What Is Passwordless Authentication?

passwordless authentication featured

Passwords are our oldest form of digital security… and, in most cases, one of the weakest links in identity management and authentication. Phishing, database breaches, and poor digital hygiene have made authentication challenging for security and compliance. They have become the quintessential keys to our online kingdoms.

As cyberattacks grow more sophisticated, there’s a mounting urgency to move beyond traditional passwords. That’s where passwordless authentication comes in. But how does this new approach to technology work in terms of compliance and regulations?

This article will discuss passwordless authentication, its benefits, and how it fits your compliance requirements. 

What is Passwordless Authentication?

Passwordless authentication is a method of identity verification that allows users to access their accounts without entering a password. Instead of relying on something the user “knows” (like a password), it leverages other authentication factors–namely ownership (like a mobile device, email account, or another piece of hardware), inherence (biometric data), or even other factors like geolocation. 

Passwords are a weak spot in authentication security for various reasons:

  • Memory: People often need to remember passwords, especially if they don’t use them frequently. This can lead to issues with account lockouts or the need to reset passwords constantly.
  • Password Reuse: Many users employ the same password across multiple services. If one service is compromised and that password is leaked, all accounts using that password become vulnerable.
  • Simple Passwords: To remember passwords, users sometimes select easily guessable passwords, like “password123” or “123456.”. Such passwords can be quickly cracked using dictionary or brute-force attacks.
  • No Required User Presence: Because passwords are static, they don’t require the user to be present in any way. Unlike biometrics or even email verification, a password can be used by anyone, anywhere, without any verification that they are, in fact, the user.

These issues lead to a vulnerability against phishing and complex database attacks. The shift to passwordless eliminates these issues by removing the need for a password. This shift doesn’t just add another layer of security (like multi-factor authentication) but fundamentally changes the way authentication occurs by omitting a weaker factor.

There are several methods that providers can use to support passwordless authentication, including:

  • Biometrics: This refers to unique physical or behavioral characteristics, such as fingerprints, facial patterns, or voice frequencies. Biometrics have become increasingly common with the proliferation of mobile devices and biometric sensors.
  • One-Time Passwords: These aren’t “passwords” in the traditional sense. Instead, they are randomly generated (often time-based) strings created and delivered via a server. OTPs can be delivered via communication technology (see below) or through authentication apps. 
  • Hardware Tokens: These devices generate one-time-use codes, often small enough to fit on a keychain. They’re similar to the verification codes you might receive via text but are generated offline and immune to many online attacks.
  • SMS or Email Verification: Instead of a password, users receive a one-time code via text message or email, which they input to gain access. This ensures that only someone with access to the user’s phone or email can authenticate.
  • Magic Links: These are unique, time-sensitive links sent to users’ registered emails. Users are verified and logged in by simply clicking on them, bypassing the need to remember and input a password.

In each of these methods, the common denominator is eliminating the traditional static password, replacing it with a more dynamic and often more secure means of authentication. 


Benefits of Passwordless Authentication

passwordless authentication

There are many ways to remove the need for a password to benefit an organization’s security profile. There are also several instances where eliminating passwords makes sense for usability and accessibility. 

Some of these benefits include:

  • User Experience: One of the most evident perks is sheer convenience. Forgetting passwords, juggling multiple ones, or the periodic need for resets becomes history. Users are ushered into a frictionless digital experience, reducing login times and the associated frustrations.
  • Security: Password breaches have been a persisting nightmare for businesses. By eliminating them, we significantly reduce the risk of breaches due to compromised passwords. Moreover, dynamic authentication methods are tougher for cybercriminals to exploit than static passwords.
  • Reduced Costs: Businesses often grapple with the financial and time costs of handling password-related issues. These include support for forgotten passwords or locked accounts. Going passwordless can significantly reduce these overheads.
  • Increased User Adoption: An effortless sign-in experience can make users choose and stick with a platform. The easier and safer you make it for them, the more likely they will engage and remain loyal.


Potential Challenges and Concerns

As promising as passwordless authentication sounds, it has challenges and potential drawbacks. Many of these issues stem from more advanced privacy, adoption, and accessibility concerns that, unfortunately, aren’t present with vanilla passwords. 

Passwordless authentication challenges include:

  • Privacy Concerns: Users may feel uneasy about businesses storing their personal data, even if it’s just a fingerprint or facial scan, especially with biometrics. Ensuring data privacy and transparency in how the data is used becomes paramount.
  • Device Dependency: Passwordless methods often rely on user devices. What if the device is lost, stolen, or compromised? This creates potential bottlenecks for users accessing their accounts and can introduce new security concerns.
  • Adoption Barriers: Transitioning from a familiar system (passwords) to something new can meet resistance internally and externally from users. Proper training and clear communication are essential.
  • Potential Vulnerabilities: While passwordless approaches minimize many traditional risks, new vulnerabilities might emerge. It’s a race with cybercriminals constantly evolving new tactics.


Can Organizations Maintain Compliance with Passwordless Solutions?

Passwordless authentication can be utilized while maintaining compliance with most regulations. When implemented correctly, passwordless authentication can enhance an organization’s security posture and help meet certain regulatory requirements for secure access and data protection. That said, the specific manner of implementation and the solution details can impact your compliance depending on your industry and regulations.

However, certain regulations have stringent requirements for authentication methods, and any solution, passwordless or otherwise, must align with these criteria. Here’s how passwordless authentication interacts with a few notable regulations:

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): Passwordless authentication using biometric data must protect personal information. You still must explicitly gain consent, and data processing principles must be adhered to. There’s no prohibition, but implementation must be GDPR-compliant.
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS): PCI DSS requires multi-factor authentication for specific scenarios. It can be compliant if a passwordless solution offers multi-factor authentication (like a hardware token combined with biometrics).
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): HIPAA doesn’t prescribe specific authentication methods but emphasizes ensuring only authorized access to ePHI. A passwordless method can comply with HIPAA if it provides robust and secure access controls.


Vet Your Authentication Services with Continuum GRC

In a world where data breaches make headlines and user experience is paramount, the shift toward passwordless authentication is not just a trend but an advantage. You’ll still need to manage such solutions within your organization and security requirements… and for that, you’ll want Continuum GRC.

Continuum GRC is a cloud platform that can take something as routine and necessary as regular vulnerability scanning and reporting under FedRAMP and make it an easy and timely part of business in the public sector. We provide risk management and compliance support for every major regulation and compliance framework on the market, including:

  • FedRAMP
  • StateRAMP
  • GDPR
  • NIST 800-53
  • FARS NIST 800-171
  • CMMC
  • SOC 1, SOC 2
  • PCI DSS 4.0
  • IRS 1075
  • ISO 27000 Series
  • ISO 9000 Series

And more. We are the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP Authorized compliance and risk management solution worldwide.

Continuum GRC is a proactive cyber security® and the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP Authorized cybersecurity audit platform worldwide. Call 1-888-896-6207 to discuss your organization’s cybersecurity needs and find out how we can help your organization protect its systems and ensure compliance.

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