Passkeys: first impressions on WebAuthN

2024 / 05 / 22  •  Daniel Garnier-Moiroux

Passkeys have been trending in the past few years. The term was first introduced by Apple in their 2022 WWDC conference. Then we’ve heard of FIDO. In 2023, more and more passkeys related-talks started popping up during various conferences. And, in early 2024, the big SaaS and cloud vendors have been nudging users to use passkeys to login - Okta, Google, Github, AWS…

I gave my own take on a passkey talk in March 2024 at Voxxed Zürich, and then in April 2024 with Josh Long at Devoxx France. I wanted to do something a bit different than what I had seen previously: focus on the actual implementation in a real app, rather than going through slides and explaining all the details.

On top of building a demo app, I’ve been collaborating with Rob Winch on bringing Passkey support to Spring Security1.

And, friends, after the blood, sweat and tears of integrating passkeys, I have an Opinion™.

User adoption is still very low

Even at tech conferences, where the crowd is tech-curious and generally in the “early adopter”-ish cohort, attendees did not really know what to expect about passkeys. At Devoxx France, out of several hundred folks in the room, less than 50% had even heard of passkeys, and only 2 people actually used passkeys.

While there is a push from vendors, we are still a long way from the Peak of Inflated Expectations. Some awareness, but a lot of inertia. Doing a demo using a security dongle (e.g. Yubikey) does not seem super exciting to developers. However, showing newer stuff like logging in on your Mac with your fingerprint reader, or using a nearby device, garners a lot more attention.

The flow for logging in with a nearby device goes like so:

  1. On their computer, the user navigates to the target website and clicks “log in with a passkey”
  2. A modal dialog shows up, and the user selects “log in with a QR code / using a nearby device”
  3. Using their phone, the user scans the QR code, and log in using their phone authenticator (e.g. FaceID on an iPhone)
  4. Wait for a few seconds …
  5. User is logged in on their computer, without having typed any password.

This very portable authentication method has quite the “wow effect”. I do think that, over the long term, this technology will catch on, because it is convenient. The added security is just a nice added bonus.

The “consumer vs entreprise” tension

There seems to be some tension in the use-cases for passkeys. Members of the FIDO alliance, such as Apple, want their Fast IDentity Online for consumers: widespread adoption, ease of use. Vendors of security solutions, such as Yubikey or entreprise-grade password managers, want extreme extensibility with many security checks built-in.

Those use-cases are at odds: you can’t have something simple that is also infinitely extensible. And so the developer API for integrating passkeys is unspeakably complicated.

The WebAuthN API is … 😱️

The WebAuthN spec specifies how to access authenticator-bound credentials (“publick key credentials”) from Javascript code, and how to validate the signatures an authenticator produces. Simply put, it’s the bit of JS code that opens up the “sign in with a passkey” window.

The spec is extremely complicated. The current “stable” recommendation is from 2021 ; and the current “live” draft, v3, is from 2023. It’s not fully stable. It is not trivial to understand what the browsers actually implement vs what’s in the spec.

On top of this the API is … well … a W3C API. Arcane and complicated to implement. And doing the server-side crypto is absolute bonkers - decoding some binary reprensentation of your payload from CBOR encoded data, extracting a complicated COSE key (COSE stands for CBOR Object Signing and Encryption, here’s some more CBOR for you 🤯️), and then validating data scattered across multiple properties, and storing all of it (“just in case”).

Fortunately some brave souls have implemented libs for your to consume the data, such as webauthn4j. That lib powers nothing less than Keycloak, and it is maintained by … a single contributor (it had 3 commits from external contributors since jan 2023). The Yubico Java implementation is not much better.

This is worrying for the state of the ecosystem.

Where do we go from here?

I’m not sure. For WebAuthN to catch up, and for passkeys to be more than just a “big SaaS” player thing, we need a lot of stubborn folks implementing it, and pushing the needs forward…

The Spring Security team is working hard on releasing something usable and customizable. It will require some work to move beyond the “default experience” we provide, but by providing Passkey support, you’ll help move Passkey support forward.

  1. Rob did all the hard work. I’ve only provided feedback, along with the occasional design and API discussion.