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Passwordless Authentication

Passwordless authentication, also known as passwordless MFA, is a type of MFA that verifies user identity without relying on passwords or other memorized secrets. While most forms of passwordless authentication are multi-factor (MFA), simpler forms exist such as email-delivered magic links.

Instead of using passwords, identity can be verified based on a “possession factor.” For example, possession of an object that uniquely identifies the user because no other user would be expected to have the object (e.g. a registered mobile device or an issued hardware token). In passwordless, identity can also be confirmed using “inherent factors” such as a person’s biometric signature (e.g. fingerprint, voice, face or retinal scan).

The landscape for passwordless authentication can be divided into two distinct solution types: CIAM or consumer identity and access management, and WIAM or workforce identity and access management. While both types of solutions may be purchased by “enterprises” or organizations, but the workforce IAM refers to a passwordless solution used by employees of an organization to access a myriad of resources and IT services, while CIAM refers to a passwordless solution used by the organization’s customers (generally accessing resources over the public Internet).

Why is it needed?

Since the dawn of computing, the de facto approach for user authentication has been the password. The problem with this is that unlike possession or inherent factors, an authentication method that is based on a shared secret, ie. something the user knows (such as a password, passphrase, or PIN code) is generally stored in a centralized database. This makes the secret susceptible to theft (either by attacking the shared secret database or socially engineering an attack to have the user share the password). Users are human and engage in risky behavior such as reusing passwords, choosing easy to guess passwords or even sharing and writing down their passwords in places where others can see it. As a result, passwords are one of the biggest cyberattack vectors and have been responsible for 81% of breaches. They also lead to attacks such as credential stuffing, corporate account takeover (CATO), password spraying and brute force attacks.

While we won’t go into all the problems with passwords, suffice it to say that passwords also create more negative user authentication experiences and create significant management costs for IT operations and help desks as users are locked out of their accounts.

Octopus Authentication Server

Benefits of Passwordless Authentication

Passwordless authentication offers numerous benefits at both a business and technical level.


  • Better security: Passwordless eliminates the target of phishing attacks and invalidates all the compromised credentials that exist on the Dark Web. This slashes the attack surface area that organizations must protect.
  • User Experience (UX): Passwordless offers a more streamlined and universal interface for authentication that is less onerous on the user.
  • Lowers costs / increases ROI: Passwords require constant maintenance from your IT staff. Removing them reduces support tickets and frees IT to deal with other problems, all while contributing to your ROI.


  • Decentralized: Because passwordless doesn’t require a master list of passwords or a password manager, it’s decentralized, meaning a breach doesn’t compromise the security of your entire system.
  • Passwordless generally requires no extra object to carry around since most solutions leverage the ubiquity of user smart phones (an exception being a FIDO security key).
  • Broad standards-based support – In addition to supporting industry-wide standards like SAML and OAUTH, modern passwordless solutions are FIDO2-compliant and support improved authentication user flows such as synchronized passkeys or device-bound passkeys (formerly called security keys).

How Does Passwordless Authentication Work?

There are three types of factors that can be used in an MFA solution – something you are (biometric authentication), something you know (password), or something you have (mobile device). The one factor that is often changed from 2FA and MFA is the weakest factor of the three; namely, ‘something you know,’ such as a password.

Nearly all passwordless MFA solutions stipulate a factor based on ‘something you own or have.’ To further strengthen authentication, many add or substitute ‘something you are,’ typically verified with biometrics.

One framework that guides most passwordless authentication solution architectures comes from the FIDO standard, a broadly accepted industry standard that specifies a highly secure interchange of keys built on public key cryptography to authenticate users. For a deeper dive on FIDO, consult our Complete Guide to FIDO and related standards.

What Is the Difference Between Passwordless and traditional MFA?

Passwordless is a form of MFA, but why isn’t traditional MFA good enough?  Whether it’s 2FA vs passwordless authentication or other MFA alternatives, prior MFA approaches have several downsides. Most importantly, traditional MFA is built on top of a password, so end users still have the recall problem we discussed before. Additionally, the 2nd factor typically adds user frustration to the picture with OTPs (one-time passcodes) that require extra typing. A solution to this is simply a mobile push confirmation, but recently even this factor has become susceptible to compromise through MFA push bombing. A passwordless login solves problems traditional MFA may cause (or at least not fix), from a choppy user experience and “MFA fatigue” to serious problems like compromised credentials showing up on the dark web.

