel kind of passwordless login based on FIDO protocols that combines the ease of use of one-time passcodes (OTPs) with the security of cryptographic keys. Unlike traditional OTPs, which are often provided via SMS or email and are vulnerable to interception, passkeys produce unique, time-sensitive codes using standard public key cryptography techniques.
During online service sign-up, the user’s client device generates a new cryptographic public private key pair. The user’s private key is kept and securely stored within the device, while the corresponding public key, is registered with the online service. The client device authenticates itself by signing a authentication challenge which then is verified using the public key, thus proving possession of the private key to the service. In this way, a passkey can replace password-based authentication and a second factor in a single step.
Microsoft, Apple, and Google have all updated their operating systems and apps to include passkeys in recent months and are focussed on finally killing passwords.
Passwordless authentication is an effective answer to today’s cybersecurity challenges. It provides a more secure and user-friendly experience for users while lowering support costs for enterprises by eliminating the dependency on passwords. As more businesses decide to go with a passwordless authentication solution, the digital world will become brighter and more secure. Go and setup your passkeys now!
Jan Brennenstuhl is a Principal Software Engineer at Zalando SE, balancing security with friction for their customers. He built an IAM team and brought single sign-on (SSO) to Europe's largest e-commerce fashion platform.