Is a Passwordless Future a More Secure Future?

By Muhammad Yahaya Patel, Security Engineer at Check Point Software.

  • 2 months ago Posted in

Following the news that the UK has introduced the worlds-first law banning weak passwords, minimum security standards must now be enforced by manufacturers of all internet connected devices. The Telecommunications (Security) Act mandates stricter cybersecurity measures for smart devices to protect consumers. Manufacturers are now required to eliminate default passwords, establish a security issue reporting point of contact for consumers and disclose the minimum duration for which the device will receive important security updates. While this legislation is a step in the right direction, it begs the questions, what can we do to better secure our first line of defence? 

The Perils of Poor Password Hygiene 

Password negligence has far-reaching implications, especially for businesses. With over 23 million people using simplistic passwords like ‘123456’, the stakes are alarmingly high. Such lax security can unravel an organisation, leading to data breaches, ransom demands, and irreparable damage to customer trust. In fact, just a single weak password can open the floodgates to wide-ranging cyberattacks. For instance, recent attacks on major organisations like Okta and 23AndMe were facilitated by stolen login details, demonstrating the widespread impact and ongoing threat posed by weak password practices.

From phishing exploits to brute-force attacks, the techniques used by cybercriminals are evolving. With advancements in AI, hackers now harness machine learning algorithms to predict and crack passwords more swiftly than ever, exploiting every chink in our digital armour. This escalation in attack capability necessitates the adoption of passwords that are not only longer, but also more complex.

The Possibility of a Passwordless Future

The role of traditional passwords amidst the advent of biometric authentication is a subject of lively debate among security experts. While some advocate for completely abandoning passwords in favour of biometric solutions—such as fingerprints or FaceID—and modern alternatives like Google Passkey for their convenience and enhanced security, others support the continued use of password managers or a combination of methods. Despite advances in authentication technology, traditional passwords remain prevalent across various platforms.

Biometric authentication, while secure, has a significant drawback: once compromised, biometric data cannot be changed. This vulnerability can lead to irreversible identity theft. In contrast, traditional passwords can be frequently updated to prevent unauthorised access following a security breach.

Furthermore, many individuals and industries still depend on passwords to access critical services, such as email and personal accounts. However, there is a noticeable shift toward passwordless authentication, especially in sectors with rigorous security needs like banking and corporate communications. This shift includes the adoption of hardware tokens, multi-factor authentication using alternate devices, and one-time verification pins, offering secure access without traditional passwords.

Remove reliance on passwords 

Executives need to enact and enforce good cybersecurity practices. The best way to do that is to reduce the reliance you have on passwords alone. This means organisations need to adopt other authentication methods to reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed. For example, by combining multiple account protection solutions such as two-factor authentication with biometrics, you will lower the chances of a successful attack while at the same time, helping to improve the overall security posture in your organisation. 

Businesses could also consider using Single Sign-On (SSO), which allows a user to authenticate themselves on multiple, separate platforms via a single ID. This solution negates the need for several different passwords. There is an element of risk, but by combining SSO with multi-factor authentication you can add a second layer of protection. 

Essential Password Hygiene

To strengthen password security, I would recommend the following best practices:

1. Complexity and Length: Create passwords with a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols, aiming for 12-16 characters to enhance security. Ensure the password is unique to you and avoid using easily guessed personal details like birthdays or anniversaries.

2. Unique Passwords for Different Accounts: Avoid reusing passwords across multiple platforms. Use memorable phrases or sentences, like 'meryhadalittlelamb', or a more secure variant with special characters '#M3ryHad@L1ttleL4m8'. There are solutions available that prevent the reuse of corporate passwords on external sites and protecting against phishing and malware.

3. Use a password manager: Sometimes having a password is a mandatory requirement, so you cannot rely on other authentication methods alone. Conduct an evaluation to decide if a password manager would be appropriate for your organisation. Password managers have several benefits. They allow your employees to securely store credentials, generate unique passwords and they can auto-complete fields on websites. This removes the reliance on remembering hundreds of passwords or writing them down for anyone to see.  

4. Implement security tools to prevent credential harvesting: Always enable MFA to add an additional layer of security. This ensures that even if a password is compromised, unauthorised access is still blocked. Employ encryption protocols to safeguard sensitive data during transmission. Regularly update and patch software to mitigate vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyberattacks. Additionally, educate users on recognising phishing attempts. By proactively integrating these security measures, you fortify your defences against credential harvesting and enhance the overall security posture of your online presence.

5. Implement an account monitoring solution: You can only protect what you can see, so it’s important that you have visibility of all accounts that have been compromised by an attack. Otherwise, how are you going to make improvements to stop an attack from happening again? This is why you need to review the default account settings and turn on features like locking an account after certain attempts. You don’t want an attacker to have unlimited time or an unlimited number of login attempts, allowing them to force their way into your organisation. 

By adhering to these guidelines, individuals and organisations can significantly enhance their digital security posture.

The takeaway 

In the current cyber environment, an attack is inevitable. However, preventing an attack is possible with the right combination of technologies and security protocols. Put simply, action must be taken now to keep your accounts safe. Given that poor password hygiene and the resulting impact can damage an organisation’s reputation beyond repair, companies need to treat this situation with the level of seriousness it demands. 

BY Jon Howes, VP and GM of EMEA at Wasabi.
By Brian Trzupek, Senior Vice President, Product, DigiCert.
By James Blake, Global Head of Cyber Resiliency Strategy at Cohesity.
By Scott McKinnon, Chief Security Officer (CSO), UK&I at Palo Alto Networks.
By Richard Connolly, Regional Director for UKI at Infinidat.
By Auke Huistra, Industrial & OT Cyber Security Director, DNV Cyber.
By Richard Montbeyre, Chief Privacy Officer, BMC Software.