Is The Password Dead? The Future Of Web And Mobile Authentication

Will 2016 be the year when passwords become obsolete? Or will we just continue to grin and bear it? And what’s the matter with passwords, anyway?

Passwords have been around a long time (think about soldiers entering armed camps at night and giving the secret password), but today, the average consumer uses 25 or more sites and apps that rely on passwords. A strong password is a dozen or more characters of letters, numbers and punctuation — even those with the best memory would struggle to recall that many strong passwords.

In a data breach, such as the ones that have occurred at eBay (145 million users), Adobe (36 million users), JP Morgan Chase (76 million users) and many others, passwords are frequently the target. Even though good security practice requires sites to store passwords only in a “hashed” form (cryptographically transformed so they can be recognized when a user logs in, but not read directly), attackers often obtain a database dump containing the hashed passwords.

If the hashing process is done correctly by the site operator, reconstructing passwords is difficult and time-consuming — yet not impossible. And, unfortunately, we keep finding major sites that have not properly hashed, making password retrieval quick and easy. Attackers who succeed in reconstructing a user’s password are likely to then try it on other popular sites and apps. So it isn’t safe to use the same password, or simple variations, everywhere.

Better forms of authentication have been available for years — so why are we still using passwords?

Biometric sensors are becoming more mainstream and are increasingly found on more devices — unfortunately, none of them can fully replace the password on its own. None of these “better” alternatives — such as fingerprint biometrics, facial recognition, iris scans, voice recognition, etc. — can work everywhere (on every device, under all lighting conditions, in both quiet and noisy environments, when your hands are full, etc.).

A full replacement for passwords would also have to be able to scale up and down for convenience versus security — quick and easy for low-risk situations, tougher and possibly more time-consuming for the crown jewels.

But what if you could combine any or all of those authentication factors, under your own control? You’d be able to pick factors that work for whatever environment you’re in at a given time, and that strike the right balance of security and convenience for whatever you’re doing — whether it’s logging into Pinterest or transferring funds from your bank account.

Why are we still using passwords?

Better yet, what if you could combine these biometric authenticators with “passive” factors that require no effort, like identifying which Wi-Fi network you’re on, or which city you’re in or whether your Bluetooth wearable is connected — again, under your own control and respecting your personal preferences?

There might be some low-risk situations (like logging in to Pinterest) where you’d want to use passive factors alone, and simply be automatically logged in without having to lift a finger. And when the stakes are higher, the passive factors would add additional security and confidence above and beyond the more active biometric authenticators you’re using.

That’s “multi-factor authentication,” and if it’s starting to sound like a powerful solution that could potentially replace passwords, then consider how much better it would be if it could also be strongly locked to your personal devices, so that even if an attacker was able to spoof your face or your fingerprint and use your Wi-Fi network, they would still be blocked because they weren’t using your laptop.

That’s possible today, thanks to hardware-based “device authentication,” which can make your laptop or your phone prove its identity using features built in to the CPU, at the same time that you prove yours with a fingerprint or another biometric. Just like the passive factors that I talked about above, device authentication can add stronger security without any impact on speed or convenience.

But to be of real value, a solution like this has to work right away, on the websites and apps that you already use, without waiting for the operators of all those apps and sites to update to a new technology. To do that, it would also have to be able to wrap itself around all your current passwords and manage them painlessly until they can be completely eliminated.

For that to be easy and convenient, it would have to understand the structure of the websites and apps you use, so that it could save your passwords (in securely encrypted storage) when you use them and, from them on, every time you revisit each of those sites, it could automatically enter your password into the login form on your behalf.

And finally, what if we could also eliminate the easy-to-guess “account reset questions” that are the Achilles’ heel of many systems that try to help manage passwords? That would protect you from “social engineering” attacks in which hackers use social media or other research to find the answers to your reset questions, then take over your account.

How can those questions be eliminated? Using the same biometrics, passive factors and device authentication methods we’ve already discussed — all of those are authentication factors you can’t forget!

That’s what I think the next generation of solutions will look like.

So will passwords disappear in 2016? Probably not. But the pain associated with them might.