Can we trust passwordless authentication?

We are beginning to shift away from what has long been our first and last line of defense: the password. It’s an exciting time. Since the beginning, passwords have aggravated people. Meanwhile, passwords have become the de facto first step in most attacks. Yet I can’t help but think, what will the consequences of our actions be?

trust passwordless

Intended and unintended consequences

Back when overhead cameras came to the express toll routes in Ontario, Canada, it wasn’t long before the SQL injection to drop tables made its way onto bumper stickers. More recently in California, researcher Joe Tartaro purchased a license plate that said NULL. With the bumper stickers, the story goes, everyone sharing the road would get a few hours of toll-free driving. But with the NULL license plate? Tartaro ended up on the hook for every traffic ticket with no plate specified, to the tune of thousands of dollars.

One organization I advised recently completed an initiative to reduce the number of agents on the endpoint. In a year when many are extending the lifespan and performance of endpoints while eliminating location-dependent security controls, this shift makes strategic sense.

Another CISO I spoke with recently consolidated multi-factor authenticators onto a single platform. Standardizing the user experience and reducing costs is always a pragmatic move. Yet these moves limited future moves. In both cases, any initiative by the security team which changed authenticators or added agents ended up stuck in park, waiting for a greenlight.

Be careful not to limit future moves

To make moves that open up possibilities, security teams think along two lines: usability and defensibility. That is, how will the change impact the workforce, near term and long term? On the opposite angle, how will the change affect criminal behavior, near term and long term?

Whether decreasing the number of passwords required through single sign-on (SSO) or eliminating the password altogether in favor of a strong authentication factor (passwordless), the priority is on the workforce experience. The number one reason for tackling the password problem given by security leaders is improving the user experience. It is a rare security control that makes people’s lives easier and leadership wants to take full advantage.

There are two considerations when planning for usability. The first is ensuring the tactic addresses the common friction points. For example, with passwordless, does the approach provide access to devices and applications people work with? Is it more convenient and faster what they do today? The second consideration is evaluating what the tactic allows the security team to do next. Does the approach to passwordless or SSO block a future initiative due to lock-in? Or will the change enable us to take future steps to secure authentication?

Foiling attackers

The one thing we know for certain is, whatever steps we take, criminals will take steps to get around us. In the sixty years since the first password leak, we’ve done everything we can, using both machine and man. We’ve encrypted passwords. We’ve hashed them. We increased key length and algorithm strength. At the same time, we’ve asked users to create longer passwords, more complex passwords, unique passwords. We’ve provided security awareness training. None of these steps were taken in a vacuum. Criminals cracked files, created rainbow tables, brute-forced and phished credentials. Sixty years of experience suggests the advancement we make will be met with an advanced attack.

We must increase the trust in authentication while increasing usability, and we must take steps that open up future options. Security teams can increase trust by pairing user authentication with device authentication. Now the adversary must both compromise the authentication and gain access to the device.

To reduce the likelihood of device compromise, set policies to prevent unpatched, insecure, infected, or compromised devices from authenticating. The likelihood can be even further reduced by capturing telemetry, modeling activity, and comparing activity to the user’s baseline. Now the adversary must compromise authentication, gain access to the endpoint device, avoid endpoint detection, and avoid behavior analytics.

Conclusion

Technology is full of unintended consequences. Some lead to tollfree drives and others lead to unexpected fees. Some open new opportunities, others new vulnerabilities. Today, many are moving to improve user experience by reducing or removing passwords. The consequences won’t be known immediately. We must ensure our approach meets the use cases the workforce cares about while positioning us to address longer-term goals and challenges.

Additionally, we must get ahead of adversaries and criminals. With device trust and behavior analytics, we must increase trust in passwordless authentication. We can’t predict what is to come, but these are steps security teams can take today to better position and protect our organizations.

Is passwordless authentication actually the future?

While passwords may not be going away completely, 92 percent of respondents believe passwordless authentication is the future of their organization, according to a LastPass survey.

passwordless authentication

Passwordless authentication reduces password related risks by enabling users to login to devices and applications without the need to type in a password.

Technologies such as biometric authentication, single-sign-on (SSO) and federated identity streamline the user experience for employees within an organization, while still maintaining a high level of security and complete control for IT and security teams.

Organizations still have a password problem

Problems with passwords are still an ongoing struggle for organizations. The amount of time that IT teams spend managing users’ password and login information has increased year over year.

