Passwords have been the default method of authentication for decades, but they come with numerous downsides. Passwords can be guessed, stolen, reused, and forgotten. In fact, 81% of data breaches are due to compromised passwords. The future of authentication is passwordless – faster, simpler, and more secure. This comprehensive guide examines passwordless authentication, how it works, its security benefits, and how to implement it.
What is Passwordless Authentication?
Passwordless authentication eliminates the need for usernames and passwords. Instead, users verify their identity through factors like biometrics (fingerprint, face, or iris scanning), security keys (FIDO devices that connect via USB or NFC), push notifications (prompts sent to a verified device), or one-time codes (sent via email, SMS, authenticator apps).
With passwordless authentication, credentials are tied to the user or device itself rather than a static password that can be phished or guessed. This improves security by removing the risks associated with password reuse, phishing, and brute force attacks. Users no longer need to remember complex passwords or go through repetitive reset workflows when passwords are forgotten.
Passwordless authentication aims to provide authentication that is inherently more secure, easier to use, and better positioned for a future with expanding digital identity options. Major technology companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple have embraced passwordless as the future of identity access management. While traditional passwords will likely persist in some forms, passwordless protocols like FIDO2 and WebAuthn are gaining adoption across consumer and enterprise platforms.
Methods of Passwordless Authentication
There are several standards and methods for enabling passwordless authentication:
The FIDO (Fast Identity Online) Alliance has created standards for passwordless authentication using public key cryptography.
- FIDO2 – Leverages public/private key pairs and a locally stored cryptographic credential on the user’s device which is registered with the relying party’s servers. The user verifies with biometrics or PIN.
- WebAuthn – A web standard that enables FIDO2 passwordless login for websites and apps.
- CTAP – Client to Authenticator Protocol enables communication between clients (devices) and authenticators (biometric readers, security keys) over USB, NFC, or BLE.
A push notification is sent to a user’s verified mobile or hardware device which they approve to authenticate. The notification is sent over an encrypted channel to the pre-registered device. Users simply approve the login request on their device.
A randomly generated code is provided through an email, SMS, or authenticator app which users enter alongside their username to log in. The code is time-limited and single-use, providing additional security over static passwords.
Users verify their identities by approving a prompt on their mobile devices. Their devices serve as cryptographic tokens for authentication. Private keys are stored on the device to enable passwordless.