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What is passwordless authentication? Is it safe to use?

Passwordless authentication refers to identity verification or login processes that do not rely on passwords. Instead, they turn to magic links or biometrics like facial recognition. So, login processes can transform from knowledge-based procedures to something you inherently have. Passwordless logins resolve issues like forgetting passwords or having them leaked online. Such authentication treats an email address as one of the main authentication factors. However, it is susceptible to threats, like someone targeting your email account.

What is passwordless authentication? Is it safe to use?

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is passwordless authentication?

Passwordless authentication is an authentication method that allows you to log in to an account or device without needing to enter your password. Its main impact works on multiple levels:

  • Improves user experience and supports fast logins. For security reasons, difficult passwords contain over 12 characters, including letters, special symbols, and numbers. Remembering all these unique combinations by heart is a hassle, if not impossible. While password managers help, they do not have to be the only solution.
  • Protects against account takeover attempts. Phishing, credential stuffing, dictionary, or brute-force attacks aim to crack or expose passwords. If there are no combinations to reveal, such attacks render fruitless.
  • Much more secure than weak passwords. Passwordless authentication is much more secure because users often opt for convenience and reuse combinations or set weak passwords.

How does passwordless authentication work?

Passwordless authentication gradually pushes towards a password-free future. It introduces the application of other, likely more secure, alternatives. For instance, biometrics support possession-based logins when services recognize your fingerprints or face.

There are several main issues with password-based authentication most people use today:

  • Easy to forget and misplace.
  • Vulnerable to hacking, phishing scams, and other password-targeting attacks.
  • Data breaches expose passwords that companies have not encrypted or hashed.
  • Password resets can take a long time or require contacting IT support teams.

Types of passwordless logins

Eliminating passwords from login opens up modern ways for users to access their accounts. However, the question is, what piece of data or technique should replace security passwords? So far, companies have experimented with and integrated three possible means for passwordless authentication.

  • Magic links. This passwordless authentication method means that your email address is the primary identifier. You can use it to sign up and log in. However, you do not pair it with a password. Instead, you provide your email in the login form. Then, a message containing a link arrives in your inbox. After clicking the link, you will magically log into the services.
  • Biometric data. You may already use face or fingerprint scans to unlock your smartphone. However, the same physical attribute can replace passwords in other scenarios. For instance, Android and iOS already use fingerprint scanners. Using biometric authentication lags on desktops, but Microsoft has introduced Windows Hello. This authenticator lets people use facial recognition for fingerprints to unlock their devices. macOS also has a Touch ID feature.
  • Possession factors. This passwordless authentication means that you prove your identity with an external device. It could be a one-time code delivered to smartphones. It can also be a hardware token, giving you login codes instead of passwords.

Passwords are not only vulnerable but also expensive

Organizations must back password-based authentication up with other security procedures. Credentials are the biggest attack vector, a target for many hackers. Thus, companies have the responsibility to integrate specific security-related mechanisms:

  • Password complexity policies.
  • Password reset processes.
  • Password hashing and secure storing.
  • Detection of compromised passwords.

Sadly, many unfortunate stories prove that companies fail to implement these requirements. Therefore, data breaches frequently consist of passwords stored in plain text. DailyQuiz, one of the latest hacking victims, exposed over 8 million plaintext passwords, which were later put for sale. Passwordless authentication is suitable for avoiding such data breach incidents.

How can you go for passwordless logins?

Whether you can escape passwords and go for passwordless authentication relies on the services. While the preference for password-free environments has been brewing for a while, passwords prevail.

However, more providers are choosing to integrate FIDO2, the project for more secure web logins. Many popular browsers already support it.

However, a joint effort by Apple, Google, and Microsoft could be a game-changer for users’ login routines. The companies hope to let users choose their phones as the primary authentication method. Users can use PIN codes, patterns, or fingerprint unlocks to sign in to web services.

As Google explains, such passwordless authentication becomes possible if unique cryptographic tokens like passkeys get shared between phones and websites.

Can passwordless logins work with multi-factor authentication (MFA)?

Multi-factor authentication means users must complete two or more steps before logging into their accounts. However, it is not necessarily passwordless, meaning that one of the steps could contain passwords. The usual combination is a password and verification via authenticator apps, messages, or push notifications.

So, MFA describes the factors required to confirm users’ identities. For instance, you can use fingerprints to unlock your phone. It is passwordless but only a single-factor process.

Why passwordless authentication is worth it

Passwordless authentication works in favor of fast and convenient logins. It can deliver one-time login codes and magic links via SMS or email. Biometrics such as fingerprints or face scans are also possible.

If you are unsure about sharing biometric data, opt for codes or magic links. They are likely to be less intrusive and healthiest privacy-wise. However, remember that phishing evolves continuously.

Thus, it is a matter of time before scammers initiate campaigns mimicking passwordless login letters. So, be prepared for such fraudulent messages. Only click on magic links if you have requested to log into your account.