In fact, those surveyed suggest that weekly time spent managing users’ passwords has increased 25 percent since 2019. Given this, 85 percent of IT and security professionals agree that their organization should look to reduce the number of passwords that individuals use on a daily basis.

Additionally, 95 percent respondents surveyed say there are risks to using passwords which could contribute to threats in their organization, notably human behaviors like password reuse or password weakness.

Security priorities are at odds with user experience

When it comes to managing an organization, security is a core challenge for IT teams. However, it is the lack of convenience and ease of use that employees care about. Security is the main source of frustration for the IT department, particularly when issues are often derived from user behavior when managing passwords.

The top three frustrations for IT teams include users using the same password across applications (54 percent), users forgetting passwords (49 percent) and time spent on password management (45 percent).

For employees, the issues lie in convenience. Their top three frustrations are changing passwords regularly (56 percent), remembering multiple passwords (54 percent) and typing long, complex passwords (49 percent).

Primary benefits of passwordless authentication

Better security (69 percent) and eliminating password related risk (58 percent) are believed by respondents to be the top benefits of deploying a passwordless authentication model for their organization’s IT infrastructure. Time (54 percent) and cost (48 percent) savings are also noted benefits of going passwordless.

Meanwhile, for employees a passwordless authentication model would help to address efficiency concerns. 53 percent of respondents report that passwordless authentication offers the potential to provide convenient access from anywhere, which is key given the shift towards remote work that is likely here to stay.

Top challenges of passwordless deployment

While going passwordless can provide a more secure authentication method, there are challenges in the deployment of a passwordless model.

Respondents report the initial financial investment required to migrate to such solutions (43 percent), the regulations around the storage of the data required (41 percent) and the initial time required to migrate to new types of methods (40 percent) as the biggest challenges for their organization to overcome.

There are also some concerns around resistance to change. Three quarters of IT and security professionals (72 percent) think that end users in their organization would prefer to continue using passwords, as it is what they are used to.

passwordless authentication

Passwords are not going away completely

When it comes to identity and access management, 85 percent do not think passwords are going away completely. Yet, 92 percent of respondents believe that delivering a passwordless experience for end-users is the future for their organization.

There is a clear need to find a solution that combines passwordless authentication and password management in today’s organizations.

“As many organizations transition to a long-term remote work culture, giving your employees the tools and resources to be secure online in their personal lives as well as in the home office is more important now than ever,” said Gerald Beuchelt, CISO at LogMeIn.

“This report shows the continued challenge that organizations face with password security and the need for a passwordless authentication solution to enable both IT teams and employees to operate more efficiently and securely in this changing environment.”

78% of people forgot a password in the past 90 days

Passwords are the dominant way online services manage access to our personal and work-related lives. But often times, they’re more of a headache than a security tool.

forgot password

HYPR released the findings of a two and a half year Password Usage Study, which compiled data from over 500 full-time workers across the United States and Canada to better understand how individuals use, treat and manage their passwords.

According to the findings, 72% of individuals reuse passwords in their personal life while 49% of employees simply change or add a digit or character to their password when updating their company password every 90 days.

Forgot a password? Usage practices revealed

A majority of users recently require a password reset due to forgetting their password.

  • 78% of respondents required a password reset in their personal life within the last 90 days
  • 57% of respondents required a password reset in their work life within the last 90 days

A sizeable amount of users manage an overwhelming number of passwords.

  • 37% of respondents have over 20 passwords in their personal life
  • 19% of respondents have over 10 passwords in their work life

A majority of users depend on physical and digital lists to manage their passwords.

  • 65% of respondents use an app or keep a digital or physical list of passwords in their personal life
  • 58% of respondents use an app or keep a digital or physical list of passwords in their work life

“As a society, we’re so accustomed to using passwords and shared secrets that we tend to overlook just how important user experience is,” said George Avetisov, CEO of HYPR.

“As the world evolves beyond passwords, we believe that true passwordless security delivered through the enterprise will rapidly eliminate the need for users to reuse, manage, reset or even think about passwords.”

forgot password

Conclusions

  • People do not rely on technology that’s created to help them manage their passwords. This is due to a lack of knowledge of their existence, uncertainty of how to use them, and not trusting a third party to keep their passwords secure and not share them.
  • The majority of individuals rely on their own memory that time and time again proves to fail, with constant password resets happening every time a user cannot recall a password to a service they are trying to access at any given moment.
  • People still rely on traditional means of keeping important information out of memory but yet still accessible. This previously meant simple pieces of paper or notes, but have since transitioned with the digital revolution to Word docs, emails, spreadsheets, and so on.