Passkey versus password: Which is safest?

Kfir Yeshayahu

February 25, 2024

  • # Biometric Security
  • # Account Protection
  • # Fraud Prevention

Your password is the key to your personal information — and cyber criminals have found myriad ways to infiltrate it.

Criminals, like hackers and phishers, have a lot to gain if they can access your accounts. Just a few pieces of personal data are all they need to commit crimes like identity theft or fraud. That’s why teams at companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft have invented passkeys — a safer alternative to traditional passwords. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the difference between a passkey versus a password, the security features of each, and whether switching to passkeys is right for you. 

What is a password?

A password is a code that you must correctly type, generally along with a username, to enter an account. You usually choose a password when you create an account on a website, and then can change it at any time.

Unlike a username — which is usually your email or social media handle — passwords are meant to be secret. A solid password should contain a string of hard-to-guess uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. That way, even if someone else knows or can guess your username, they won’t likely be able to figure out your password and successfully enter your accounts. 

Still, hackers have developed methods to crack your code and access your information — like brute force attacks, which run every possible username and password combination until one works. Even if you have the strongest login possible, an unauthorized third party can hack it. 

How do passwords work?

When you enter a plain text password — made up of letters, numbers, and symbols — into a login screen, the service checks it with the password it has on file for you. If it’s a match, you gain access to your account. If not, you might have a few more chances to type it in before the system locks. You might also be asked to answer a security question, like “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” or “In what city was your father born?”

Most services also take additional security measures, like password hashing, to protect your information in case someone hacks the system. This turns your password into a hash, or ciphertext, which is a long, seemingly random string of letters and numbers. If a cyber criminal intercepts the password database, they’ll see a list of ciphertext hashes instead of people’s actual information.

What is a passkey?

Passkeys are a relatively new technology that provides a different, and potentially safer, way of logging into accounts. Instead of a password, a passkey asks that you use a one-time PIN, biometric authentication, or a pattern to log in — all of which are much harder to crack. It also uses a special encryption method to make it more challenging (if not impossible) for unauthorized third parties to access your data. 

How do passkeys work?

Passkeys are account login credentials that rely on two types of encryption: public and private keys. The account issuer stores the public encryption key, and your device stores the private encryption key. When you create a passkey, you allow an authenticator, like your device or a password manager, to produce both keys. Then, whenever you log into a passkey-protected account, the authenticator and the account service communicate to approve access. 

Passkeys replace passwords, though they act similarly when you log into an account. With a passkey, you still have to authenticate the session by resolving a multi-factor authentication (MFA) “challenge,” like punching in your phone’s passcode or providing your fingerprint.

Main differences between passkeys and passwords 

Passkeys and passwords have the same mission: to allow only rightful account owners to access these spaces. But these tools differ in function, reach, and security vulnerabilities. 

Here’s what separates passwords and passkeys:

  • Generation: As a user, you’re the one who generates and remembers a password, while passkeys are automatically generated. Passwords are the same every time (unless you change them), and passkeys are ever-changing.

  • Availability: Not all services support passkeys, while nearly all websites requiring logins can use passwords. 

  • Vulnerability: Passwords are vulnerable to cyber crime — hackers can guess or find them, and phishers can manipulate you into unwittingly giving that information. But with passkeys, there’s no information for hackers or phishers to find. This technology doesn’t run on traditional login credentials that people can see, interpret, and steal.

Limitations of passkeys

One of the most significant limitations of passkeys is their availability. Not all services offer this feature yet, so you won’t be able to log into all of your accounts using passkeys until they become more universal. 

If you’re concerned about the safety of protecting your accounts with passwords in the meantime, you can take other security measures. Use MFA where possible, which adds another step to the login process and makes it harder for hackers to get through. Even better, get IronVest, which protects your passwords using biometric authentication so that only you can unlock your accounts. 

Another limitation of passkeys is that you may have trouble syncing them up across your devices. For example, you can use passkeys stored on a keychain on all of your Apple devices, but you can’t share them with another device brand like Android. While this technology continues to become more widely available and customizable, you currently need device-specific keychains for seamless logins.

Are passkeys more secure than passwords?

Thanks to passkey security features, this tool is often safer than a password. Here are a few reasons why:

  • There’s no secret code: When you use a passkey, you’re not asked to create it yourself. While people could know or guess a password and use it to enter your accounts, they couldn’t use a passkey to do the same because it either changes constantly or requires biometrics. Passkeys automatically authenticate account entry using the private encryption key on your device and the public one stored by the account issuer.

  • Phishers don’t get far: A phisher has nothing to phish for when there are no passwords in play. In a traditional phishing scam, a cyber criminal would contact you with a seemingly legitimate excuse to extract sensitive information, like your login credentials. For example, they might pretend they’re a representative from your bank to get you to update your password at a link, only to send you to a dangerous site that grabs your login credentials. If you use a passkey, you have no login credentials to enter. 

  • Your device is your authenticator: If someone doesn’t have access to your device or password manager, they can’t do much to enter a passkey-protected account. A criminal hoping to do so would have to have your device and know how to sign into it even to take the first step.  

Even though passkeys are more secure, they aren’t yet universal, so you have to continue using passwords for a while. But there are ways to boost your password security — like adding additional access filters like MFA or biometric recognition, creating strong codes that contain a mix of character types and no identifying information (like your name), and frequently changing your passwords

Protect your accounts with IronVest

Passkeys can help you enjoy stronger account protection on some sites and devices. But since they aren’t universal, you will need a better way to protect your personal data online

Get IronVest and safeguard sensitive data — like account passwords, credit card numbers, and contact information — with biometric protection and tokenized cards. IronVest also provides a zero-knowledge solution, meaning it doesn’t hoard your data. You can rest assured you’re the only person with access to your accounts.

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