Introduction to Passwordless Authentication

The future of user authentication

What you’ll learn

• What it means to go passwordless
• If going passwordless is a good idea
• The benefits of passwordless authentication
• Passwordless authentication examples

What is passwordless authentication?

Passwordless authentication is a new approach to online security that aims to eliminate the use of passwords altogether. But, what does it mean to go passwordless?

Instead of relying on users to create and remember complex passwords, typical passwordless authentication uses other forms of user verification, such as biometric data or hardware tokens. This approach seeks to address the weaknesses of traditional password-based authentication, such as the risk of weak passwords, phishing attacks and password reuse. By removing the reliance on passwords, passwordless authentication provides a more secure and seamless user experience.

Looking ahead, while they do enhance security, hardware tokens and even biometrics for user verification aren’t necessary and actually hinder productivity and the user experience. In fact, your modern computer comes with security measures far more advanced than any human action or credential. Read on to discover FIDO2 authentication and public key cryptography.

How does passwordless authentication work?

Passwordless authentication is designed to not only simplify the login process, but also remove password vulnerabilities such as lost, forgotten or compromised passwords, along with password fatigue. Relying on alternative methods like biometrics or security keys, passwordless solutions have been on the rise.

In 2018, the FIDO Alliance (FIDO standing for Fast Identity Online) released the groundwork for FIDO2 authentication. FIDO2 authentication is based on WebAuthn and CTAP (Client to Authenticator Protocol). This setup uses a unique pair of crypto keys that are registered with the online service provider (public key cryptography). When a user tries to authenticate, the service sends a challenge to the user’s device, which is verified using biometric data or a security key. The device then signs the challenge with the private key and sends it back to the service for verification. This method is phishing resistant, offers passwordless convenience and is available across many platforms and browsers.

FIDO2 authentication has become the foundation for today’s passwordless authentication solutions. However, there’s still room for innovation. Most passwordless authentication solutions still prompt users to re-verify themselves for every login, usually through biometrics via their phone. The approval is sent to the service provider from the phone over the network.

On the other hand, WinMagic uses a unique approach: no-user-action authentication. This authentication method is based on the fact that the user has already authenticated to the endpoint and therefore doesn’t need to reauthenticate to each online app or service. The result is a seamless user experience that boosts productivity and reduces IT service desk calls.

Passwordless authentication examples

Biometrics

Fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans or voice recognition verify the user.

Public key cryptography

Matched public and private cryptographic device keys verify the device.

Device-based

A registered smartphone or other device verifies the user via MFA.

Social media

Existing accounts, like Google, Facebook or Twitter, verify the user.

Passkeys

Cross-device cryptographic keys verify the user via phone biometrics.

Hardware keys

USBs or smart cards to insert into or tap on the endpoint for user verification.

5/6 of these examples emphasize user verification. But, with public key cryptography, verifying the device is trillions of times more secure than verifying the user. So, why does the industry still heavily focus on verifying the user when most of today’s attackers have absolutely no access to your endpoint?

Is passwordless authentication safe?

While passwordless authentication supports a great user experience, is going passwordless a good idea? Is it safe enough?

Passwordless authentication is considered much more secure than password-based systems. By eliminating the need for passwords, users are less likely to fall prey to common account takeover schemes such as phishing attacks: attackers can’t steal login credentials if they’re never entered!

No more losing passwords

No more forgetting passwords

No more password fatigue

No more password reuse

Passwordless authentication systems leverage robust authentication factors such as biometrics or hardware tokens (like YubiKeys). Each user-device combination creates unique cryptographic keys, making it significantly harder for attackers to take over accounts without your specific endpoint device.

Passwordless authentication vs MFA

Passwordless authentication and multi-factor authentication (MFA) are both modern methods used to enhance account security. But, they differ in what factors they use to keep users safe.

Passwordless authentication removes password vulnerabilities, such as lost, stolen or compromised passwords. Most passwordless solutions use biometrics or a hardware token to verify the user. When properly executed, passwordless authentication is phishing-resistant, improves the user experience and delivers stronger security compared to traditional password-based methods.

MFA involves multiple factors to verify a user’s identity. These factors typically fall into three categories:

  • Something the user knows
  • Something the user has (a smartphone, endpoint key, or security token)
  • Something the user is (biometrics)

MFA requires at least two factors during the authentication process. By combining multiple factors, MFA significantly increases security by adding layers of protection against unauthorized access, even if one factor is compromised. While MFA does increase security, it adds extra steps for the user, which is why WinMagic believes MFA should be used in moderation.

Passwordless with MFA

For example, our MagicEndpoint authentication solution is a great example of both MFA and passwordless authentication because both are used at different stages of the user’s session.

  1. MFA for pre-boot authentication (PBA) and Windows logon: By default, MagicEndpoint uses Bluetooth low energy to communicate between the user’s phone and the computer. The phone is used to verify the user’s biometrics (something the user is) and the computer’s TPM verifies the device’s private key (something the user has) to authorize the user and load the operating system.
  2. Passwordless online authentication: Once the user has authenticated themselves to the endpoint, MagicEndpoint provides a unique no-user-action passwordless experience for logging into online apps and services — no passwords, no hardware keys and no further MFA.

