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The Future of Authentication & the Shift to a Passwordless Future

Passwords should no longer be the primary form of authentication. This article breaks down the limitations of passwords, and offers a view of the future of passwordless and multi-factor authentication.
Written by
Christina Boyer
Published on
March 15, 2024

Authentication serves as a key component of online security, playing a pivotal role in safeguarding privacy, security, and revenue in digital interactions. However, in today’s world, verifying that a user is who they say they are is increasingly challenging.

Traditionally, authentication involved providing something you know, have, or are, such as passwords, tokens, or biometric data. It’s a story as old as time to ask "What’s the secret password?" as a means to distinguish between friend and foe. Providing a password used to be sufficient in proving identity.

However, in today’s modern world, and as technology advances, cyber threats evolve, prompting a reevaluation of the efficacy of passwords in defending against malicious activities. This article delves into the need for advanced authentication solutions, given the shortcomings of passwords and existing multi-factor authentication mechanisms.

The Problem with the Traditional Password Approach in the Modern Era

Passwords were originally conceived as a means of authenticating users and granting access to sensitive information or systems. The primary goal was to establish a secure barrier between authorized users and potential intruders, thereby safeguarding valuable data and resources. There are several key factors to flag as the limitations of passwords as the primary method of authentication:

  1. Passwords are shareable — giving “Alice” a password makes it possible for her to give the password to “Bob”, even if we didn’t want “Bob” to have the password. In short, passwords aren’t necessarily the best way to authenticate a user because the ability to provide a password does not inherently verify the identity of the user.
  2. The rise of Generative AI has made hacking password credentials more easy than ever. AI excels in password cracking by generating vast volumes of guesses with incredible accuracy. Traditional passwords are prone to hacking and data breaches, with 37% of breaches stemming from stolen credentials according to a 2020 report by Verizon.
  3. The impact of password theft is greater than ever. A tremendous amount of data online is stored behind the humble password, and hackers are more incentivized to exploit vulnerabilities in traditional password-based authentication systems. Access to both sensitive data and operational processes stored behind credentials, provides an appealing opportunity to disrupt or ransom critical operations of target businesses.
  4. User Experience matters more than ever, and traditional password-based authentication methods often result in user frustration due to forgotten passwords, frequent resets, and cumbersome login processes.
  5. Password management is expensive, largely because people forget their passwords and need help resetting them. Industry experts generally agree that each password reset costs a company $70, not to mention the frustration felt by both the user and the responding IT team, and investments made in password management solutions.

The Future of Authentication

In response to these limitations, there have been some key evolutions in how users are authenticated. Firstly, Multi-factor authentication (MFA) has gained traction, requiring users to provide multiple forms of verification for accessing sensitive systems or data. While passwords may still be a component of verification, a second form of authentication is required for a user to gain access to a system. This is key in reducing the value of hackers obtaining credentials.

Secondly, there has been an increasing shift to entirely passwordless authentication solutions. Passwordless authentication, utilizing protocols like FIDO2 and WebAuthN, offers a seamless and secure alternative to traditional passwords. Contrary to the points mentioned above, a passwordless approach offers:

  1. Improved User Experience: Passwordless authentication streamlines the user experience, offering seamless and intuitive methods for verifying identity without the need for memorized passwords or annoying resets.
  2. Reduced Operational Costs: Passwordless authentication minimizes the administrative overhead associated with managing passwords, leading to cost savings and improved operational efficiency.
  3. Compliance and Regulatory Alignment: Many industry regulations and compliance standards mandate strong authentication measures to protect sensitive data and ensure regulatory compliance. Passwordless authentication solutions align with these requirements by offering robust security measures and authentication mechanisms.

Let’s take a look at the key technologies driving passwordless authentication. The securest forms of authentication should combine multiple technologies that utilize different forms of authentication, for instance: biometrics + one-time passwords.

  1. Biometrics: Biometric authentication methods, such as fingerprint scanning, facial recognition, or iris scanning, offer unique physiological or behavioral characteristics for identity verification. These biometric markers provide a high level of security and are inherently tied to individual users, making them difficult to replicate or spoof.
  2. Hardware Tokens: Hardware tokens, such as USB security keys or smart cards, provide a physical form of authentication that users possess. These tokens generate one-time passwords (OTPs) or cryptographic keys, offering strong authentication mechanisms that are resistant to phishing attacks and credential theft. Physical keys are particularly secure as, unlike other 2FA methods such as SMS-based codes or authentication apps, security keys are physical devices, and store cryptographic keys securely within the hardware, making them less susceptible to malware, viruses, or other software-based attacks.
  3. Mobile Device Authentication: Leveraging the ubiquity of smartphones, mobile device authentication utilizes smartphones or wearable devices as authentication factors. Methods such as push notifications, QR code scanning, or Bluetooth proximity detection enable seamless and secure authentication experiences for users.
  4. Cryptographic Protocols: Cryptographic protocols such as FIDO2 (Fast Identity Online) and WebAuthN (Web Authentication) enable passwordless authentication through standardized cryptographic techniques. These protocols facilitate secure authentication across various platforms and applications, ensuring interoperability and compatibility.

Password-only authentication, reliant solely on passwords, is increasingly recognized as flawed and insufficient in today's cybersecurity landscape. The inherent vulnerabilities of passwords, coupled with the evolving sophistication of cyber threats, underscore the urgent need for a more robust authentication approach. Transitioning to two-factor authentication (2FA) provides an essential layer of security by requiring users to provide additional verification beyond passwords. Furthermore, organizations should seriously consider the value of adopting passwordless authentication solutions, which offer enhanced security, streamlined user experience, and resilience against password-related breaches.

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