WebAuthn: The Future of Passwordless Authentication

In an era where online security breaches and cyber threats are becoming increasingly prevalent, the need for a secure and user-friendly authentication method is imperative. Learn about WebAuthn, a revolutionary web standard that aims to enhance online security by eliminating the need for password usage.

What Is WebAuthn? 

WebAuthn (Web Authentication) is a web standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and supported by major companies such as Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Intel. It provides a secure and easy-to-use way for website authentication without the use of passwords. 

WebAuthn is primarily designed to prevent phishing attacks and enhance security for online accounts.It allows users to authenticate using biometric sensors like fingerprints or face scans, or via hardware tokens like USB security keys.

This is part of a series of articles about authentication.

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How Does WebAuthn Work? 

Key Components

WebAuthn uses public-key cryptography to provide a secure and easy-to-use authentication mechanism for web applications. It consists of three key components: 

  • The authenticator: A hardware device that can be used to authenticate a user’s identity. It can be a USB security key, a mobile device, or any other type of hardware that supports the WebAuthn protocol. The authenticator generates a public-private key pair that’s unique to the user and the authenticator device. The private key is stored securely on the device and is used for authentication purposes.
  • The client: The user’s device, such as a laptop, desktop computer, or mobile device, that communicates with the authenticator and the web server. The client runs the WebAuthn API, which provides a set of JavaScript functions that can be used by web applications to communicate with the authenticator and the web server.
  • The web server: Hosts the web application that the user wants to authenticate with. It communicates with the client and the authenticator to perform the authentication process.

Registering for WebAuthn

To register for WebAuthn, users must first navigate to a web application that supports WebAuthn authentication. The web application then prompts the users to register their authenticator device. 

To do this, users must follow the instructions provided by the web application, which typically involve inserting the authenticator device into a USB port or scanning a QR code on the device. Once the device has been registered, the user public key is sent to the web server and stored in a secure manner.

The WebAuthn API authenticator provides a set of JavaScript functions that can be used by web applications to interact with the authenticator device. These functions include creating a new credential, getting a list of stored credentials, and initiating an authentication request.

Logging in with WebAuthn 

The WebAuthn login process starts when users navigate to a web application that supports WebAuthn authentication. The users enter their usernames, and the web application sends a challenge to the client devices. The client devices then communicate with the authenticator device to perform the authentication process.

The authenticator device generates a new public-private key pair and creates a new credential. The credential is signed with the private key stored on the authenticator device and is sent back to the client device. The client device then sends the signed credential to the web server for verification.

The web server verifies the signed credential by checking it against the stored public key for the user. If the verification is successful, the user is authenticated, and they are granted access to the web application.

WebAuthn: 5 Key Use Cases 

WebAuthn is a powerful authentication standard that can be used in a wide range of web applications and services. Here are a few examples of how WebAuthn can be used:

  1. Passwordless authentication: WebAuthn can be used to provide passwordless authentication for web applications. Users can authenticate themselves by simply touching their FIDO2 authentication device, such as a USB security key or a biometric device, without having to enter a password.
  2. Two-factor authentication: WebAuthn can be used together with other forms of authentication like passwords to provide two-factor authentication. For example, a user may be required to enter their password and then touch their FIDO2 authentication device to complete the authentication process.
  3. High-security applications: WebAuthn can be used in high-security use cases, such as financial services or healthcare, to provide strong authentication and protect against phishing attacks. By requiring users to authenticate themselves using a physical device, such as a USB security key, WebAuthn helps to reduce the risk of account takeover and data breaches.
  4. Enterprise applications: WebAuthn can be used in enterprise applications to provide a more secure and user-friendly authentication process for employees. By eliminating the need for complex passwords and providing a simple touch-based authentication method, WebAuthn can help to improve the security and productivity of employees.
  5. Social media applications: WebAuthn can be used in social media applications to provide a more secure and user-friendly authentication process for users. By allowing users to authenticate themselves with a simple touch, WebAuthn can help to reduce the risk of account takeover and improve the user experience for social media users.

WebAuthn Pros and Cons

Notable benefits of implementing WebAuthn include:

  • Enhanced security: By using public-key cryptography and biometric sensors, such as fingerprints or face scans, WebAuthn eliminates the need for passwords, which are a common target for hackers. This makes it more difficult for attackers to compromise user accounts through phishing or credential stuffing attacks.
  • User experience: Users no longer need to remember complex passwords or worry about password management. They can use their preferred authentication method, such as a fingerprint scanner or security key, to authenticate with web applications. This provides users with flexibility and customizability, which can improve their overall experience and satisfaction.
  • Reduced costs: WebAuthn can also result in cost savings for organizations by eliminating the expense of maintaining password support and help desk services. This can result in significant cost savings over time, particularly for large organizations with a large number of users.     

However, using WebAuthn to implement robust authentication also introduces some challenges: 

  • Support: One of the main challenges is lack of support in many popular web applications. This can make it difficult for users to adopt WebAuthn as their primary authentication method, as they may still need to rely on traditional passwords for some applications. This can also limit the adoption of WebAuthn by organizations that rely on these applications.
  • Training: Another challenge is the need for specialized education and training for regular users to implement WebAuthn. Users may be unfamiliar with biometric sensors or security keys and may require additional guidance to use them effectively.
  • Consistency: The inconsistent user experience with WebAuthn can also be a drawback. The login and verification process may be different depending on the application, browser, or operating system. This can lead to confusion and frustration among users who may not be familiar with the different authentication methods or the differences in the user experience across different platforms.  

Authentication and Authorization with Frontegg

Whether you are opting for traditional password authentication or implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) flows with single-sign on (SSO) or passwordless functionality, Frontegg has you covered. This robust and enterprise-ready user management platform is completely non-intrusive and integration takes just a few minutes, thanks to its plug-and-play nature. It’s also multi-tenant by design to boost scalability.

All of this means that there’s no need for expensive (and frustrating) in-house development and the focus can be maintained on the core tech and innovating new features. Customer satisfaction levels are also improved thanks to the self-served nature of the platform.