Is the passwords dead? The future of online authentication explained 2023

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For years passwords have been the method of verifying our identities online. We rely on them for activities, like accessing email, managing finances and engaging with social media platforms. But there are signs that the trusty password may be slowly dying out.

Between data breaches exposing billions of passwords and people using weak, reused passwords, passwords are becoming less and less secure. At the same time, new forms of authentication like biometrics and security keys are emerging.

So is the password truly dead? Or does it still have some life left in it? In this beginner’s guide, we’ll look at the problems with passwords, the passwordless future, and what’s next for online authentication.

The problem with passwords

Passwords have served us well for a long time. They’re universal, easy to use and understand, and you don’t need any special hardware to use them. You just need to remember a (hopefully) unique string of characters.

But our continued reliance on passwords has led to some serious problems:

Security breaches and password reuse

The number of security breaches exposing passwords is staggering. According to the 2022 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, 85% of data breaches involved the human element. Someone used weak passwords, reused passwords across accounts, or fell for phishing schemes to steal login credentials.

When breaches expose passwords, people often reuse the same passwords across different accounts. So one breach can expose their credentials for many other sites.

Weak passwords

Humans are not good at creating and remembering secure passwords. A 2022 Keeper Security study found that the most common passwords continue to be 123456, 123456789, picture1, password, 111111, 12345678, qwerty, 12345, 1234567890, and 12345.

Hacking tools can crack these weak passwords almost instantly. Stronger passwords with upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols take longer to crack but are hard to remember.

Phishing

One of the most common ways attackers steal passwords is through phishing emails and websites that trick users into entering their credentials. It’s often human error rather than a password’s cryptographic strength that leads to a breach.

Forgotten passwords

Between having hundreds of passwords and strict password rules, people forget passwords all the time. The “forgot password” flow for recovering access is inconvenient for users and companies.

No identity verification

Usernames and passwords don’t actually verify someone’s identity. There are often no other signals during login to verify if the person accessing the account is really who they claim to be.

This makes impersonating other users easy if you have their username and password. Adding mechanisms like two-factor authentication improves this, but there are better options on the horizon.

So traditional passwords are plagued with security, usability, and identity issues. Are there credible alternatives emerging that can address these issues?

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The passwordless future

The idea of being “passwordless” has gained significant momentum. But going completely passwordless across all accounts isn’t realistic for most people yet.

Passwordless refers to a future where passwords are no longer the primary means of authentication. Passwords won’t disappear overnight. But the shift to passwordless has already begun in certain areas.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all rolled out passwordless login options on some devices and browsers. This allows users to sign in using their phone or a security key as the main authentication factor. Biometric authentication like face and fingerprint scanning also removes the need for passwords on phones and laptops.

Many companies now allow passwordless authentication through email magic links or security keys as well. Some don’t require passwords at all for signup if users verify their identity in other ways.

So in the passwordless future, passwords will be replaced or augmented with stronger authentication methods. Users will still have “secrets” for authentication, but they will take new forms. These include:

  • Biometrics – Fingerprint, face, iris scanning
  • Security keys – External hardware tokens like YubiKey
  • Mobile devices – Your phone as your identity token
  • Email magic links – One-time login links sent via email
  • SMS codes – Authentication codes sent via text message
  • Push notifications – Approve logins on your phone
  • Knowledge-based authentication – Challenge questions

These options either completely remove passwords or enhance traditional passwords by binding your identity to something you physically own (like your phone) or a biometric only you have.

Rather than just entering a password, you’ll authenticate using:

  • Something you know (a secret)
  • Something you have (a device)
  • Something you are (biometrics)

This multilayered approach is far more secure than singular passwords. And it creates a user experience that is often faster and more convenient than passwords alone.

Over time, passwords will gradually phase out in favor of these stronger methods. But what does this passwordless future look like in practice? Which authentication methods will gain the most adoption?

passwords

Authentication methods that could replace passwords

Passwords won’t disappear completely for a long while. But here are some of the key authentication methods that security experts believe will significantly reduce our reliance on passwords in the future.

Biometric authentication

Biometric authentication uses your unique physical attributes to verify your identity. This includes fingerprints, facial recognition, iris/retina scanning, voice recognition and even your heartbeat.

Biometric authentication has several advantages over passwords:

  • Nothing to remember or carry – Your biometrics go wherever you go
  • Hard to fake or steal – It’s difficult for attackers to spoof legitimate biometrics
  • Convenience – Fingerprint scans and facial recognition are often faster than entering passwords

Apple’s Face ID and Touch ID have already popularized biometric sign-in for accessing iPhones. And facial recognition is now commonplace for unlocking Windows 10 devices.

