Apple, Google, and Microsoft said this week that they will soon enable an authentication method that does away with passwords entirely and instead asks users to check in to websites or online services by just unlocking their handsets. The modifications, according to experts, should help resist many forms of phishing assaults and reduce the overall password load on Internet users, although most websites may still be years away from a truly passwordless future.
The tech behemoths are part of an industry-led campaign to replace passwords, which are easily forgotten, routinely stolen by malware and phishing scams, or disclosed and sold online following corporate data breaches.
Apple, Google, and Microsoft are among the more active contributors to the FIDO (“Fast Identity Online”) Alliance and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), two organizations that have spent the past decade working with hundreds of tech companies to develop a new login standard that works across multiple browsers and operating systems.
Users will be able to sign in to websites using the same action they do to unlock their devices numerous times a day, according to the FIDO Alliance, which includes a device PIN or a biometric such as a fingerprint or facial scan.
“When compared to passwords and traditional multi-factor methods like one-time passcodes delivered over SMS, this new methodology safeguards against phishing and sign-in will be substantially more secure,” the alliance noted on May 5.
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According to Sampath Srinivas,
Google’s director of security authentication and president of the FIDO Alliance, the new method would store a FIDO credential called a “passkey” on your phone, which will be used to open your online account.
“Because the passkey is based on public-key cryptography and is only displayed to your online account when you unlock your phone,” Srinivas added, “signing in is significantly more secure.” “You’ll only need your phone nearby to sign into a website on your computer, and you’ll be required to unlock it for access.” You won’t need your phone after that, and you may log in by simply unlocking your computer.”
Apple, Google, and Microsoft, according to ZDNet, already support these passwordless standards (for example, “Sign in with Google”), but users must sign in at each page to enjoy the passwordless capability. Users will be able to automatically access their passkey on many of their devices — without having to re-enroll every account — and sign in to an app or website on a nearby device using their mobile device.
The announcement, according to Johannes Ullrich,
head of research at the SANS Technology Institute is “by far the most promising endeavor to tackle the authentication dilemma.”
“The most essential aspect of this standard is that it will not need users to purchase a new device; instead, they will be able to use devices that they already own and are familiar with as authenticators,” Ullrich explained.
The passwordless initiative, according to Steve Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University and an early internet researcher and pioneer, is a “breakthrough” in authentication, but many websites will take a long time to catch up.
One potentially difficult scenario with this new passwordless authentication technique, according to Bellovin and others, is what happens if someone loses their mobile device or their phone breaks and they can’t remember their iCloud password.
“I’m concerned about folks who can’t afford an extra gadget or who can’t quickly replace one that has been smashed or stolen,” Bellovin added. “I’m concerned about forgotten cloud account password recovery.”
“Your passkeys will securely sync to your new phone via cloud backup, allowing you to pick up just where your old device left off,” according to Google.
Customers utilizing Apple and Microsoft platforms can also use cloud backup solutions to restore data from a lost mobile device. However, according to Bellovin, a lot depends on how secure cloud systems are managed.
“How simple is it to add the public key of another device to an account without authorization?” Bellovin was perplexed. “I believe their protocols prevent that, but others disagree.”
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