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Hand drawn web browser with the inscription Passkey and it's advantages on speech bubbles.

What Is a Passkey? How They Work and Why They Matter.

Login security has come a long way. Remember the simple days of using your pet's name as a password? Then we started requiring complexity, with capital letters, numbers, and symbols. Add in longer passwords, two-factor authentication (2FA), and quirky security questions, and passwords were starting to get complicated. But with the emergence of passkeys, passwords may become a thing of the past. 

This new technology is gaining traction, with major companies like Google, PayPal, Apple, Shopify, and Adobe already using them. But what exactly are passkeys? How do they work? And why should you care? Let's get into it. 


The Problem With Passwords


The first digital password was created back in 1961 when MIT professor Fernando Corbato needed a way to give several users individual access to a giant time-sharing computer . 62 years on, and passwords are still a common feature of digital operations everywhere. But despite their longevity, passwords are less than ideal for many reasons. 


●    Password Reuse: With the average person having around 100 passwords, many opt for the same password across multiple accounts for convenience. This increases vulnerability because a breach in one account can lead to compromised security across multiple platforms.

●    Easily Guessable Passwords: The most commonly used password is “123456,” and 59% of US adults use easily guessable elements like birthdays or names in their passwords, making them highly vulnerable to attacks.

●    Dark Web Brute Force Password Lists: Compromised passwords often end up on the dark web on huge password lists that hackers will then use for brute force attacks (repeatedly guessing different passwords until they find one that works). 

●    Phishing Attacks, Keylogging, and Spyware: Phishing attacks trick users into revealing their passwords, rendering even complex passwords ineffective. And malicious software like keyloggers can capture passwords regardless of their complexity, directly transmitting them to hackers.

●    Complexity Doesn't Work: One way to make passwords less guessable is to make them more complex, for example, by adding numbers and unique characters. However, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the body that outlines cybersecurity best practices for private organizations, removed complexity requirements for passwords a few years ago. Why? Because people were simply using their old password but adding a single digit .


So passwords are weak from a security standpoint, but what about passkeys?


What is a Passkey?

A passkey is a new kind of security tool replacing traditional passwords. Instead of typing a password, you use your device, like a smartphone, to prove it's really you trying to log in. When you sign in to a website or app, your device confirms your identity, often with something like a fingerprint or face scan. This method is not only simpler but also much safer. Unlike passwords, passkeys don't get easily stolen or guessed, because the security info is stored on your device, not on some server. Let's break this down further. 


How Do Passkeys Work? The Tech Behind Passkeys Explained.

At the core of this technology is what's known as a cryptographic key pair. This key pair is unique for each account and consists of two elements: a private key and a public key. 

The private key is securely stored on your personal device, like a smartphone or a tablet, and never leaves it. The public key, on the other hand, is shared with the service you want to access, like a social media site or an online store.

When you attempt to log in to a service, the service sends a request to your device. It's the device's job to confirm it's really you. For this, it uses biometric verification — your fingerprint, face scan, or other personal identifier. This step ensures that only the person in possession of the device, and whose biometric data matches, can unlock the private key needed for access.

After successful biometric verification, your device uses the private key to sign a digital signature. This signature is sent back to the service, where it's checked against the public key. If the signature is verified using the public key, it proves that the login request came from the rightful owner of the private key — that is, you. This whole process happens seamlessly and securely, without the private key ever leaving your device.

What makes passkeys particularly secure is that the private key is unique and tied to your device, making it nearly impossible for hackers to steal or replicate. Moreover, since there's no actual password being typed or stored, there's nothing for cybercriminals to intercept or guess. 

Passkey versus Password: Who Wins?

Security: Passkeys take the lead. They use cryptographic techniques, making them nearly impossible to intercept or duplicate. Unlike passwords, which can be guessed or stolen, passkeys remain secure because the authentication process happens directly on the user’s device.

Convenience: Passkeys also win here. Remembering complex passwords or using a password manager can be cumbersome for users. Passkeys simplify this by leveraging biometric authentication, streamlining the login process.

User Experience: Passkeys provide a more seamless user experience. There’s no need to type or remember passwords, reducing the frustration of forgotten passwords and account lockouts.

Adaptability: Traditional passwords have a slight edge in this aspect. They are universally accepted and understood, while passkeys are still gaining ground. Not all platforms support passkeys yet, which means passwords are currently more widely applicable.

Recovery: If you lose your device or it malfunctions, recovering access through passkeys can be more complex than traditional password recovery. However, with advancements in cloud synchronization and backup methods, this gap is narrowing.

What Does the Future Hold For Passkeys?

While passwords have been the standard for decades, passkeys offer enhanced security and convenience, positioning them as the future of digital authentication. We've already seen the tech giants adopt passkeys, and as the trendsetters, other companies will likely follow suit over the next few years. The next wave of adopters will probably be sectors like banking, healthcare, and government services, where security and user convenience are paramount. 

But more than that, passkeys will continue to evolve. Future passkey systems might incorporate even more advanced biometric authentication methods, like behavioral biometrics, making the login process more natural and less intrusive. We might also see offline authentication capabilities, allowing passkeys to be used in scenarios where internet connectivity is limited or unavailable.

Passkeys: What's The Verdict?

Passkeys address the inherent weaknesses of traditional passwords by offering a more secure and user-friendly alternative. With major companies like Google, Apple, and others already on board, the trend toward passkeys is gaining momentum. Their adoption is not just a current fad but a glimpse into the future of digital authentication. As technology advances, we can expect passkeys to become even more sophisticated, potentially integrating with a wider range of devices and services. In short, passkeys are here to stay. 

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