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Microsoft, Apple, and Google Promise to Expand Passwordless Features

The passwordless future just became closer to reality, as Microsoft, Apple, and Google pledge to make the standard possible across operating systems and browsers.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft will expand support for FIDO Alliance's passwordless standard to make logins easier across mobile devices and desktops.

By expanding support for the password-free sign-in standard from the FIDO Alliance and the World Wide Web (W3) Consortium, Google, Microsoft, and Apple will make it possible for anyone to use their mobile device to sign into an app or website on a nearby device. More importantly, users will be able to access passkeys – their FIDO sign-in credentials – across multiple devices without having to re-enroll every account on each device. This will be a key change from the current reality, where users have to sign into each website or app with each device before they can take advantage of the passwordless feature.

"We plan to implement passwordless support for FIDO Sign-in standards in Android & Chrome. Apple and Microsoft have also announced that they will offer support for their platforms," writes Sampath Srinivas, a product management director for secure authentication at Google and the president of the FIDO Alliance. "This will simplify sign-ins across devices, websites, and applications no matter the platform — without the need for a single password. These capabilities will be available over the course of the coming year."

Case for No More Passwords
Passwords do not provide sufficient security – they can be stolen or guessed if the password itself isn't very good. Weak passwords accounted for more than 80% of all data breaches, according to Verizon's annual Data Breach Investigations Report. Passwords are the single largest attack vector and the root cause of most attacks -- including account takeovers, advanced persistent threats, and ransomware, says Jasson Casey, CTO of Beyond Identity. Four out of five times adversaries rely on stolen credentials for initial access and lateral movement, he says.

"Password-based authentication has failed us. Full stop," Casey says.

There are more than 921 password attacks every second, writes Vasu Jakkal, corporate vice president of security, compliance, identity, and management at Microsoft. That represents more than double the figure over the past 12 months.

A new Google/Ipsos survey found that one in three Americans share passwords with someone else or have access to someone else's passwords, and 65% of respondents say they reuse passwords. One in five use common words or easy-to-guess terms for passwords, and 52% say they incorporate personal information such as name and birthday into the password.

"The alternatives [to passwords] often are unworkable, unwieldy, or just not likely to be adopted by consumers, especially the non-tech-savvy ones or those who are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale," says John Bambenek, principal threat hunter at Netenrich.

Passwords are still ubiquitous despite the issues because they are relatively easy to implement and people know how to use them, which is why passwords still haven't gone away. Instead, security teams rely on technologies such as multifactor authentication and password managers to provide additional protection to strengthen the security around accounts, platforms, and data. 

However, these controls have made "marginal security gains," Casey says, mainly because they still rely on passwords and the second factors can be intercepted via social engineering methods (such as one-time passwords sent over SMS).

Cross-Platform Passwordless
The good news is that technology is now in place to make passwordless authentication a reality, Casey says. Secure enclaves are prevalent (and resident in nearly every device), and almost all enterprise and consumer apps can leverage secure enclaves to easily delegate passwordless authentication.

The announcement from Google, Microsoft, and Apple indicates the expanded support will be implemented in macOS and Safari, Android and Chrome, and Windows and Edge. The actions used to unlock the mobile device — such as fingerprint, face scan, and device PIN — will give access to the passkey stored on the device. Signing in with the passkey is more secure because it's based on public key cryptography, Srinivas says. Even if the device is lost, the passkeys will sync back to the mobile device from cloud backup, he says.

All of this will be cross-platform. Ideally, a user would be able to sign into a website via Google Chrome on a Windows machine using a passkey on an Apple device.

"This new approach protects against phishing and sign-in will be radically more secure when compared to passwords and legacy multi-factor technologies such as one-time passcodes sent over SMS," the FIDO Alliance said in a statement.

Implementations that rely on secure enclaves, especially those already built into modern devices, such as the Trusted Platform Module on laptops and desktops, combined with the security posture of the device itself make passwordless authentication a reality, Casey says.

Jennifer Easterly, director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), praises the announcement, calling it "the type of forward-leaning thinking that will ultimately keep the American people safer online."

Passwordless needs to be easy. "If you don’t consider usability, your users will create your next vulnerability," Casey warns.