Multi Factor Authentication

All You Need to Know About Passwordless Authentication

Passwordless Authentication, a Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) subset, is trending up today. Let’s take a closer look at the rise of Passwordless SSH authentication and also get you started with the top 10 vendors you must check out in 2022.

Related: Password Hacking – How Are Passwords Breached?

What is Passwordless Authentication?

Passwordless authentication is the practice of verifying user identity without the use of passwords—instead using other authentication methods like one-time codes, magic links, or biometrics. The goal is to stop the use of passwords to bolster security, improve brand performance, and conserve valuable IT resources. 

Single Sign-On (SSO), traditional Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), and similar methodologies have their benefits, but they all can be bypassed with techniques like phishing, keylogging, password spraying, or brute force attacks.

According to the FIDO Alliance’s 2023 Workforce Authentication Report, 92% of businesses plan to move to passwordless technology while 95% currently use some form of passwordless experience at their organization.

Going Passwordless has several important benefits:

  • Improves security by eliminating password-related attacks.
  • Improves user experience (UX) for both employees and customers. 

Reduces total cost of ownership (TCO), since passwords are expensive to maintain, in terms of the IT resources required and the efforts needed to secure them. For example, the cost of a password reset is $70 on average.

Related: Password Hacking – How Are Passwords Breached?

In this article:

How Does Passwordless Authentication Work? 4 Key Methods.

Here are some of the primary methods used to implement passwordless authentication:

1. Biometrics – Apple users are already used to the notches on their iPhones.  Passwordless Authentication puts them to good use by using face recognition for authentication. The same applies to fingerprint readers on Android or Windows mobile devices, laptops, and tablets.

2. One-Time Codes and Passwords – One-Time Codes (OTCs) and One-Time Passwords (OTPs) work a little differently. Here, end-users get a unique code to their smartphones (SMS) or via email, which they have to input in order to log in. This one-time code usually comes with a predefined expiry period.

3. Magic Links – Known by many as a futureproof authentication methodology, it is becoming increasingly popular in B2B use cases. Users enter the user ID or email that is linked to the account. They are then sent an email with a link that can be used to access the application or website. Here is how a typical magic link flow looks like:

  • The end user tries to access an application or a web service
  • The end user is asked to provide a valid username or email address 
  • The app/web service generates a token and forms a magic link with it
  • The magic link is sent to the provided email address
  • The end user clicks on the magic link
  • The app/web service gets the query at the endpoint of the magic link
  • The end user can start using the app/web service

4. Unique Authenticators – This technique involves the use of push notifications via third-party authentication apps (i.e – Google Authenticator). After the admin sets up the authentication app with the required website or service, a secret key is issued (via a secure channel) to the user wishing to access it. End-users just need to fire up their app of choice to verify their identity. This technique is MFA compatible.

Related: Security Measures to Prevent Authentication Attacks

Is Passwordless Authentication Safe?

Given that passwordless authentication does away with the traditional password, a common concern is whether it’s actually safe. The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, passwordless authentication is often safer than traditional password-based systems, for several reasons:

  • Eliminates the risk of password-related breaches: With passwordless authentication, there’s no password for hackers to steal. This significantly reduces the risk of account takeover attacks, where a hacker gains access to a user’s account by cracking their password.
  • Passwordless authentication typically involves multi-factor authentication (MFA): This means that even if a hacker were to somehow intercept the authentication code or spoof a user’s biometric data, they would still need the other factors to gain access. This multi-layered approach significantly increases the security of the system.

Passwordless authentication is more user-friendly: While this may sound unrelated to security, it encourages better security practices. Users are more likely to use a secure system if it’s easy and convenient for them. In contrast, if a system is cumbersome or difficult to use, users may resort to insecure practices. This is the case today, as users commonly use weak passwords or reuse passwords across multiple accounts.

