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Microsoft, Google do a victory lap around passkeys

Windows giant extends passwordless tech to everyone else

Jessica Lyons Thu 2 May 2024 // 23:03 UTC



Microsoft today said it will now let us common folk — not just commercial subscribers — sign into their Microsoft accounts and apps using passkeys with their face, fingerprint, or device PIN.


The additional support for Microsoft consumer accounts works across Windows, Google, and Apple platforms, and Redmond described the move as a step closer to its 10-year dream: "A world free of passwords."


As of Thursday, people can sign into their Microsoft accounts using passkeys via desktop and mobile browsers, and we're told mobile app support is coming soon.


The timing isn't coincidental. Today is also World Password Day, which, albeit a made-up holiday, usually marks the occasion for tech companies to brag about what they are doing to move away from requiring or encouraging users to remember or jot down in some way unique, strong passwords for each app and online service they use.


True to form, Google also marked the occasion by proclaiming that its year-old passkey support hit a milestone.


"Today, we announced that passkeys have been used to authenticate users more than 1 billion times across over 400 million Google Accounts," project managers Sriram Karra and Christiaan Brand said.


When Microsoft rolled out Windows Hello and Windows Hello for Business in 2015, it was detecting about 115 password attacks per second, or so says Redmond's Vasu Jakkal, corporate VP for security, compliance, identity and management, and Joy Chik, president for identity and network access.


As of 2023, that number had increased 3,378 percent to more than 4,000 per second.


"Password attacks are so popular because they still get results," Jakkal and Chik wrote in a blog post announcing the passkey support.

"It's painfully clear that passwords are not sufficient for protecting our lives online," they said. "No matter how long and complicated you make your password, or how often you change it, it still presents a risk."


Passkeys are based on a FIDO alliance standard that's supported by Apple, Microsoft and Google. Think of them as password replacements.


The tech, simply put, works like this: When you create an account for a website or app, your device generates a cryptographic public-private key pair. The site or app backend gets a copy of the public key, and your device keeps hold of the private key; that private key stays private to your gear. When you come to login, your device and the backend authentication system interact using their digital keys to prove you are who you say you are, and you get to login. If you don't have the private key or can't prove you have it, you can't login.


Your device can secure that private key locally using something like a biometric face scan, a PIN, or a fingerprint. Thus if someone wants to break into your account, they'll need your device and that secret PIN or biometric scan to unlock the private key (or somehow get a copy of the private key). This is seen as more secure than making people remember or store passwords, and ensures a unique key-pair per account. For those wondering about multifactor authentication, it's kinda baked in: Typically a crook will need to get hold of your physical device, and your secret or physical part of you to access the private key.


"Because this key pair combination is unique, your passkey will only work on the website or app you created it for, so you can't be tricked into signing in to a malicious look-alike website," Microsoft explained. "This is why we say that passkeys are 'phishing-resistant.'"


Ultimately, they aim to simplify security for users by relying on a face or fingerprint scan instead of requiring people to remember a unique 47-character password for every damn app and website they access that includes uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, special characters, and the name of your first pet but only if they were a parakeet.


"The best part about passkeys is that you'll never need to worry about creating, forgetting, or resetting passwords ever again," according to Jakkal and Chik.

To be fair, this is probably an overstatement. Criminals are a cunning bunch, and they may find ways to break this latest approach — and we're not talking about cutting off people's fingers or faces. 


But on this World Password Day, here's hoping we can bask in the simplicity and security of passkeys for at least another year.

Google Steps Up Its Push to Kill the Password

LESS THAN SIX months ago, Google announced that it was launching support for the password replacement known as “passkeys” for all personal accounts across its billions of users. Today, the company said it is going a step further and will make passkeys the default login setting for users.

When you log in to your Google account, you’ll get a prompt to create a passkey and start using it for login instead of relying on your Gmail address and password. Google will be turning on the “skip password when possible” option in account settings, which is essentially the passkey green light. Users who don't want to kill their password just yet will still be able to turn that setting off so they don't receive the prompts.


Password-based authentication is so ubiquitous in digital systems that it isn't easy to replace. But passwords have inherent security problems because they can be guessed and stolen. And since it's so difficult to keep track of dozens or hundreds of passwords, users often reuse the same passwords on multiple accounts, making it easier for attackers to unlock all of those accounts in one fell swoop. Passkeys are specifically designed to address these issues and dramatically reduce the risk of phishing attacks by instead relying on a scheme that manages cryptographic keys stored on your devices for account authentication.

Google didn't share statistics on passkey adoption so far, saying instead in a blog post that “people have used passkeys on their favorite apps like YouTube, Search and Maps, and we’re encouraged by the results.” The company points out that passkey support is expanding across other apps and services. Apple and Microsoft both support passkeys. And companies like Uber and eBay recently launched passkeys, and they're coming to WhatsApp soon.

“Passwordless is something we set out to achieve 10-plus years ago, and we’re thrilled to not only see us already on the next step of the journey with passkeys by offering them by default, but also to see the great feedback from users who have made the switch,” Christiaan Brand, identity and security group product manager at Google, tells WIRED.


There's so much inertia on passwords around the world that even a player as big and influential as Google can't force the issue overnight. But the company is clearly using its influence to steer users with gentle pressure that seems likely to continue mounting as passkeys gain broader momentum.

“We’ll keep you updated on where else you can start using passkeys across other online accounts,” the company wrote today. “In the meantime, we’ll continue encouraging the industry to make the pivot to passkeys—making passwords a rarity, and eventually obsolete.” 


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