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Biometric Authentication: Toward a Secure Passwordless Future

VeriMark Guard plugged into a computer

Secure authentication is increasingly important for consumers and IT admins who are constantly interacting with a multitude of networks, databases, and devices in an information-saturated world. The very nature of cybersecurity is changing as a growing number of businesses are transitioning toward cloud-based services.

The weekly time required by IT teams to manage passwords and related login information has grown by 25 percent since 2019. The result is that many companies are seeking to reduce their reliance on passwords. Traditional password-based authentication is rapidly being reinforced and, in many cases, replaced by more secure authentication methodologies: security keys and biometrics.

We’re heading toward a passwordless future.

Why Authentication is Vitally Important

Businesses and individuals have strong incentives to keep their data, networks, and devices safe from cybercriminals. The vast majority of security breaches are financially motivated, and put both businesses and individuals at risk.

Individuals can be severely affected by identity theft and fraud resulting from wrongful access to devices or data. Businesses may suffer monetary losses as a direct result of a security breach. Perhaps more importantly, recognized, and well-regarded brands may also become compromised as a result of a cybersecurity breach, leading to longer-term financial woes.

Understanding cybersecurity needs and putting in place appropriate authentication methods should be high priority issues for businesses and consumers who might be affected by cybercriminals.

Three Modes of Authentication: Passwords, Security Keys, and Biometrics

Authentication refers to the process that confirms the identity of an individual user or individual device within an overall computer network or system. Once a user or device has been authenticated, it is then allowed access to data or other resources within the system. Keeping data and devices safe from unintended users requires some form of authentication.

Authentication processes come in three forms.

  • Something you know: Traditional passwords fall into this familiar category. We know, through memory or some other technique, one or many passwords that we use to gain access to our personal or protected data.
  • Something you have: This authentication process is characterized by the possession of an object, e.g., a security key. Security keys are widely used as replacements for or additions to more traditional password-based authentication regimens.
  • Something you are: Biometric authenticators fall into this category. Biometric signals, based on physical characteristics, are uniquely associated with one individual user. That uniqueness underlies the use of biometric signals as authenticators and guarantees a high base level of accuracy and security. Biometric authentication provides a seamless login experience for employees to access resources or devices within an organization, all without the need to enter a complex password. Biometrics are also good for efficiency, since they eliminate help desk requests for password resets and other password management issues. Overall, biometric authentication is a fast and convenient authentication solution.

Why Passwords Will Ultimately Be Replaced

It is becoming more and more widely accepted that passwords will ultimately be replaced by newer authentication techniques and processes.

A password is essentially a secret that, once shared with the right party, gives you access. The fundamental problem with a password is that once you share it and use it as an authenticator, it becomes less secret. The very act of sharing a password makes it more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats like phishing.

In addition, consumers typically use several platforms and services to access their personal, private data. To be as secure as possible, users must use many long and complex passwords and must use different such passwords for different services and devices. Human beings have limited cognitive resources, however. The result is that most users end up relying on one or a small number of relatively simple passwords to access all of their secure data, which puts that data at risk.

A simpler and more secure solution to authentication is necessary as we move toward a more information-rich future: passwordless biometric authentication. The mere swipe of a fingerprint offers users a friendly and secure login experience for their work or personal accounts and devices.

Evolving Authentication Techniques: Security Keys and Biometrics

There are alternatives to password-based authentication systems.

Security keys are physical devices that fall into the category of “something you have.” They carry authenticating data and are used to interface with a digital device, most often a USB port. Users must carry security keys and physically insert them each time they require authentication for a particular device or service.

Biometric authentication comes in several forms, each in different stages of technological development. Biometric authentication clearly works best when it relies on physical characteristics that are relatively unchanging over time. The most common forms of biometric authentication rely upon fingerprints, facial recognition, voice recognition, and iris scanners.

Each of these forms of biometric authentication is beset by an array of technical challenges and some are more reliable than others. Fingerprint scanners are the most highly developed, reliable, and cost-effective form of biometric authentication currently on the market.

Both Security keys and biometric signals are often used in tandem with more traditional password-based authentication systems, a system known as multi-factor authentication (or MFA).

There are Problems Associated with Security Keys

Though widely regarded as more secure than password-based authentication, security keys are not a perfect authentication solution.

A security key is a physical object that must be carried to ensure access. Like all physical objects, you might lose it—and with it, access to your data. The same concern does not apply to biometric signals, which are intrinsic to the identity of an individual user.

Additionally, security keys are hardware devices that must communicate with other hardware devices and intermediary software. Security keys are subject to incompatibility with certain devices or certain software upgrades. Hardware devices like security keys require a vigilant IT posture to ensure that compatibility and therefore access is maintained when it counts.

Biometric Authentication Safeguards Your Logins and Private Data

There are several benefits to biometric authentication. Biometric authentication is, without a doubt, an upgrade to a simple password-based authentication system. Fingerprint scanners, in particular, are incredibly accurate, making the possibility of forgery unlikely and making them a good biometric security solution.

Fingerprint scanners work quickly and alleviate the need to remember one or many long, complex passwords. Fingerprint scanning technology is reliable and affordable, both properties that make fingerprint authentication a viable and scalable solution for your cybersecurity needs.

Kensington collaborated with Synaptics®, a leader in biometric systems, to create biometric products that enhance your security posture to help keep you or your organization safe from cybercrime. Our offerings are available in USB-A and USB-C options and integrate support for key applications from Microsoft, Google, and more. Our tools are also compatible with several password management tools. Kensington’s products are Fast Identity Online (FIDO) universal 2nd-factor authentication (U2F) Certified, making them the perfect partner for cloud-based service providers.

Moving Toward a Secure Passwordless Future

The tech world is inexorably moving toward a passwordless future. Authentication-enabling technology continues to evolve. Alternative authentication innovations continue to be tested and optimized. And with all of that, familiarity with new forms of authentication continues to grow, fostering a community that trusts the technology.

As our informational environment becomes more complex and more reliant on cloud-based platforms and services, the security costs and vulnerabilities of password-based authentication systems have become glaringly apparent. The adoption of biometric authentication technology is a decisive step toward a passwordless future.

Take a look at Kensington’s fingerprint keys using state-of-the-art biometric authentication technology.