How does Passwordless Authentication work?

Protection Against Cyberattacks with Passwordless Authentication. 
April 12, 2023
Passwordless: The Ideal Identity Authentication for Higher Ed
June 29, 2023

How does Passwordless Authentication work?

May 13, 2023

The world is currently filled with “Passwordless is the future” cheers with ever-lasting reverberation in the cybersecurity sector. But the true understanding of the matter remains in question.

To clarify the basics, Passwordless Authentication verifies a user’s digital identity through different factors and eliminates the use of passwords.

In terms of the higher education sector, Passwordless Authentication can be the knight in shining armor. With a worrisome increase in cyberattacks through stolen or leaked credentials targeting higher education institutions, Passwordless can significantly protect colleges and universities in the US.

Let me explain to you just how Passwordless Authentication works.

Password System Vs. Passwordless System

In the Password System, the credentials provided by the student are checked with the directory and access is granted, if the credentials match. 

In the Passwordless system, a student’s digital identity is compared with their distinctive characteristics. For example, their biometrics (face recognition, fingerprint, and patterns) are used to run through the database to verify their identity.

The Magic of Lock & Key

Passwordless Authentication works on the same principles as digital certificates: a cryptographic key pair containing a private and public key. For easier comprehension, think of the public key as a padlock and the private key as an actual key that unlocks it.

The private key remains stored on the student’s local device and is accessed using an authentication factor, such as biometrics or PIN. On the other hand, the public key is stored on the platform where the account is created. 

When a student creates an account with the university or college, a public-private key pair is formed and the same is used every time they log into their account.

This very pair makes it difficult for attackers to invade as the private key is stored on the student’s device.

Passwordless Authentication and Multi-Factor Authentication

While it is fairly easy to confuse the two, it is imperative to know that both are different forms of authentication.

MFA entails passwords and tops it off with another form of user authentication, whereas Passwordless Authentication eliminates the use of Passwords altogether. So, students do not require setting up a password and use it to gain access to their account.

In both cases, a hacker would be hindered from gaining access to an account. However, it would be more difficult through Passwordless as it uses the cryptographic key pair to log in.

Passwordless Authentication and Single Sign-On

Single Sign-On, abbreviated as SSO, authenticates users through a single set of credentials and grants them access to multiple applications.

In higher education institutions, students require access to multiple accounts and SSO enables them to sign into all accounts using only one set of credentials.

Single Sign-On and Passwordless are both types of authentications and are typically used together. SSO can be set up with biometrics (through Passwordless) and students can gain access to a number of applications that they are authorized to use.

The combination of SSO and Passwordless Authentication can reinforce security and convenience for students and institutions.

Passwordless Authentication and Zero Trust

Passwordless Authentication is a Zero Trust security model component that does not rely on predefined trust levels. In simpler terms, every single device remains untrusted, which eliminates the attackers’ capability to exploit trust relationships. 

Despite Zero Trust being a philosophy, Passwordless Authentication operates parallel to it as it is used to verify the identity before access is granted. In this environment, the user does not gain trust or access on the basis of credentials only. 

What does Passwordless Authentication prevent?

Most cyberattacks target passwords as they are relatively easier to crack, guess, or steal. In the case of Passwordless Authentication, the entirety of Passwords is eliminated. Hence, it can protect user accounts from common kinds of attacks, such as:

  1. Password Spraying 
  2. Brute Force Attack 
  3. Spear Phishing
  4. Social Engineering 

The Gist of The Matter

Higher education institutions are highly susceptible to cyberattacks, primarily because of their poor cyber security and access to information that may prove to be beneficial for bad actors. Since Passwords are easy to steal, leak, or guess, Passwordless Authentication can protect student accounts from cyber-attacks. Unifyed Passwordless Authentication enables users to use time-restricted PINs, Magic Links, or biometrics to gain access to the account. Alongside a better security posture, Unifyed Passwordless aids in cost reduction incurred on helpdesk requests. With Passwords out of the picture, hackers have a difficult time trying to gain access to your account.