Passwordless Authentication 101

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Although they are the most common tool used to verify a person’s identity, passwords are the least secure mode of authentication. They can be easily hacked, stolen, or otherwise compromised, which makes them a huge cybersecurity risk factor. More and more businesses are adopting passwordless authentication strategies to minimize this gaping vulnerability, so you may be wondering: what is passwordless authentication and what are the benefits?

What is passwordless authentication?

The difference between password and passwordless authentication methods stems from the core types of information used in the login process. Password authentication is based on knowledge; a user must provide something they know such as an email address, traditional password, or a personal identification number (PIN).

Passwordless authentication, on the other hand, is derived from different types of information the user has. The first type is inherence. With these factors, a user’s identity is verified by their biometric data, such as fingerprints, retinal scans, or voice recognition. These authentication methods are exceptionally difficult to hack or replicate because of how unique they are to the individual user.

Passwordless authentication can also be done via information the user possesses. This could be an email verification link, a physical security card, an authentication app, or a one-time password. Possession factors are also significantly more secure than passwords because they require a user to access a separate device or application in real time.

In either case, the passwordless authentication process requires a pair of cryptographic keys: one that’s private and one that’s public. The private key is unique to the individual user, and since it’s not a traditional password, it’s much more difficult for a hacker to intercept. The public key is hosted on the application or system the user is trying to access with the private key. Access is only granted if the public and private key match, so the public key is useless without its private counterpart.

Benefits of passwordless authentication

In addition to improved security, passwordless authentication offers a number of benefits.

    • Better IT visibility: Passwordless authentication eliminates the variability of an individual user’s password health, so you can maintain a tighter grip on your organization’s security landscape.
    • Simpler user experience: When users can log in using an inherence or possession factor, they won’t waste time or become frustrated trying to remember, update, or reset their passwords. This makes the login process much simpler, so employees can get to work immediately.
    • Cost savings: Passwordless authentication saves money on helpdesk resources as well as the cost of monitoring and maintaining passwords for your users. Furthermore, you’ll be able to avoid phishing and credential stuffing attacks, which could result in a costly data breach.

Examples of passwordless authentication

Passwordless authentication comes in a wide range of implementations. Some require specialized hardware and others may take the form of software that integrates with your existing systems.

Biometric authentication

As mentioned above, biometric authentication involves a user’s specific biological property, like their iris, face, fingerprint, or voice. Usually this method involves a piece of specialized hardware that has biometric recognition capabilities and can connect to a computer to grant access.

This solves the problem of forgotten or reused passwords, thereby reducing the volume of password reset support tickets you’ll need to address. Biometric data is also much more difficult to hack or fake, so you can rest assured that an authenticated user is who they say they are.

Prominent biometric authentication technology vendors include:

Single sign-on

Although some single sign-on (SSO) solutions still require a password, they effectively eliminate all other passwords a user needs. SSO provides a centralized platform for a user to access a large number of applications and systems without needing to use separate login credentials for each one. They’re usually deployed on-premises, but many vendors offer a SaaS option that you can integrate with your existing security software.

A full-service SSO tool also includes a desktop multi-factor authentication (MFA) application so users can have a true passwordless experience. Plus, most solutions offer a backend dashboard through which you can monitor your users’ access and activity across the board.

One of these single sign-on vendors might be the right fit for you:

Email-based authentication

Email-based authentication takes the guesswork out of the login process for users who are already logged into their corporate email account. This method works similarly to an SSO platform, but users don’t need to log in to a separate account for the sole purpose of accessing the right systems. Instead, users select “Log in with X” at the sign-in page for the integrated application and receive an email notification with a link to finish the login process.

Email-based authentication is somewhat more complex because it requires some development expertise, but it’s a suitable solution for smaller organizations that don’t have as many business platforms to manage. It’s also ideal for employees that don’t have a smartphone, since some other authentication methods require a user to access a mobile application to complete the process.

Consider one of these email authentication tools:

Identity access management (IAM) software

Identity access management (IAM) software is a broader category of security management tools that control which users have access to specific applications. These are ideal for admins at large organizations who want to set specific roles and privileges for individual users and keep track of how each person is using their access.

For most IAM products, passwordless authentication plays an integral role in maintaining a secure environment to closely monitor each user’s access and privileges. By removing passwords from the equation, you can create a strong barrier around your organization’s applications and systems. This means only the right people will be able to access the right information and resources.

Top IAM software solutions include:

Related: What Is a Passkey? The Future of Passwordless

Making the switch to passwordless authentication

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to eliminate passwords from your corporate environment completely, reducing the number of password-based authentication instances in favor of passwordless methods will have a tremendous benefit for your cybersecurity posture. You’ll be able to increase IT visibility, improve user experience, and reduce total costs involved with maintaining user credentials.

Whether you choose to implement an advanced solution with specialized hardware or a simpler software solution, an ecosystem with fewer passwords is one with fewer opportunities for a successful malicious attack.

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