The FIDO Alliance and W3C recently announced a new technology standard that will allow people to log into websites without a password, opting instead for an external authenticator like a security key or a smartphone. This is a major milestone in the gradual move toward password eradication. Passwords provide an awful user experience, and they’re a terrible form of security. But what if your devices were smart enough to recognize you instantly and provide a secure, personalized experience based on trusted information, with no password needed? This technology is called zero login, and it just might solve the password problem forever.
Most of us have used biometrics like fingerprints or facial recognition to unlock a phone, but soon even that may not be necessary. Your behaviors — how you swipe and type, where you are, when you work — are unique to you. New technologies are being developed that can recognize you based on these factors and log you in to all of your applications without you doing anything at all.
Zero login technologies could put identity thieves out of business for good because it would take months and thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to fool them. There are, however, some downsides that will require new rules and standards to protect user boundaries, information and privacy, for example:
- How do users know when they’re being monitored?
- How do users know when they’re logged out?
- How well is all this behavioral data being protected?
The Future Is Here
Zero login may sound futuristic, but it’s already in use. Some banks can see when you’re logging in from a new phone or connecting from a cafe that you’ve never been to before. When the bank sees those red flags, it may ask you to verify your email or phone number to prove it’s really you.
Some large retail companies, including Amazon, are testing ways to authenticate users based on their behavior. How hard do you tap on your phone? How fast do you type? Those things are unique to you and hard for an attacker to guess or duplicate. The motion sensor in your phone can also recognize you from your walk — no one else walks exactly like you do. By combining all this information, your phone can tell when it’s really you and no password required.
Your phone can also detect signals from other devices. It can see your stuff — your car, Fitbit, headphones — and start to get a feel for your normal routines. Those routines provide another safeguard to prove that everything is business as usual.
Any one of these technologies might be easy for an attacker to trick, but fooling all of them is incredibly difficult. They can also tell if someone grabs your unlocked phone without your consent, and either lock it or shut it off entirely. Passwords can’t do that.
Imagine you order a $1 teddy bear from your own phone, charge it to your credit card, and have it shipped to your house. Is that something an attacker would do? Not likely. Today, many applications will ask you for a password even though the chance of a transaction being fraudulent is extremely low. Online stores don’t want to lose sales, and many people second guess that teddy bear purchase when confronted with the added step of a password request.
Zero login technologies pay attention to who you are, but they also pay attention to what you’re trying to do. They’re smart about figuring out what kinds of things normal people do and what kinds of things attackers do. You’ll still have a password, but you’ll probably never be asked to enter it because your phone already recognizes you. In a perfect zero login world, the only person who would ever be asked to enter a password is an attacker.
The Bad and the Ugly
If your phone is collecting all this information about you, how is it being protected? Where is it being sent? Right now, that information isn’t being used most of the time. It’s possible to use that information to enable zero login technologies, but there’s a good way and a bad way. The good way is to have software running locally on your device that sends a “risk score” to the cloud so that smart authentication decisions can be made by the software running there. The bad way is to send all the information about you — behaviors, biometrics, locations — across the Internet and to store it in the cloud. Even if the information is encrypted, it’s still at risk of compromise by attackers. This is why every time you buy a new iPhone, you have to reset the fingerprint. That fingerprint is stored locally on the phone and never sent across the Internet or stored in the cloud.
There are also significant privacy implications if users are logged in to a service without realizing it. While few of us expect total privacy on the Internet, we still want to keep some parts of our lives separate. With passive authentication, we can easily be logged in to all of our accounts, all of the time, without realizing it.
We also need a way to affirmatively end an online session. Companies like Uber are used by some people for personal reasons and other people for professional reasons. If I’m a taxi driver, I might be fine with my employer tracking my location during the day. But when I finish work, I want to know I’m logged out and free to go about my private business.
Someday, we’ll be telling our shocked grandchildren about having to remember hundreds of complex passwords, and they’ll wonder what idiot came up with that idea. We have a better, easier, more secure future at our fingertips — literally. That’s exciting, but we can’t let our excitement overrule people’s privacy, security, and consent. Let’s build these tools the right way the first time.
Join Dark Reading LIVE for a two-day Cybersecurity Crash Course at Interop ITX. Learn from the industry’s most knowledgeable IT security experts. Check out the agenda here. Register with Promo Code DR200 and save $200.
Sarah Squire is a Senior Technical Architect at Ping Identity. She is a co-author of NIST Special Publication 800-63C Digital Identity Guidelines, which outline federated authentication standards for all US federal agencies, and is Vice President of IDPro, a nonprofit … View Full Bio