Passwordless Authentication and Phishing-Resistant MFA

MFA also remains vulnerable to elaborate duplicitous “man in the middle” (MITM) attacks in which adversaries trick users into entering keys and OTPs into fake log-in pages so they can turn around and use them to access the real sites. So, for all the friction it causes with users, we can safely conclude that traditional MFA does not make us phishing-resistant.

The growing menace from these attacks as well as the Colonial Pipeline Attack which affected societal operations led to the Biden presidential administration passing memorandum 22-09 in early 2022, mandating that all critical infrastructure industries implement “phishing-resistant MFA” by 2024.

This complements guidance from NIST, CISA and other standards bodies that also detail MFA requirements and differing measures that can be taken to attain higher levels of security assurance.

The growing move to phishing-resistant MFA plays well with passwordless MFA or authentication, because most passwordless authentication solutions are phishing-resistant. So, in essence, most passwordless authentication supports the push to wider spread use of phishing-resistant MFA inherently. Click here for a more in-depth analysis of phishing-resistant MFA.

How Does Double Octopus Do Passwordless?

Secret Double Octopus is the industry leader for workforce Passwordless Authentication having won numerous awards for our proven enterprise-level solutions. More than 150K users authenticate securely with the Octopus platform daily.

Our Passwordless solution is a complete one, known as “full passwordless.” Some companies sell Passwordless solutions that are not fully Passwordless as they don’t offer coverage for onprem and legacy apps and desktop access.

The Octopus platform offers the broadest enterprise use case coverage and is ideal for industries such as higher education and critical infrastructure. Mandates from the Biden administration and other governments call for critical infrastructures and other industries to move toward Zero Trust security postures and phishing-resistant MFA.

Passwordless MFA represents the best approach for phishing-resistance but making the transition can be a big job. SDO offers the ability to slowly transition from password-based to Passwordless, with milestones along the way to becoming a fully Passwordless organization. We focus on adding Passwordless to your existing infrastructure, instead of forcing you to restructure to make our solution fit.

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Learn more about passwordless authentication

  • How does passwordless authentication work?

    There are three types of factors that can be used in an MFA solution – something you are (biometric authentication), something you know (password), or something you have (mobile device). The one factor that is often changed from 2FA and MFA is the weakest factor of the three; namely, ‘something you know,’ such as a password.

    Nearly all passwordless MFA solutions stipulate a factor based on ‘something you own or have.’ To further strengthen authentication, many add or substitute ‘something you are,’ typically verified with biometrics.

    One framework that guides most journeys towards passwordless authentication comes from FIDO, a group consisting of tech giants that have laid out specifications for how online security should work. Ultimately, the expectation is that most if not all methods will also support or be built on Public Key Infrastructure or PKI architectures.


    All three solution types are multi-factor, however the factors used vary greatly.

    2FA (two-factor authentication) is a more specific form of the generic MFA (multi-factor authentication). 2FA requires at least two factors to complete an authentication. Multi-factor authentication solutions may require more than 2 factors, or have a higher degree of available factors, but generally, both 2FA and MFA are built on a password factor plus additional factors.

    Passwordless authentication solutions are generally MFA by definition given the double factor requirement generally still stands. The one factor that is often changed from 2FA and MFA is the factor of ‘something you know’, such as a password. Instead, passwordless authentication solutions substitute ‘something you are’ such as biometric instead. Nearly all the solutions mandate a factor based on ‘something you own or have’ such as a smartphone.


    One of the most commonly misunderstood points on going passwordless is the cost of implementing such a platform.

    This is most often because users look at the expense of an actual platform without comparing it to the total cost (TCO) of maintaining a password-based scheme.

    The truth is, these systems overall can drastically cut IT costs for an enterprise. There is a broad spectrum of costs associated with keeping password-based authentication. These include managing, setting policies, and encrypting passwords. Additionally, going passwordless means eliminating help desk tickets and password resets, which according to Forester, can run anywhere between $25 to $70 a call.

    For a clearer picture of TCO and ROI with a passwordless MFA solution, you can run your own ROI calculation to see how much you can save within the first year and watch this short video to learn how you can get started in about an hour.


    For many companies, the obstacle in front of leaving a password-based system is simply lack of familiarity .

