Why Passkeys are the Future of Secure Authentication

Why Passkeys are the Future of Secure Authentication

Mar 5, 2024

Passwordless authentication using WebAuthn and Passkeys
Passwordless authentication using WebAuthn and Passkeys
Passwordless authentication using WebAuthn and Passkeys

The Weaknesses of Passwords

For decades, passwords have been the main method of authentication on the internet. However, they have also been the biggest security weakness - reused across accounts, forgotten, leaked in data breaches, or guessed by attackers. According to Verizon's 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, over 80% of web application breaches involved stolen or brute-forced credentials.

Even with password complexity rules and periodic forced resets, human-chosen passwords are fundamentally an outmoded security model. Passwords are knowledge-based credentials that are difficult for people to remember but easy for computers to guess with enough tries. They are also vulnerable to phishing, key loggers, shoulder surfing, and a variety of social engineering attacks.

Multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer, but is often cumbersome. One-time passwords sent via SMS/email provide limited protection against phishing and man-in-the-middle attacks. Hardware tokens like YubiKeys are costly to provision and manage at scale.

The FIDO Solution: WebAuthn & Passkeys

To solve these password problems, the FIDO ("Fast IDentity Online") Alliance created modern authentication standards like WebAuthn, designed around public key cryptography rather than shared secrets. WebAuthn allows logging in without a password using a "passkey" - a unique cryptographic credential created and stored locally on the user's device.

During login, the server requests authentication and the client device generates a digital signature using its private key, which is verified by the server using the device's previously registered public key. Unlike passwords, these private keys never leave the device, making passkeys impervious to phishing, replay attacks, or server-side data breaches.

Major Advantages of Passkeys

  1. Unphishable Authentication Passkeys eliminate the biggest attack vector - phishing sites cannot trick users into revealing credentials that never get entered. Public key cryptography ensures users authenticate securely to the real application.

  2. Prevent Credential Stuffing Attacks Since passkeys are bound to a specific web origin, they cannot be reused across sites accidentally or maliciously through credential stuffing attacks. Each application gets its own unique credential.

  3. Protection Against Server Breaches When servers are breached, unlike passwords, attackers only gain access to public keys with no way to derive the cryptographically strong private keys stored on user devices. This prevents mass credential theft and replay.

  4. Improved User Experience Passwords are a usability nightmare - hard to remember, easy to forget, constantly need resetting. Passkeys work with biometrics like Windows Hello, Touch ID or other platform authenticators for a seamless passwordless experience.

  5. Roaming Access Across Devices Passkeys can be synced across all a user's devices via cloud backup or physical device-to-device transfers, maintaining access while preventing lockout scenarios.

  6. Quantum-Resistant Cryptography The digital signatures in WebAuthn utilize modern elliptic curve algorithms designed to be resistant to cryptanalytic attacks by quantum computers in the future.

  7. Platform Authenticator Support WebAuthn works natively with built-in platform authenticators already on modern devices from PC makers and mobile vendors, eliminating the need for extra hardware tokens.

Beyond FIDO U2F & One-Time Passwords

Previous multi-factor solutions like FIDO U2F and OTP codes have their own drawbacks. U2F required separate hardware tokens provisioned per user. SMS/email delivery of one-time codes is vulnerable to real-time phishing, SIM swapping attacks, and man-in-the-middle interceptions during the window of validity.

WebAuthn represents a new paradigm - a broadly supported open standard from a consortium of tech leaders, combining strong public key cryptography, a cross-platform device-centric model, biometrics, and protections against modern and future attacks.

With support from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and all major browsers and platforms, passkeys are quickly being adopted as a password replacement to finally fix the endemic issues with traditional digital authentication. The future is passwordless.