What’s the difference between passwordless authentication and SSO?

To summarize, passwordless authentication focuses on eliminating passwords whereas single sign-on (SSO) centralizes authentication, allowing users to log in once and gain access to various connected applications.

Passwordless authentication eliminates traditional passwords and employs alternate methods like biometrics, public key cryptography, number matching or OTPs for user verification, thereby enhancing the security experience.

SSO enables users to access multiple applications with a single set of login credentials, streamlining the authentication process and reducing the need to remember multiple passwords for different devices.

SSO risks a single point of failure, as a compromised SSO credential could grant attackers unauthorized access to multiple applications. In contrast, passwordless authentication verifies the user’s unique credentials for each application, effectively blocking unauthorized access attempts.

What are the benefits of passwordless authentication?

Below are the six main benefits of passwordless authentication:

All in one encryption platform

Enhanced security:

Removing passwords from the authentication process eliminates risks associated with passwords, such as phishing attacks and credential stuffing. Instead, authentication is achieved with more secure factors such as biometrics or physical devices like phones, hardware keys or smartcards.

Drag and drop file encryption

Phishing resistance:

Since passwordless authentication doesn’t involve passwords, there are none to phish! Even if a user inadvertently provided their authentication factor to a phishing site, it can’t be used elsewhere, enhancing security.

Best User experience with WinMagic

Improved user experience:

Passwordless authentication eliminates password fatigue and those oh-so-long complex passwords we’ve had to remember in the past. Then, WinMagic’s no-user-action experience eliminates friction from online authentication entirely.

Seamless encryption with WinMagic

Reduced IT costs:

Passwordless authentication reduces or eliminates the need for password resets and reduces associated support costs, freeing your IT staff for more critical tasks.

A global file sharing platform

Compliance and regulation:

Passwordless authentication can help businesses meet security requirements and regulations, such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), by reducing the risk of data breaches.

Is passwordless the future of authentication?

Passwordless authentication is increasingly regarded as the next stage in the evolution of cybersecurity, thanks to its numerous advantages over traditional authentication methods. These benefits include advanced security, user convenience, reduced support costs, future proofing and user experience (see the “What are the benefits of passwordless authentication?” section for more details). But, with “passwordless” established as the next step in cybersecurity, where will innovation take authentication solutions next?

The next evolution of passwordless authentication is a no-user-action authentication experience. Users can access online apps and services seamlessly without having to reauthenticate themselves every time. This advancement is made doubly secure by incorporating zero-trust principles. The software continuously verifies the user using device-level signals and even monitors the user’s intent. By pooling the cybersecurity industry’s most advanced ideas, FIDO2 authentication, zero-trust security and federated identity, MagicEndpoint’s no-user-action authentication experience delivers the latest advancement in user authentication.

How to choose a passwordless authentication solution

With passwordless authentication on the rise, more and more vendors are entering the playing field. Here are some key considerations to guide your decision-making process:

  • Assess security features: While passwordless authentication solutions are the latest rage, some are surpassing others. Look for solutions that follow today’s highest standards of cybersecurity, such as phishing-resistant MFA, FIDO2 authentication, zero-trust security and endpoint encryption. Make sure your chosen solution complies with your security standards and regulations to effectively protect your sensitive data against the latest cyber threats.
  • Evaluate user experience: While the user experience has been on the decline for decades — after the introduction of complex passwords and passwords that need to be changed every X months — passwordless authentication opens the doors for a seamless user experience that not only minimizes login issues but also increases workplace productivity.
  • Consider integration and compatibility: Investigate how well the authentication solution will integrate with your existing IT infrastructure, applications and identity access management (IAM) systems. Compatibility with popular platforms such as Active Directory, LDAP or cloud-based identity providers can simplify deployment and management.
  • Scalability and future-proof: Choose a solution that can scale with your business’s growth and adapt to evolving security needs. Look for flexible deployment options (cloud, on-premises or hybrid) that can accommodate your requirements. Also, choose a solution that’s committed to evolving and adapting to emerging security threats.
  • Evaluate the cost and ROI: Compare the total cost of ownership (TOC) to similar authentication solutions, including implementation costs, ongoing maintenance and support fees. Consider your potential ROI regarding improved security, reduced overhead costs and enhanced productivity.

By following these steps when evaluating authentication solutions, you can choose the best passwordless authentication solution to align with your business’s security goals.

How to set up passwordless authentication

While the installment time will depend on whether you choose SaaS or on-premises, most SaaS solutions can be deployed within your company in under 30 minutes.

Many companies are already using Active Directory for user profiles. So, your new passwordless authentication solution should be able to import these users, delivering a smooth setup experience.

Once your profiles and users are added to the system, the hard part is learning the settings and applying them appropriately. Still, passwordless authentication providers have your best interest at heart, so they won’t leave you high and dry. Most vendors provide comprehensive training during the onboarding or proof of concept (POC) phase.

 

Sounds easy enough, right? If you have any more questions about the
onboarding process, don’t hesitate to contact the WinMagic team.

keyboard_arrow_up