Definition

passwordless authentication

Contributor(s): Alex Gillis

Passwordless authentication is a verification process that determines whether someone is, in fact, who they say they are without requiring the person to manually enter a string of characters. Authentication methods include biometrics, security tokens and piggybacking off of another application, service or device which has already authenticated the user.

Passwordless authentication is commonly used on mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptops and applications such as Slack or WhatsApp. The benefits of using passwordless authentication include:

  • Improved user experience (UX).
  • Faster login times into applications or devices.
  • Less maintenance of passwords required for IT staff.
  • Reduced chance of phishing attacks, password re-use or password leaks.

Types of passwordless authentication

With passwordless authentication, users are presented with one or multiple methods of signing in to an application or device without the need to enter a password. Common types of passwordless authentication include email-based, SMS-based, multi-factor, biometrics or passwordless authentication for logged-in users.

Authentication through email includes verifying a user with a magic link or one-time code. With a magic link,  the user first enters their email and a unique token is created for the user and sent to them by email. The user clicks the link and the service being used will identify the token and exchange it for a live token, logging the user in. With a one-time code, a user will enter their email and an email will then be sent to them with a unique one-time code. The user then enters the code into the service, which will verify the user and log them in.

Authentication through SMS will begin with the user entering their phone number, where a one-time code is then sent to the phone number. The user will input the code into the service, where the service will verify the code and phone number, and log in the user. However, SMS passwordless authentication may be less secure than other methods of passwordless authentication as SMS authentications have recorded multiple attacks in the past. SMS and email-based passwordless authentication can also log into a service through a second device through push confirmations, using the first connected device as a communication channel.

Multi-factor authentication uses any (typically) three authentication factors to log in a user such as security questions, PIN codes and contact information. What these factors are depends on the device/service.

Biometrics is another common form of passwordless authentication. Biometrics focuses on technology such as fingerprint scanners or face scans. This form of authentication is commonly found on mobile devices such as smartphones. Android devices will commonly use fingerprint scanners (normally located on the power button, back of the device or even under the front display), while Apple devices (which used to use this authentication format) now use face authentication.

This was last updated in May 2019

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