    Passwords have been around forever. People know how to use them. Managers often think that moving to a new, passwordless platform will take a serious toll on user experience and disrupt workflow.

    In reality, the overwhelming majority of corporate employees today prefer passwordless technologies because of the ease of use they provide. Solutions such as push notifications, for instance, are revolutionizing authentication by providing not just a substantial increase in security, but also by relieving users of the burdens of remembering and securing passwords.


    The vast proliferation of personal smart devices has made passwordless solutions highly scalable, even for large company workforces.

    The fastest platforms for an enterprise to switch to will be the ones that harness employee mobile devices and turn them into mobile authenticators.

    The Passwordless Push notification method utilizes Phone-as-a-Token and supports a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach that has proven cost-effective and better serves cases of legacy software and remote workforce.


    Yes. Due to the increase in the integration of on-premises and cloud-based identity management systems, many authentication solutions have adapted themselves to this model.

    The Octopus Authenticator has full integration capabilities with network services such as Microsoft’s Active Directory and other cloud platforms making it a suitable solution for the hybrid enterprise.


    The use of passwordless authentication methods like biometric and facial recognition has become a norm on mobile devices, but many organizations still struggle to deploy the technology on their corporate networks.

    Whether you can deploy passwordless authentication on your network depends on the infrastructure that supports it. Fortunately, the developers of most prominent operating systems and authentication standards acknowledge the need to integrate the option of passwordless authentication into their software. Microsoft recently announced the support for passwordless sign-in on both its individual Windows products and networks running on the Microsoft Active Directory . Users will be able to use FIDO2 keys equipped with fingerprint scanners or fingerprint scanners integrated onto their laptops to log in to their Microsoft and AD accounts instead of passwords.

    Linux has also supported passwordless SSH logins for several years now. Network administrators can configure their servers to use software keys in addition to or instead of passwords.

    This means that both systems can enforce a policy where users can only log in with passwordless authentication technology.

    Both directory services on Windows and Linux also support SAML authentication, an open standard that enables network administrators to implement their own authentication mechanism. This means you can integrate a mobile-based out-of-band authentication technology like Secret Double Octopus into your network.


    Single sign on (SSO) authentication is a good way to reduce the authentication attack surface, simplify the management of passwords, and provide a better user experience. The idea is to use one service (Google, Microsoft Azure, Active Directory, Amazon AWS…) to sign in to multiple accounts.

    However, many organizations would also want to be able to integrate the convenience of SSO with the added security of passwordless authentication. Most prominent SSO technologies are based on SAML, which is flexible in authentication technology.

    Secret Double Octopus provides a passwordless SSO technology based on SAML that organizations can implement into their online services. It also has a passwordless implementation for several popular SSO technologies, including Google’s G-Suite and Amazon’s AWS.


    No–in Microsoft Windows, service accounts are accounts that are explicitly used to run services in the background. All versions of Windows come with a few default service accounts such as Local Service, Network Service, and Local System, which have different levels of access to local and network resources. These service accounts are simple to configure and use but are typically shared among multiple applications and services and cannot be managed on a domain level.

    For organizations and users that want to customize the security of various services and applications, they can use Managed Service Accounts like CyberArk, which provides better administration and password management.

    You can further enhance the security and ease of use of your Managed Service Accounts by integrating a passwordless authentication technology with your Active Directory (AD) installation. This gives you the flexibility of managed service accounts plus the convenience of passwordless authentication.


    In the past years, regulatory bodies have come to understand and acknowledge the weaknesses and security threats associated with the storage and use of passwords. That’s why they’re constantly raising the bar for the minimum requirements of passwords (length, complexity, encryption, change cycles) and making it mandatory to add two-factor authentication in many settings.

    The NIST, the body that sets technology standards in the U.S. and acts as a point of reference for many other countries, requires that in many settings services secure user identities through multi-factor authentication (MFA) . This means the service must support at least two of the following:

    • Something you know (passwords)
    • Something you have (mobile device or FIDO key)
    • Something you are (biometric data)

    In some settings, such as financial services, the standards body explicitly requires the use of biometric data as one of the authentication factors. This means that a technology such as Secret Double Octopus, which combines out-of-band mobile and biometric authentication, is a good choice to make sure your organization is compliant with security standards and regulations while also using convenient, user-friendly technology.