But biometric authentication also raises some concerns around privacy and accuracy. Biometric data is very sensitive. If companies don’t store and transmit the data responsibly, it could fall into the wrong hands.

Biometric authentication can also be less accurate for certain groups. Facial recognition tends to be less accurate for people of color, for example. And fingerprints and voice recognition don’t work for some people with disabilities.

So biometrics can’t be the sole factor for authentication. But alongside other methods, it can significantly improve security and convenience compared to passwords.

Security keys (FIDO)

Security keys are small hardware tokens that provide a form of multi-factor authentication. They connect via USB or wirelessly over NFC or Bluetooth.

To sign in using a security key, you touch the key to authenticate after entering your username and password. This adds a second “factor” of authentication along with your password.

Popular security keys include YubiKey and those that support the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) standard. The FIDO Alliance promotes dedicated security keys as well as built-in authenticators like Apple’s Touch ID.

Here are some benefits of security keys:

  • Phishing resistant – Keys only authenticate real sites and services, not fake phishing pages
  • Cryptography – Security keys use public key cryptography to prove identity
  • Convenience – Easy to use by just plugging in or tapping the key

The biggest downside of security keys is having to carry around and connect another device. But they provide excellent security against phishing and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Major platforms like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Mozilla support FIDO authentication. So expect to see wider adoption of security keys alongside passwords and other authentication methods.

Mobile/smartphone sign-in

Smartphones are becoming the central computing device for more and more people. Phones can act as an authentication factor in a few different ways:

  • Push notifications to approve sign-in – You get a notification asking to approve or deny the login attempt
  • SMS code – A one-time code is texted to your phone number during login
  • Biometrics – Use your phone’s fingerprint or face unlock instead of a password
  • Security key – Android and iOS devices can emulate hardware security keys

The big advantage here is leveraging a device you already carry everywhere. No need for additional hardware tokens.

Mobile authentication methods do have potential downsides to consider:

  • If you lose your phone, you could be locked out of accounts
  • SMS codes can be intercepted via phone number hijacking
  • Biometric accuracy concerns just like standalone biometrics

But used properly alongside other factors, mobile authentication provides fairly robust security while maintaining convenience.

Email magic links

Magic links sent via email remove the need to enter any password. You just click the unique login link sent to your email. It typically expires after one use.

Magic links are already gaining traction for passwordless sign-up on some sites. And services like Magic allows you to plug passwordless magic links into any existing site.

Benefits of magic links:

  • Zero password exposure – No password needed, decreasing phishing risk
  • Convenience – Just check email and click the link
  • No password resets – Links auto-expire so no forgotten password flow needed

Drawbacks include:

  • Requires access to your email
  • Delay between requesting link and sign-in
  • No MFA by default

So magic links provide great convenience but less security on their own. They’ll shine most alongside a second authentication factor.

How passwordless authentication works

If these methods start replacing passwords, how does that actually work when you go to sign in? What happens behind the scenes?

Let’s compare a typical password login flow vs. a passwordless login flow.

Password login flow

The traditional password login flow goes like this:

  1. You enter your username and password into the login form
  2. Those credentials are sent to the server to get verified
  3. The server checks those credentials against the stored credentials it has on record
  4. If they match, the login is approved and you can access the account

This is simple and familiar. But it completely relies on the secrecy of the password for security. If the password is guessed, leaked, or stolen in a breach, an attacker has full access.

Passwordless login flow

A passwordless login flow adds additional identity factors into the process:

  1. You initiate a login through an action like a tap or click
  2. Your mobile device or biometric authenticator proves your identity
  3. Your authenticator signs a cryptographic assertion confirming your identity
  4. The server verifies that assertion is legitimate and from a trusted source
  5. Once your identity is verified, the login completes

Rather than just directly sending a secret password, there is an identity proofing process using PKI (public key infrastructure). Your authenticator device has a private key it uses to cryptographically sign login assertions.

The server validates this signature against the public key it has on record for your account. If there’s a match, it proves the assertion came from your authenticator and approves the login.

This is a complex behind-the-scenes process. But the user experience boils down to simple actions like:

  • Looking at your phone camera
  • Placing your finger on a fingerprint reader
  • Tapping a security key

So you get enhanced security without necessarily increasing the user’s effort.

The login process can vary based on the specific passwordless method. But in general, it involves an identity proofing step beyond just entering a password. This better binds the login attempt to your real identity.

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Cloud role in passwordless future

As passwordless authentication gains adoption, cloud platforms will play a key role in the transition.

Cloud service providers like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud all offer tooling to support passwordless authentication.

