How secure are Passwordless Logins?

Last updated: April 7, 2024 Reading time: 6 minutes
How secure are Passwordless Logins

Imagine a man named Ben. The year is 2009, and Ben would have a good life if it weren’t for one thing- passwords.

Like most of us, Ben faces a similar plight back in the day. Keeping track of multiple passwords is proving to be an arduous task, and more often than not, Ben finds himself locked out of his email and social media accounts.

Fortunately, for all the Bens of the world, passwordless logins have come in to save the day.

The term ‘passwordless logins’ strikes many people as odd. After all, perhaps the first thing that comes into our minds when we hear the word ‘login’ is entering a 6-10 character password so that we may gain access to our accounts.

To clear the air of any doubts that you may or may not be harboring about the topic, here’s everything you need to know about passwordless logins:

What exactly is a Passwordless Login

Passwordless login is still relatively new to most of us, and the implication is still unclear.

In essence, passwordless login is any authentication system that relies on alternatives to passwords to gain access to your account.

These authentication systems include everything from email notifications to pop-ups on your smartphone.

Password logins are usually based on existing information already present on your account. One such example includes the prompt sent directly to your phone by Gmail, which grants access to your account.

Why were Passwordless Logins created?

Although passwordless logins aren’t the primary source of accessing accounts, the method is gaining popularity.

Such is the case with many pivotal creations; passwordless authentications were created after several dire breaches.

Many cases, such as the Yahoo! data breach, the Linkedin data breach, and the Dropbox breach, resulted in the massive loss of sensitive information, including passwords for many users.

Furthermore, new applications are emerging daily, and most users struggle to maintain passwords. As a result, users create a single password for all their accounts, which is the stuff of dreams for hackers.

In the same way, a survey report states that most users have weak passwords, with ‘123456’ and ‘password’ being the most popular choices.

Considering the terrible conditions of cybersecurity and the availability of secure SMS and email accounts for most users, passwordless authentications/ logins were brought into the world.

How to do Passwordless Logins work

To understand how passwordless logins work, you must first familiarize yourself with how a normal login process works:

  • Firstly, most websites require you to create a secure and robust password. This is where most users fall short and create a genuinely terrible password.
  • Secondly, you must remember and use your password each time you log in to your account. Many users click on the ‘remember my password’ option and risk having their data stolen by hackers.

Passwordless logins eradicate the possibility of breaches as they take things out of human hands.

You don’t have to trust any website to safeguard your data anymore blindly, as passwordless logins utilize a series of various methods to grant you access to your account, such as:

Email-based passwordless authentication

Currently, the most common type of passwordless authentication is through email, as most users are familiar with this medium.

Email-based logins work because when you attempt to log into your account, you provide an email address instead of providing a password.

The service then sends an email containing a ‘magic link,’ which can only be used once to access your account.

The magic link works by including a unique logic token that the service that you’re using verifies for you to gain access.

For existing users logged out of their accounts, the service sends a single-use DKIM key, which matches the code sent against pre-existing data and allows access to users.

SMS-based passwordless authentication

Another method of passwordless login that is increasing in popularity is allowing users access to their accounts via SMS.

In this case, users enter their valid phone numbers instead of their passwords or email addresses.

The service then sends a single-use code to the users through SMS, which they can use to log into their accounts.

Similarly, many services also offer a ‘robocall’ option, in which a code is delivered to them through a phone call.

Biometrics-based passwordless authentication

Many services have started to include a biometrics-based passwordless login after the popularity of Apple’s face ID.

The idea behind this approach is that a prompt appears whenever you want to access a website through your account.

The prompt then redirects your smartphone to a biometric system of your choice, and as you unlock your phone, it also acts as a verification for the website and gives you access. Physical security keys Another option available for passwordless logins is physical security keys.

A physical security key is a specific USB key that you plug into your computer whenever you want to access your account. The online service you wish to access verifies your code through the USB key, eradicating passwords completely.

Examples of physical security keys include  Yubico’s Yubikey series and Google’s Titan series.

Is there any difference between Two-Factor Authentication and Passwordless login?

From what we’ve discussed, you might think that passwordless logins and two-factor authentication (2FA) sound eerily similar.

Well, these authentication systems share a few things in common, but they are still miles apart.

The similarity between the two is that both utilize alternatives to passwords for you to gain access to your account.

However, unlike 2FA, passwordless logins do not require two-factor authentication and are based on a single factor to grant access to your account.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using Passwordless Logins?

Like everything else in the technological realms, passwordless logins could be a godsend if appropriately utilized.

Some advantages of using passwordless logins over the standard way of logging include the following:

  • Boosts security: Once you eradicate passwords from your website, you take a massive leap toward safety. By eliminating millions of unencrypted passwords from your server, you play an essential part in keeping hackers at bay.
  • Elevates user’s experience: Compared to the usual process of logins, passwordless logins are fast and efficient, which proves to be user-friendly and garners traffic towards your website, which amps up the reputation of the website.

Some disadvantages of using passwordless logins include:

  • SMS sim hacking: One of the alternatives passwordless logins utilize is SMS-based verification. However, the sim card is susceptible to hacking attacks which can be carried out to mine for cryptocurrency.
  • Inconsistencies in Biometrics:  Aside from Apple’s Face ID, there have been many inconsistencies in Biometrics, as other manufacturers’ Face IDs can be easily tricked by using a photograph.

So, what do you do from here?

Now that you have ample information on what passwordless logins are and what advantages and disadvantages they offer, you might be wondering, “What do I do now?”

For starters, you can experiment with password alternatives and opt for passwordless logins for some of your accounts.

However, since passwordless authentication isn’t as widespread now as it will be in the future, you need to be aware of some of the inconsistencies.

In the meantime, you can use a password manager to manage all your passwords and stay secure simultaneously.

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About the Author

Rebecca James is an IT consultant with forward thinking approach toward developing IT infrastructures of SMEs. She writes to engage with individuals and raise awareness of digital security, privacy, and better IT infrastructure.

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