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What is Passwordless Authentication? Benefits and Challenges

Jason Coggins by Published On - 03.01.2022 Data Security

Passwordless Authentication

Passwordless authentication is a method that gives users within an organization access to systems and applications without the need of a password. With passwordless authentication, a different form of information is used to identify a user, such as biometric data or (most usually) through a registered device or token. In a lot of organizations that make use of passwordless authentication, it is often paired with multi-factor authentication and single sign-on (SSO) solutions to help further bolster security and enhance the user experience.

How Passwordless Authentication Works

Passwordless authentication replaces passwords with other authentication methods that are safer. In password-based authentication, the password provided by a user is matched to the record stored in a database. In passwordless authentication, in a method such as the use of biometrics, the comparison happens almost in a similar manner. Instead of the password, a user’s distinctive characteristics are compared. For example, the system could capture the user’s face. It extracts numerical data from it and then compares it with verified data records in the database.

However, the comparisons may be slightly different in other passwordless authentication methods. For example, a system may send a one-time passcode to a user’s mobile telephone via a text message. The user enters this code into the login box, and the system will then compare the entered passcode to the one it had sent.

Typically, passwordless authentication works on the same principles as digital certificates. A cryptographic key paired with a private and a public key. A user who wishes to create a secure account will use a tool such as a mobile application or a browser extension to generate a public-private key pair. The private key will be stored on the user’s local device. It is only accessed using an authentication factor, such as a fingerprint, PIN, or OTP. On the other hand, the public key is provided to the system on which the user wishes to get a secure account.

Types of Passwordless Authentication

Traditional username and password authentication require users to input a password (usually a combination of alphanumeric characters) so as to verify their identity. On the other hand, passwordless authentication methods require the users to show that they have a possession factor or an inherence factor in gaining access to a system or application. These two factors are more complex to circumvent than a password.

Some methods of passwordless authentication include;

One-Time Passcodes

One-time passcodes (OTP) require users to input a code sent to them by email or their mobile device via SMS instead of just clicking a link. The one-time passcode is sent to a user each time a user logs in to enhance security.

Biometrics

Most human physical traits are more or less entirely unique for each person. The biometric authentication method uses these unique physical traits to verify a person’s identity without requiring them to enter a password. The use of biometrics is very effective in the sense that the likelihood that two faces are similar in physical attributes is less than one in a trillion.

Magic Links

Magic links, just as with one-time passcodes, instead of asking a user for a password, the user enters their email address into the login box, an email is then sent to them, with a link they are required to click to log in. The magical link is sent to a user each time the user logs in to ensure safety.

Push Notifications

In this method, users receive a push notification on their mobile device through a dedicated authenticator app such as Google Authenticator. They then open the app through a push notification to verify their identity.

Benefits of Passwordless Authentication

Stronger Cybersecurity Posture

The passwords we use today are no longer a solid barrier for attackers. Many people tend to use the same password for multiple applications. In the event that one of the passwords is breached through phishing, leaked, or stolen, there is a high chance that cyber-attackers will gain access to multiple accounts. They can therefore obtain confidential IP, financial, or client data. They can also spy on internal messages, commit financial fraud, gain access to a company’s network, and even divulge trade secrets.

In passwordless authentication, passwords are eliminated altogether, thus offering protection against the two most prevalent cyberattacks: phishing and brute force attacks. In addition, in this authentication method, even when employees receive phishing emails or text messages, there are no credentials for them to offer up.

Reduced long-term costs

Companies spend lots of effort and resources on password management and storage. The time IT personnel spends resetting passwords and acting on constantly changing password storage laws adds to the cost. A 2018 report by Forrester showed that organizations in the US allocate over $1 million annually just for password-related support costs. Passwordless authentication eliminates all of these costs.

Greater productivity and better user experience

It is unsustainable to generate and memorize multiple passwords at a time. Also, when an employee forgets their password, the process of resetting it is often clunky. Therefore, it is no surprise that employees use the most uncomplicated passwords they can remember. They use the same password for every application or tool and just add an extra number or a character when they are asked to change it each month. With passwordless authentication, users no longer have to create or memorize passwords. Instead, they can authenticate using their email, phone, or biometrics.

Challenges of passwordless authentication

Deployment costs

Passwordless authentication requires an in-depth plan to implement. It requires new software, and in some instances, hardware. It also requires that employees are trained. Passwordless authentication deployment requires coming up with a project and change management plan. Executing this plan takes time away from other tasks or strategic projects of a business.

These deployments cost money. If you require hardware installations, you have to buy gadgets, tokens, and cards for each employee. In addition, these will require replacements in case of future damage or loss. The option to use software can be cheaper, but there might be some hidden costs you need to budget for, such as software administration, migration, and maintenance.

Security limitations

Passwordless authentication is, by any means, better than conventional password structures. However, it is not entirely foolproof. Even with passwordless authentication, attackers may use malware, man-in-the-browser to breach the security of a tool or application. Hackers can install malware designed to intercept one-time passcodes. They could also insert trojans into web browsers to intercept shared data such as one-time passcodes or magic links.

Is the future passwordless

Password-based login systems are the easiest and the cheapest to implement. Moving from conventional passwords to a more secure authentication method improves an organization’s overall security.

Many companies now realize that passwords are the primary reason for data breaches. The cost of implementing passwordless authentication is nothing compared to the fines and losses incurred in the event of a data breach.

Passwordless authentication saves time and resources as the company no longer has to deal with password maintenance and resets.

If you’d like to see how the Lepide Data Security Platform can help you spot the signs of privilege abuse and cyber-attacks (such as brute force attacks), schedule a demo with one of our engineers or start your free trial today.