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Passkeys Are Cool, but They Aren't Enterprise-Ready

Apple, Google, and Microsoft are promoting passkeys as a solution for accounts recovery, but enterprises are slow-walking their adoption.

5 Min Read
An illustration of a key and a fingerprint overlaid on a chip with a blue circle around it.
Source: ArtemisDiana via Alamy Stock Photo

The growing support for passkeys means consumers and small businesses finally have an easy-to-use technology for passwordless access to websites and cloud applications, but enterprises will likely not see a usable form of the technology for some time yet.

The passwordless authentication approach, based on the FIDO Alliance's WebAuthn standard, allows developers to leverage the user device's authentication technology — such as FaceID and fingerprint sensors — to log into cloud services and Web applications. While WebAuthn resulted in many implementations, which added significant complexity for consumers, passkeys are supported by major Internet firms — including Apple, Google, and Microsoft — which dramatically simplifies their use for consumers.

Yet that usability, which could extend to cloud-native small businesses, does not allow for the control and attestation necessary for passkeys in large corporations, says Jasson Casey, CEO of Beyond Identity. Instead, passkeys will likely develop into a optional factor in their current public key infrastructure (PKI) or credential-based system.

"I honestly think it's going to be a love child of passkeys and PKI that ultimately businesses need," Casey says. "The really cool thing about passkeys is the idea that there's a well-defined interface between a browser or user agent and an actual authenticator that manages credentials and keys."

Major companies have pushed passkeys as a more secure way to sign into online accounts. In June, Google began allowing companies to switch their Workspace users over to passkeys rather than using passwords. On Oct. 10, the company began giving users the ability to make passkeys the default option across their personal accounts, prompting them to make the switch when they sign in.

Apple and Microsoft have both added support for passkeys in their hardware and software, with iOS, Mac OS, and Windows 11 all supporting the technology.

For companies, passkeys could eliminate some of the cost of improving managing identity and improving authentication, says Steve Won, chief product officer at 1Password, an identity and password management firm.

"I'm really optimistic that enterprise adoption will be totally tenable within the next decade," Won says. "I've talked to so many businesses that are like, holy crap, [passkeys are] basically usable certificates or ... usable Yubikeys. Certificates are such a nightmare to be able to handle, and on the Yubikey side, nobody wants to be in the business of managing hardware."

The End of Phishing?

Done right, passkeys could eliminate phishing attacks aimed at harvesting credentials because there are no passwords to steal. The specification, which aims for interoperability among the largest identify providers, allow a user's device to attest to their identity, using private and public keys to then log the user into a service.

A major sticking point was the issue of recovering the keys when a device is lost, says Beyond Identity's Casey.

"A passkey is actually anchored in an enclave on my device, so if I throw that device in the ocean because — I don't even need a reason — and I go buy a new device, how do I log back in? That was viewed as a major stumbling block for the B2C [business-to-consumer] community," he says.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft fix this problem by tying the keys to their services. A user who logs back into one of the services can then recover by being issued a new set of keys.

Despite the promise of phishing resistance and doing away with shared secrets, businesses are still hesitant to commit to passkeys, says Andras Cser, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"We still see zero to minimal adoption in the market," he says. "Service providers — [such as] retailers, healthcare orgs, [and financial services] companies — are concerned about device attestation and presence of the person authenticating."

Companies Need More Than Passkeys

The problems faced by enterprises are different. For companies, passkeys hold the promise of providing a standardized PKI as a way of interacting with online resources, as long as four requirements are met, says Casey. The system has to guarantee that keys cannot move; it solves the recovery problem for lost devices; it works across all sorts of devices, browsers, and online services; and it provides companies with centralized policy management for devices.

"An effective passkey system is going to have a distributed, automated PKI system under the hood that is providing similar security guarantees but without requiring you to actively manage the service ... regardless of whether the device is managed or BYOD devices," Casey says. "Classical PKI systems don't do any of that for you, not without a huge administrative burden."

While some small businesses may mandate the use of passkey, companies will more likely offer the technology as an authentication option for their customers.

Another Zero-Trust Possibility

If passkey providers and identity and access management (IAM) companies solve the enterprise-use problems of passkeys, they could take off in business. While consumers need easy-to-use services, companies can mandate that their employees use a specific technology, even if that technology has a learning curve or adds some steps to daily workflows, says Ian Hassard, senior director of product management at Okta, a single sign-on provider.

"If you look at customer identity being focused around balancing security and friction, because if you have too much friction, people don't buy your products," he says. "But in workforce identity, if you're managing your workforce, you have a bit more of a captive audience in the sense of, you can apply more friction to ensure a higher level of assurance and security."

Okta, for example, focuses on the management of identities, access privileges, and ensuring the user's device has the proper security controls in place and does not show signs of compromise, says Hassard. These are all foundational for a zero-trust approach to security.

"You want that assurance that the device is not compromised," he says. "Because obviously a lot of this technology is great until the client device is completely owned, and that's not a good thing."

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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