Or why a great and secure solution to passwordless authentication is not so great?
Published on 15 January 2024 by Michal Kamensky
Passkeys are a great improvement on authentication security, but current implementation practices hold back their potential.
Let’s start with a quick overview of what Passkeys actually are.
A passkey is an authentication credential, based on the WebAuthN protocol, that relies on public key cryptography, and is defined by the FIDO2 alliance.
Well, actually the WebAuthN protocol is not that new and is used to authenticate with a USB stick or some other hardware device. But that’s not really that useful, especially when talking about B2C applications. You can’t expect everyone to purchase a hardware authenticator in order to authenticate to your app. And if they lose the device, they’re locked out. No recovery is possible.
Here is where Passkeys come into the picture.
Nowadays, we all go everywhere with a hardware device that we’re attached at thumbs with - our mobile phones. And these devices operate on either iOS or Android. And the laptops we use are operated mostly by either Apple or Microsoft. So those big 3 companies joined together to implement Passkeys - a passwordless authentication method, that relies on your authentication to your device (preferably a biometric authentication).
No more phishing, no more password reuse/ weaknesses/ mishandling, no danger in email takeover. And if you lose a device, no worries. Your Passkeys are synchronized to your cloud account, and you can access them from a new device. The 3 companies even worked out flows to authenticate on one OS after creating the Passkeys on another, with a simple scan of a QR code.
Android, Apple and Web APIs already exist to implement Passkeys authentication in your mobile and web apps and some third party password managers are starting to offer Passkeys creation and storage as well - like 1Password for example.
Ok, all of that sounds incredible.
Why the long
face title then?
Because in practice, something isn’t working. All implementations we see offer at least one additional authentication method, a lot of the times its a simple mail OTP, and you can’t even configure that you want your account to be accessible only with a Passkey and not through any other method.
Okay, but when I first saw this, I thought “that’s just their implementation choice”. Nothing in the Passkeys specification requires you to have a fallback or an alternative authentication method. But even Google, in their implementation guide for Passkeys, advise to keep a second authentication method for three reasons:
But since the security of your app’s authentication mechanism is only as secure as its weakest link, it doesn’t help anyone that you have a strong and impenetrable wall, if the gates are wide open.
And no developer will spend time on learning how to implement a new security mechanism if they need to implement a fallback alongside it which they could have just used to begin with.
I don’t know what the solution for this problem is, but I wouldn’t want us to miss out on this great technology of Passkeys, and all the security and UX benefits it brings with it, just because we didn’t put enough thought and effort into solving the edge cases that require a fallback that makes the implementation of Passkeys redundant in the first place.
I hope that the same way MFA started as a must have for heavily regulated and high-risk apps and then became a common practice throughout the industry, Passkeys will also become widespread as well (or even more so) without the need for faulty fallbacks.