Passwordless Authentication vs. Multi-Factor Authentication

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on January 26, 2022

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Passwordless authentication and multi-factor authentication aren’t just IT buzzwords anymore; they are a part of everyday life. Today, the average person unlocks their phone with facial recognition, logs into work applications with an authenticator app, or views sensitive documents using a PIN they received in a text message.

And the technology won’t stop there 一 both MFA and passwordless solutions are growing at a staggering rate. The global MFA market size is projected to grow to $23.5 billion by 2026, and the global passwordless authentication market size is estimated to reach $456.79 billion by 2030.

But for all the hype around passwordless authentication and MFA, there is still confusion around the purpose, efficacy, and challenges of each security protocol.

What Is Passwordless Authentication?

Passwordless authentication is exactly what it sounds like 一 confirming a user’s identity without the use of a password. It may sound too good to be true, but the reason it works is that your identity doesn’t have to be verified via a knowledge factor like a password. You can prove your identity by presenting a part of your body (a biometric factor) or an access code or link you received on a device or app that you own (a possessive factor) instead; methods that have been tested and implemented in a variety of ways. 

As you can imagine, passwordless authentication is popular among employees because they no longer have to memorize long, complicated passwords. Instead, they log into software using something they can’t forget, like their fingerprint or phone. Passwordless authentication also makes things easier on IT. They don’t need to store passwords, send password reset reminders, or monitor possible security incidents due to password breaches. And with no passwords to guess or steal, cybercriminals have a much harder time collecting the data they want.

What Is Multi-Factor Authentication?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a digital identity verification system that requires users to pass several authentication checkpoints. MFA is similar to passwordless authentication in that it can leverage biometric or possessive factors, but the difference is that MFA still uses usernames and passwords. 

To log into systems configured with MFA, you enter your username and password as you normally would. Then, you’re prompted to show or enter something else, like a one-time access code sent through an authenticator app, a magic link sent to your email, or fingerprint. Once you pass those mini-tests, you’re logged in.

You can think of MFA as a door with a lock, retinal scan, and passcode on it. Like a password, the lock might be simpler to pick, but replicating a retinal scan or hacking the device receiving a one-time passcode is extremely difficult. Having multiple layers of protection severely limits the damage criminals can do.

The Differences Between MFA and Passwordless Authentication

While passwordless authentication has some similarities with multi-factor authentication, it also has some distinct differences in terms of authentication, security, ease of use, scalability, and cost.

Authentication

MFA increases an organizations’ confidence that someone is who they say they are by adding extra authentication factors on top of a password. For example, an MFA-based system might prompt a user to type in their password, then use voice recognition as a secondary authentication factor, and utilize a one-time password as a third authentication factor.

Passwordless authentication removes the need for a password entirely, replacing it with a possessive or biometric factor. In the example above, someone might authenticate only using voice recognition.

Security

There’s no doubt that both MFA and passwordless authentication bring an added level of security to your organization, but they do have limitations. Since MFA systems use a username and password as the primary authentication method, they are susceptible to phishing and brute force attacks. Second or third authentication methods may block cybercriminals from getting much further, but they need to be airtight to prevent a full-blown attack.

Even passwordless authentication can fall prey to trojan horse, man-in-the-browser, or malware attacks if one-time passwords or magic links get intercepted. And, although rare, attackers have recreated people’s fingerprints and voices to circumvent biometric authentication.

Ease of use

Passwordless authentication is typically considered faster and more convenient than MFA. Users don’t have to commit passwords to memory and only have to use one method of authentication. MFA is more time-consuming and more time-sensitive (some codes expire in as little as 10 seconds), which can lead to employee frustration 一 particularly if they are logging into multiple applications per day.

At the same time, biometric and possessive authentication factors used with passwordless authentication aren’t always user-friendly. For instance, an employee who receives private keys via a USB drive has to carry the device with them at all times, and can’t log into any applications if the USB gets damaged or lost. The ability to read fingerprints and faces can also vary depending on the sophistication of your scanners.

Cost and scalability

Implementing passwordless authentication is a big undertaking and a big expense. Selecting the right software, picking authentication methods, installing new devices, creating a project plan, and dealing with change management are just a few of the many components of a passwordless authentication project.

MFA, on the other hand, can be as simple as asking employees to download an authenticator app or register their email to receive magic links.

Best of Both Worlds

Since passwordless authentication is arguably more secure but takes longer to implement, many companies use MFA first. Not only does this get users accustomed to various authentication methods, but it also gives the IT department time to craft a comprehensive project plan.

Once everyone feels comfortable and ready, the organization moves on to a fully passwordless environment. Some organizations take this a step further, combining both methods into passwordless MFA.

But using just any MFA solution may not be the best jumping-off point for passwordless authentication. JumpCloud’s environment-wide multi-factor authentication is easy for your end users to use, and even easier for you to set up. With the click of a button, you can enable MFA to restrict access to networks, applications, devices, and more.

You can also choose the best authentication methods for your company, whether it’s push notifications, universal second factor (U2F), or even TOTP MFA. The best part is that when JumpCloud MFA is enabled, it works across your entire organization 一 regardless of where employees are working. 

To learn more about what makes JumpCloud’s MFA product the best foundation for a fully passwordless future, request a free demo today.

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

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