Challenges of Passwordless Authentication

While passwordless has compelling benefits, it also introduces some challenges for organizations:

  • Hard to Implement – In most cases, email + passwords are very easy to implement, while a passwordless flow with expirations on tokens and automated emails or text messaging, makes the implementation more complex.
  • Still not an Established Standard – While users are used to email and password-based authentication, they are less familiar with, and ready to adopt, passwordless authentication.
  • Dependency on 3rd Parties – With password-based authentication, an organization can independently manage the entire process of authenticating users. However, passwordless authentication requires third-party services, which increases complexity and chances of error.

Less Relevant in the Case of Identity Provider (IDP) / SSO Authentication – With SAML/SSO, there is no need for passwordless SSO authentication, because authentication is handled by the identity provider, for example Google or Facebook in the case of social login. Users have one password, the same one used for their email login.

MFA vs. Passwordless Authentication: What Is the Difference?

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is an authentication method that requires the user to provide two or more separate pieces of evidence, or factors, to verify their identity. These factors can be something the user knows (like a password), something the user has (like a hardware token), or something the user is (like a biometric trait). By requiring multiple factors, MFA provides a higher level of security than single-factor authentication methods, such as password-only systems.

Passwordless authentication does away with the need for the user to provide a password. Instead, it uses other factors to verify the user’s identity, such as a one-time code sent to the user’s device, or a biometric trait. However, passwordless authentication is typically also MFA-based, because it uses multiple authentication methods.

Comparing MFA with passwords as one of the authentication factors, to MFA with fully passwordless authentication, both are highly secure. However, fully passwordless authentication, especially when combining several authentication factors, is generally considered more secure.

4 Steps to Implementing Passwordless Authentication

1. Select Modes of Authentication

The first step to implementing passwordless authentication is to choose the mode of authentication. This could be biometrics, hardware tokens, or magic links, among others. The choice of mode will largely depend on the nature of your business and the needs of your users. It’s important to strike a balance between the security of the authentication factors and their accessibility and convenience for your users.

2. Select Number of Factors

The number of factors in your authentication process is another crucial consideration. Single-factor authentication involves only one method of verifying the user’s identity, such as a password or a fingerprint. While this is simple and convenient, it is not the most secure option. Most passwordless authentication schemes involve more than one factor.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two different forms of identification. This could be, for example, something they have (like a smartphone), and something they are (like a fingerprint). 2FA significantly enhances security.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) takes security to the next level by requiring three or more forms of identification. While MFA provides the highest level of security, it can be complex to implement and less convenient for users.

3. Obtain Required Hardware, Software, or Services

Once you’ve decided on the mode and number of factors, the next step is to purchase the necessary hardware or software. If you’ve chosen biometric authentication, you’ll need to invest in biometric scanners or other related hardware. For hardware tokens or security keys, you’ll need to purchase the devices and distribute them to your users.

On the software side, you’ll need to invest in a reliable passwordless authentication platform. These platforms provide the necessary tools to implement and manage your passwordless authentication system. They also typically provide APIs and SDKs to integrate the system into your existing infrastructure. Modern authentication platforms are cloud-based, meaning they can be deployed more easily and without high upfront costs.

4. Provision Users

The final step in implementing passwordless authentication is user provisioning. This involves setting up your users in the system and training them on how to use the new authentication method. Depending on the complexity of the system, this could involve a simple email instruction or a more comprehensive training program.

Remember, the success of your passwordless authentication system largely depends on user adoption. So, make sure your users understand the benefits of the system and how to use it effectively.

Related: Enhancing SaaS App Security with SSO and MFA

Passwordless Authentication with Frontegg

Passwordless authentication is trending up and is soon becoming the industry standard. The idea of not requiring users to remember new passwords for multiple accounts enhances the level of trust in the authentication flow, eventually boosting engagement and satisfaction metrics. At Frontegg, we have taken all of these requirements into consideration when building our end-to-end user management platform.

Frontegg’s user management platform is multi-tenant by design, is fully self-served, and offers a wide range of passwordless authentication options – magic links and social logins being just a couple of them. Looking to make the move towards a password-free SaaS offering? Frontegg may be the right option for you. If you have any questions as to what model is correct for you, feel free to reach out and get in touch with our experts. We are here to help.

Learn about Frontegg’s authentication platform with passwordless capabilities