Some key ways the major cloud providers are driving passwordless adoption:

  • Authenticator apps – Cloud-based apps provide built-in support for FIDO2 security keys, magic links via email, authenticator apps, SMS codes, etc. This makes adding passwordless login easier.
  • Biometric storage – Storing biometric data like fingerprints requires high security. Cloud services allow storing this data safely using mechanisms like encryption.
  • Scalability – The public key infrastructure behind many passwordless systems requires immense scale. Cloud platforms already provide this.
  • Developer tools – Cloud providers offer SDKs, APIs, and other tools to help developers quickly integrate passwordless authentication into apps and services.
  • Cloud backups – Backing up FIDO credentials, magic links, mobile biometrics etc. to the cloud allows consistent authentication across devices.

So much of the heavy lifting for powering passwordless lies with cloud infrastructure and platforms. This helps overcome the friction for organizations adopting passwordless systems.

Between the tools and scalability of the cloud, developers can focus more on creating convenient passwordless user experiences. They no longer need to build the complex backend systems to handle this newer authentication flow.

The result is users benefit from enhanced security and convenience of passwordless. And developers minimize effort required to implement it by leveraging the cloud.

Challenges with adopting passwordless

While passwordless authentication continues gaining momentum, there are still challenges to overcome before it goes fully mainstream.

User education

Passwords are familiar and engrained into most people’s routines. Moving to new methods like security keys or biometrics will require educating users.

Some people will struggle with trusting alternative authentication methods at first. User experience design and clear communication will be key to getting users comfortable.

Fragmentation

There are numerous standards and initiatives around passwordless from FIDO2 to WebAuthn to Magic Link. This fragmentation can pose challenges for development and product teams.

Supporting multiple authenticator types while delivering a unified experience will take thoughtful platform design. Avoiding vendor lock-in is also key.

Hybrid environments

In the near term, we’ll still have a mix of passwords and passwordless options as methods evolve. Managing this hybrid environment adds complexity during the transition.

Integrating legacy systems with modern passwordless platforms will require adapters and abstraction layers. Hybrid authentication flows need graceful fallback options too.

Accessibility

Certain passwordless options like biometrics and security keys aren’t fully accessible yet to people with disabilities. Hybrid authentication with multiple factors will be necessary to ensure inclusive access.

Designing consistent experiences across authentication methods remains an area for ongoing improvement.

There are certainly challenges to overcome. But the user and security benefits of passwordless should propel adoption forward despite any hurdles.

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The password isn’t completely dead…yet

Passwords still dominate online authentication (for now). But their days appear numbered as passwordless gains momentum.

So is the password completely dead? Not yet – but it may be on life support.

Here are a few key things to remember about the state of passwords:

  • Passwords won’t disappear overnight. It will be a gradual transition.
  • In the near term, expect a hybrid world of passwords + passwordless as standards emerge.
  • Highly sensitive applications like banking still rely heavily on passwords and will need time to transition.
  • Consumer sites and apps are likely to lead the charge to go passwordless first.
  • Enterprise adoption of passwordless will take longer due to legacy systems and ingrained habits.
  • Regulation and liability concerns may slow passwordless adoption, especially in health care and financial sectors.
  • Usability improvements and employee education will be crucial for successful enterprise adoption.
  • Passwords still have a place for low-risk scenarios, as a backup, or for multi-factor authentication.

The password isn’t dead yet. But with major investments from Apple, Google, Microsoft and others, its days truly seem numbered.

Certain passwords you use daily may stick around awhile longer. But expect others to fade away in exchange for tapping a fingerprint reader, looking at your camera, or clicking an email link.

The password had a good run. But the future belongs to passwordless.

Conclusion

Passwords certainly aren’t going extinct. But their time as the sole means of online authentication is declining.

Here are some key things to remember about the road to a passwordless future:

  • Biometrics, security keys, mobile sign-in, and email magic links are leading options to replace passwords.
  • Passwordless leverages something you know, have, and are for stronger identity proofing.
  • Cloud platforms will accelerate passwordless adoption by providing scalable tooling and backend infrastructure.
  • While passwords persist, using a password manager and MFA remain good practices.
  • User experience and accessibility need focus to get all users comfortable without passwords.
  • We’ll live in a hybrid authentication world for some time during the transition.

The path to a largely passwordless future is long but the momentum is real. As alternatives gain adoption, passwords will gradually fade into the background.

So while the password may be dying out, even stronger and more convenient modes of authentication are rising to take its place. The user experience may not always be perfect yet, but the passwordless future offers dramatically better security.

Over time, you can expect to say goodbye to many of your passwords. And you likely won’t miss them once something better comes along.

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