5 Secure Password Alternatives You Should Consider
Passwords have been a critical part of online security since the dawn of the internet, and they’re still the most common form of authentication available today. However, with the rise of cyberattacks against password-based authentication and disastrous data breaches, static passwords can’t cut it anymore.
So, if passwords come with serious security risks, can we simply part with them and instead use passwordless sign-ins?
What’s the Problem With Using Passwords?
Although passwords are fairly simple to use and work well with other authentication methods, they aren’t as secure as we’d like them to be. And it’s mostly our own faults.
Most easy-to-remember passwords aren’t strong, and most strong passwords aren’t easy to remember. To deal with this dilemma, we can come up with one or two almost uncrackable passwords and use them across all our online accounts and different devices. The trouble with this is, if one of your passwords gets into the wrong hands, all applications and services that share that password could get compromised too.
According to a study by Verizon, over 80 percent of hacking-related data breaches are caused by poor or stolen passwords, which is an average of four out of five breaches worldwide. It doesn’t help that many people don’t change default passwords straight away (or at all) and these are sometimes distributed through hacker forums.
Meanwhile, password-cracking tools are becoming better at guessing passwords, which means it’s just a matter of time before an “uncrackable” password will get cracked. Also, passwords are being stolen through social engineering attacks, and these are getting more sophisticated thanks to artificial intelligence (AI)—even ChatGPT has been caught writing malware.
Plus, passwords are sometimes sent over unsecured networks, which makes stealing them child’s play for cybercriminals. If you’ve ever used Wi-Fi in your favorite coffee shop, you’ve probably committed this security sin.
So, if passwords can’t make the cut, what are the most secure alternatives?
What Are the Best Password Alternatives for Better Security?
Since static passwords and single-password authentication systems can cause serious security issues, we could swap them for more secure alternatives and stop worrying about our safety online. But which password alternative is best for security?
In the context of cybersecurity, biometrics or biometric authentication is a security method that checks your unique biological characteristics to confirm your identity. Whether we’re talking about fingerprint mapping, retina scans, voice verification, or facial recognition, biometrics is all about your unique identifiers.
In contrast, since a secure password is a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols—in short, hard to remember—it can slip your memory like it’s nothing. Secure biometric authentication means one password (i.e. your face, voice, or fingerprint) and you’ll never forget that.
While cybercriminals could use a copy of your face, voice, or fingerprint in a spoofing attack, utilizing smart security tools and adding additional authentication methods can minimize this risk significantly. Using biometrics also reduces the risk of successful phishing and other types of social engineering attacks.
However, while biometrics are more secure and user-friendly than passwords, there are a couple of drawbacks to them as well. Namely, biometric authentication calls for specialized hardware and software, which can put it on the costly side. Also, biometric data is pretty personal, so some people might feel uncomfortable using it for authentication.
2. Multi-Factor Authentication
As the name suggests, multi-factor authentication (or MFA for short) is an authentication method that requests two or more verification factors before it allows access to an application or online service.
So, instead of being satisfied with a username and static password, MFA asks for additional verification factors such as one-time passwords, geolocation, or a fingerprint scan. By making sure that user credentials haven’t been stolen, MFA makes successful fraud or identity theft less likely to happen.
Although MFA is more secure than using a static password only, it’s also less convenient since users are required to perform multiple steps. For instance, if you lose a device you’re using for the second authentication, you could get locked out of all your online accounts that utilize MFA.
3. One-Time Passwords
Also known as dynamic passwords, one-time PINs, and one-time authorization codes (OTACs), one-time passwords (OTP) are passwords that can be used for one login session only. So, as the name suggests, this combination of characters can be used only once, which helps it to avoid a few flaws of static passwords.
While users’ login names stay the same, the password changes with each new login. So, since an OTP can’t be used a second time, stealing it doesn’t make much sense for cybercriminals, making some types of identity theft ineffective.
The three most common types of OTP are SMS, email, and email link (aka magic link) authentication, and all of them offer a simple and secure login to their users. As there are no static passwords, there’s no risk that users will fail to recall or otherwise lose them.
However, there are a few drawbacks with OTPs too, and they have everything to do with service provider dependency—you won’t get an OTP or magic link if your email or SMS provider doesn’t send it to you. Even email deliveries can be delayed due to sluggish internet connection speed or similar factors.
4. Social Sign-In
Social sign-in or social login is a process that allows users to sign in to applications and online platforms by using information from social networking sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) they’re currently using. This form of simple and super-fast sign-in is a convenient alternative to standard, time-consuming account creation.
But breaches and leaks have made many users distrustful of social sign-in in terms of security. Since companies continue to collect user data, privacy concerns with social sign-ins continue to go up.
5. Security Key Authentication
To make sure the right users have access to the right data, this type of MFA secures your passwords by adding a so-called security key, a physical device that is plugged into your computer (via USB port or Bluetooth connection) every time you’re signing in to a service it safeguards.
Security keys are sometimes confused for security tokens, which are also physical devices but ones that generate a six-digit numeric code when prompted by MFA. Although they share a purpose, they aren’t the same.
While security keys can combat password-based attacks (phishing, credential stuffing, dictionary passwords, and such), they’re still a relatively new player in the cybersecurity game, so they may not be here to stay. Plus, if your security key gets stolen or lost, this is a major issue.
Other Noteworthy Alternatives to Passwords
One of the more thought-provoking alternatives to passwords is a type of biometric authentication that recognizes typical waveforms generated by each user’s heartbeat rhythm and uses it for identification—it’s called heartbeat or heart rate recognition. Although it must be great not having to do anything (besides being alive and kicking) to gain access to your accounts, this type of authentication is geared toward high-security environments and is too expensive for personal use.
Other noteworthy alternatives for more secure sign-ins are keystroke authentication (which picks up the user’s unique typing pattern to confirm their identity), single sign-on (which allows a user to gain access across all their apps and services with a single set of credentials), and passkeys (a passwordless login that requires users to generate a new passkey via an authenticator each time they want to access their apps and services).
Also, we should bring up password managers but rather as an upgrade than a replacement for passwords—after all, it’s called a password manager, not a passwordless manager. So, if you prefer to stick with passwords, this type of tool can help you secure your credentials, generate strong passwords, and store all your logins for a more seamless online experience.
Is the Future Passwordless?
There are several types of authentication you can use without typing in a password but only some of them try to completely throw out the password from the process—and that shouldn’t be an issue. With a mix of multiple authentication methods, a single point of failure can be eliminated and your online security enhanced.
As for the future, we expect the market for passwordless authentication to expand as more and more organizations and individuals are searching for security solutions that can combat password-based cyberattacks.