Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the traditional security key user experience: you register a token with a site then, when logging in, you enter a username and password as normal but are also required to press a security key in order for it to sign a challenge from the website. This is an effective defense against phishing, phone number takeover, etc. But modern security keys are capable of serving the roles of username and password too, so the user experience can just involve clicking a login button, pressing the security key, and (perhaps) entering a locally-validated PIN if the security key doesn’t do biometrics. This is possible with the recently released Chromium 76 and also with Edge or Firefox on current versions of Windows.

On the plus side, this one-button flow frees users from having to remember and type their username and password for a given site. It also avoids sites having to receive and validate a password, potentially avoiding both having a password database (which, even with aggressively slow hashes, will leak many users’ passwords if disclosed), and removing any possibility of accidentally logging the plaintext values (which both Google and Facebook have done recently). On the negative side, users will need a modern security key (or Windows Hello-enabled computer) and may still need to enter a PIN.

Which security keys count as “modern”? For most people it’ll mean a series-5 black Yubikey or else a blue Yubikey that has a faint “2” printed on the upper side. Of course, there are other manufacturers who make security keys and, if it advertises “CTAP2” support, there’s a good chance that it’ll work too. But those Yubikeys certainly do.

In practical terms, web sites exercise this capability via WebAuthn, the same API that handles the traditional security key flow. (I’m not going to go into much detail about how to use WebAuthn. Readers wanting more introductory information can see what I’ve written previously or else see one of the several tutorials that come up in a Google search.)

When registering a security key for a username-free login, the important differences are that you need to make requireResidentKey true, set userVerification to required, and set a meaningful user ID.

In WebAuthn terms, a “resident” credential is one that can be discovered without knowing its ID. Generally, most security keys operate statelessly, i.e. the credential ID is an encrypted private seed, and the security key doesn’t store any per-credential information itself. Thus the credential ID is required for the security key to function so the server sends a list of them to the browser during login, implying that the server already knows which user is logging in. Resident keys, on the other hand, require some state to be kept by the security key because they can be used without presenting their ID first. (Note that, while resident keys require some state to be kept, security keys are free to keep state for non-resident keys too: resident vs non-resident is all about whether the credential ID is needed.)

User verification is about whether the security key is providing one or two authentication factors. With the traditional experience, the security key is something you have and the password is something you know. In order to get rid of the password, the security key now needs to provide two factors all by itself. It’s still something you have so the second security key factor becomes a PIN (something you know) or a biometric (something you are). That begs the question: what’s the difference between a PIN and a password? On the surface: nothing. A security key PIN is an arbitrary string, not limited to numbers. (I think it was probably considered too embarrassing to call it a password since FIDO’s slogan is “solving the world’s password problem”.) So you should think of it as a password, but it is a password with some deeper advantages: firstly, it doesn’t get sent to web sites, so they can’t leak it and people can safely use a single password everywhere. Secondly, brute-force resistance is enforced by the hardware of the security key, which will only allow eight attempts before locking and requiring a reset. Still, it’ll be nice when biometrics are common in security keys.

A user ID is an opaque identifier that should not be personally identifying. Most systems will have some database primary key that identifies a user and, if using that as a WebAuthn user ID, ensure that you encrypt it first with a key that is only used for this purpose. That way it doesn’t matter if those primary keys surface elsewhere too. Security keys will only store a single credential for a given pair of domain name and user ID. So, if you register a second credential with the same user ID on the same domain, it’ll overwrite the first.

The fact that you can register more than one credential for a given domain means that it’s important to set the metadata correctly when creating a resident credential. This isn’t unique to resident keys, but it’s much more important in this context. The user name and displayName will be shown by the browser during login when there’s more than one credential for a domain. Also the relying party name and displayName will be shown in interfaces for managing the contents of a security key.

When logging in, WebAuthn works as normal except you leave the list of credential IDs empty and set userVerification to required. That triggers the resident-credential flow and the resulting credential will include the user ID, with which you look up the user and their set of registered public keys, and then validate the public key and other parameters.

Microsoft have a good test site (enter any username) where you can experiment with crafting different WebAuthn requests.

Exposed credentials

In order to support the above, security keys obviously have a command that says “what credentials do you have for domain x?”. But what level of authentication is needed to run that command is a little complex. While it doesn’t matter for the web, one might want to use security keys to act as, for example, door access badges; especially over NFC. In that case one probably doesn’t want to bother with a PIN etc. Thus the pertinent resident credentials would have to be discoverable and exercisable given only physical presence. But in a web context, perhaps you don’t want your security key to indicate that it has a credential stored for cia.gov (or mss.gov.cn) to anyone who can plug it in. Current security keys, however, will disclose whether they have a resident credential for a given domain, and the user ID and public key for that credential, to anyone with physical access. (Which is one reason why user IDs should not be identifying.) Future security keys will have a concept of a per-credential protection level which will prevent them from being disclosed without user verification (i.e. PIN or biometrics), or without knowing their random credential ID. While Chromium will configure credential protection automatically if supported, other browsers may not. Thus it doesn’t hurt to set credProtect: 2 in the extensions dictionary during registration.

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