A recent study released by NordPass conducted in partnership with independent researchers revealed that weak, reused, or compromised passwords are frequently responsible for the majority of data breaches across industries, such as healthcare, technology, finance, energy, hospitality, manufacturing, and more.
The research highlights an interesting and equally appalling finding—even C-suite executives and business owners tend to use simple and ever-vulnerable passwords such as 123456 and 123456789, just like other regular employees and internet users.
Enough has been talked about the ill effects of weak passwords and poor password hygiene. Yet, it seems that even leading global organizations are failing to enforce safe password practices, exposing themselves to the risk of phishing, credential stuffing, and brute force attacks.
The Growing Need for Passwordless Authentication
Password vulnerabilities along with the rapid rise in credential-based attacks are necessitating a new approach to authentication, one that does not involve passwords. That’s where passwordless authentication comes in.
As the name suggests, passwordless authentication completely removes passwords from the equation. Instead, it authenticates users and machines using other secure options, such as one-time passwords (OTPs), magic links, biometrics, and public key infrastructure (PKI) that are more real-time and short-lived.
These methods do not require users to create or use passwords, making them highly convenient to use and significantly more secure than password-based authentication. They also help cut operational costs as you do not have to invest in costly password managers and dedicated helpdesk staff to manage password resets.
Factors to Consider When Implementing Passwordless Authentication
Passwordless authentication is undoubtedly a safe and reliable alternative to passwords. However, for it to become a successful replacement, a passwordless solution must strike the right balance between security and operational efficiency. In other words, it must be intuitive, intelligent, and convenient.
Here are a few important things to consider while implementing passwordless authentication:
Easy onboarding is key to successful new technology adoption. When deployment time is long, user adoption takes longer. Users may even end up finding workarounds to dodge authentication altogether in favor of convenience.
Passwordless solutions must be easy to manage. They shouldn’t require dedicated resources and administrative support to operate or maintain them in the long run. Management complexity often incurs high TCO (total cost of ownership).
It is not enough for passwordless solutions to authenticate using only known and owned factors, such as biometrics, OTPs, and hardware tokens. Because these too can be stolen or spoofed. Passwordless solutions must overcome this challenge by being adaptive and intelligent. They need to leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning (ML) to analyze behavioral patterns of users, devices, and hosted services/networks and initiate restrictive actions when there are anomalies.
Integration is vital for Passwordless solutions to work efficiently. They must offer pre-built integrations and support for existing systems and applications, hosting services, DevOps, cloud environments, and other authentication solutions for simplified and secure operations. They must also come with security controls to help your business comply with industry regulations.
The PKI Approach to Passwordless Authentication
While many passwordless authentication methods are available in the market today, one of the reliable and secure options is public key infrastructure or PKI.
PKI is based on public-key cryptography and uses digital certificates and a private and public key pair for authentication. It entirely removes the need for passwords and manual intervention, making the process of authentication error-free and highly secure.
To better understand how PKI works, let’s look at the example of Secure Socket Shell or SSH authentication used to access remote servers and devices over the internet.
Traditionally, SSH authentication is carried out with usernames and passwords. SSH users usually pass on their credentials to remote servers for client authentication. The server checks for these credentials in the database and, if found, authenticates the client and allows it to communicate.
A major drawback of this process is that passwords are shared over the wire. If an SSH password gets compromised, attackers can get root access to critical systems, which can have dire consequences.
If you were to use PKI instead of passwords, the client authentication is carried out with the help of the key pair that the client owns and its ability to decrypt an encrypted message (with its private key). Unlike the case of passwords, SSH users are not required to share the private key with the remote server at any stage of the communication. As the private key never leaves the user’s system (unlike passwords), there is no question of it getting compromised, which minimizes the risk of exposure and security breach.
As private keys are the heart of PKI-based authentication, they are stored in highly secure locations such as HSMs (Hardware Security Module) and vaults. Secure storage of private keys reduces the risk of hackers getting access to them. Also, private keys are extremely difficult to crack through brute force as they are mathematically derived and complex, unlike passwords that are usually alpha-numeric.
Using PKI also saves IT resources a significant amount of time and effort as they no longer have to engage in recurring password reset requests. You are also saved from investing in point solutions, such as password managers and help desk ticketing systems.
To help cut down on deployment complexity and make the onboarding journey fast and smooth, modern PKI solutions are now available as a service. They are easy to provision and scale, as the infrastructure is entirely taken care of by the PKI service provider.
Modern PKI solutions also provide extensive integration support for multi-cloud, DevOps, and containerized environments. They integrate seamlessly with existing enterprise solutions such as ITSM, SIEM, and MDMs, making them convenient to use cross-functionally and easy to manage.
PKI solutions that come integrated with certificate lifecycle automation also help effectively meet compliance requirements by providing visibility and better control over digital certificates that facilitate authentication.
Passwordless Leads the Way for a New Authentication Future
Passwords are an organization’s first line of defense. But they are no longer fool-proof enough to defend against modern threats. Given the surge in credential-based crimes and the need for strong and secure authentication mechanisms, going passwordless seems the right way forward.
PKI has been around for decades and has evolved to meet the complex security requirements of the modern IT landscape. Besides being an effective passwordless solution, PKI also helps you secure a variety of business use cases, such as DevOps, IoT, remote work, and more.