While we recently “celebrated” World Password Day, almost every security outlet keeps telling us that passwords alone are not enough.
In practice, in the last few years this has meant pairing passwords with something else, such as a one-time code from an app or an SMS message, in a scheme called two-factor authentication (2FA).
But while pairing passwords with a second factor is much better than using a password by itself, it is just a way of working around some very serious, inherent flaws in password authentication. Which begs the question: If passwords are such a problem, why use them at all?
Now Apple, Google and Microsoft have announced that you don’t have to.
The trio of tech giants all used World Password Day to declare increased support for FIDO Alliance standards like FIDO2, a globally-recognized standard for passwordless authentication.
According to the alliance:
In a joint effort to make the web more secure and usable for all, Apple, Google and Microsoft today announced plans to expand support for a common passwordless sign-in standard created by the FIDO Alliance and the World Wide Web Consortium. The new capability will allow websites and apps to offer consistent, secure, and easy passwordless sign-ins to consumers across devices and platforms.
Microsoft, Google, and Apple
Last year, Microsoft announced that as of September 15, 2021 you can completely remove the password from your Microsoft account and use the Microsoft Authenticator app, Windows Hello, a security key, or a verification code sent to your phone or email to sign in to Microsoft apps and services.
On May 5, 2022, Google announced it will implement passwordless support in Android and Chrome, and Apple announced its support for new authentication capabilities enabled by the adoption of FIDO’s latest standard.
The expanded standards-based capabilities will give websites and apps the ability to offer an end-to-end passwordless option. Users will sign in through the same action that they take multiple times each day to unlock their devices, such as a simple verification of their fingerprint or face, or a device PIN.
With all three tech giants on board, we can expect passwordless FIDO sign-in across macOS and Safari; Android and Chrome; and Windows and Edge. This means that, for example, users will be able to sign in on a Google Chrome browser that’s running on Microsoft Windows, using a passkey on an Apple device.
Instead of using a password, which can be intercepted as it passes over the Internet, and has to be processed and stored by each service you use, FIDO2 uses public-key encryption. It performs the cryptographic operation that verifies who you are on a device you own, using a private key that never leaves your possession. This means that nothing of value is shared with or stored on the website or service you’re using, and the information sent back and forth during authentication is of no use to an attacker.
FIDO2 combines two standards: WebAuthn and CTAP. WebAuthn does the important job of setting out how web browsers authenticate to websites, but the real magic of FIDO2 is CTAP, the Client to Authenticator Protocol.
CTAP is what allows that crucial cryptographic operation to happen on a wide variety of devices (referred to as “roaming authenticators”), including hardware keys, phones, and laptops. These roaming authenticators are expected to have a mechanism to obtain a “user gesture” which authorises the cryptographic operation, such as a consent button, a password, a PIN, a fingerprint, or face recognition. And this is what allows you to approve your authentication to a website using your iPhone’s Touch ID or Windows Hello.
Devices that act as roaming authenticators can also communicate with other devices, so you can do things like signing in to websites you’re visiting on your laptop by using Touch ID on your iPhone or drawing a pattern on your Android tablet.
Will it work?
The idea of passwordless authentication is to create a login method that is secure and easy-to-use, and that eliminates the risks of phishing, password guessing, password reuse, and credential stuffing.
As with all security innovations, we don’t expect attackers to respond by giving up and going home, just to shift their attention to (hopefully) more difficult and expensive forms of attack.
When Microsoft announced in September that you no longer needed a password, we spoke to Per Thorsheim, one of the world’s leading experts on passwords. He had some major concerns about situations when people lose access to their choice of authenticator, and with that lose access to their Microsoft account.
[I am concerned about] when people lose access to their choice of authenticator, and by that lose access to their Microsoft account. I’ve attempted account recovery with Microsoft before, and I know others who have tried and failed miserably. Account recovery is hard, usually to avoid making the process a prime target for hackers.
FIDO2 puts a heavy burden on the account recovery process. Will there be a backup method similar to a “forgot my password” procedure, or do I have to create a new account which can then be linked to my online persona? Either way, such a method could create create a backdoor for attackers to target instead of FIDO-protected authentication.
Passwordless authentication could also multiply the stress caused by a stolen or lost device. If an attacker can guess your PIN or pattern they have access to all of your accounts.
Fortunately, rate-limits on phones makes that very difficult. Even if you secure your device with a 4-digit PIN or a pattern, an attacker finding or stealing your device will have to be very lucky to guess it correctly before the device shuts them out altogether.
However, trusting someone with the access code to your phone will become the equivalent of handing them the key to your entire online life.
If the importance of device access increases, this could lead to more stringent authentication requirements on our pohnes. For example, PINs with 10 digits instead of four or six, or more complicated patterns. And perhaps we’ll say goodbye to default PINs as well.
Nevertheless, we look forward to the passwordless future, even if we may have to work out some details along the way. Passwords have outlived their use for important resources: Victims have been made despite doing everything right; and threat actors have made an industry out of phishing our passwords, keyphrases, and security questions, and from brute-force guessing our passwords.
It is time for something new and three tech giants working together with an established industry association on a passwordless future looks promising.
Stay safe, everyone!
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