In praise of WebAuthn

tl;dr: I just got a Yubikey 5 and set it up on a bunch of things. You should too, because WebAuthn is awesome.

Now the long version!

Two-factor authentication has been a thing for a while now. You’re probably familiar with it in various forms. There’s SMS-based 2FA, commonly used by banks, where they text you a code you have to re-type when logging in. Then there are token/one-time-password based systems where you can use a hardware key like a Yubikey or a software authenticator like Google Authenticator or FreeOTP to generate and enter a one-time password when logging into a system.

If you’re like I was yesterday, maybe you’ve got two Yubikeys on your keyring and another in a drawer somewhere and you have to remember which four systems you have set up on which slots on which key, and you’ve got FreeOTP as a backup.

Maybe you’ve also kinda heard about “U2F” and had the vague idea that it sounded neat. And also maybe you’ve read some stuff about “WebAuthn” recently and thought it sounded maybe cool but also maybe confusing and what’s going on and maybe this isn’t the most important thing you could be figuring out today?

Well, prodded by a couple of mailing list threads I did figure it out a bit, and here’s the thing: WebAuthn is spreading, and it’s awesome. If you are just a person who wants to log into stuff – it’s 2FA done way better.

Here’s the cool stuff:

  • You can use one key (‘authenticator’) to log into as many different WebAuthn-supporting sites as you want (and this is secure, they’re not all sharing the same seed or anything)
  • You can register multiple authenticators per site
  • An authenticator can be a hardware key (mainly a Yubikey 5, at this point, but the Solokey is supposed to be a fully open-source WebAuthn-supporting key, only available to backers so far), but you can also use a phone or laptop with a fingerprint reader or facial ID system
  • It works on Linux. Really easily. It works on Firefox (not just Chrome). It works on Firefox on Android. Yeah, all the stuff you kinda automatically assume is going to be a pain in the ass…isn’t! It actually fricking works!
  • WebAuthn-compatible keys can still support other systems too…specifically, you can get a Yubikey and use it for WebAuthn but it also still has two OTP slots, and no you don’t have to do something stupid to pick which system you’re using, it all just magically works somehow, I don’t know how and I don’t care. The Yubikey and Firefox are also backwards-compatible with U2F, so sites that implemented U2F but didn’t update to WebAuthn yet work fine

Seriously, it’s awesome. And it actually works, like, right now, really well. On useful sites! Try it! Github supports it, for instance. Go to your Github account, go to the Settings page, go to Security, enable 2FA if you don’t have it enabled already, and hit edit on ‘Security keys’. Then click ‘Register new security key’. Give it a name (like ‘phone’ or ‘yubikey #1’ or whatever). If you’re using a Yubikey, plug it in and hit the button. If you’re using a phone with a fingerprint sensor or facial ID, there’ll be an option for ‘use this device with a fingerprint’ or something like that. Pick it, and touch the sensor or show it your face. And that’s it. You’re done. Then when you login you just do the same thing (plug in, push button, touch sensor, or show face) and you’re in. It’s like the fricking future or something.

You can even use a Yubikey via NFC to log in with Firefox on Android (and I assume Chrome too, but I didn’t try that). Yeah, I tried it, it worked. First time. (Once I figured out where the NFC sensor was, anyway). You can even apparently use your phone connected via Bluetooth to login on a computer, though I didn’t try that yet – the browser should let you pick the Bluetooth-connected phone as the authenticator, then the phone will ask you for your fingerprint or face.

It’s all so much frickin’ better than re-typing codes from text messages or remembering Yubikey slot numbers. I really did not realize it was gonna be this nice. It is also more secure than OTP-based systems and much more secure than SMS-based systems, which is great, but even if it wasn’t it’s just nicer. I really hope W3C and Mozilla and Google and Apple and whoever go out and sell it that way as hard as they can.

So far I’ve set up my Google account (I think Google is still technically using U2F not WebAuthn, but as far as the user experience went it didn’t make any difference), Github, Bitwarden (which is a great open-source password management service), and Gandi (I use them for domain registration and DNS, they’re great for that), and now I’m busy writing to a ton of other sites to demand they get on the bandwagon already. I used the OTP slots for Fedora and Red Hat internal systems (neither supports WebAuthn yet, unfortunately – one limitation of WebAuthn is that it is fairly ‘web-y’, it’s less suited to systems where you need to authenticate in non-web-protocol scenarios, so FAS and RH auth can’t just switch over to it that easily). And my three pre-U2F Yubikeys are wiped and on their way to hardware heaven…

3 Responses

  1. Martin
    Martin December 25, 2019 at 11:34 pm | | Reply

    I’ve only recently started using 2FA keys and I cannot stop singing their praises. I’m definitely going to give WebAuthn a look.

  2. Anthony
    Anthony December 28, 2019 at 2:25 pm | | Reply

    WebAuthn is really nice for authentication. Sadly my main use-case is with the Apache web server but I can’t find an Apache module to enable this. Very Sad.

  3. Gerard
    Gerard December 29, 2019 at 5:23 am | | Reply

    > “If you’re like I was yesterday, maybe you’ve got two Yubikeys on your keyring and another in a drawer somewhere”

    This is exactly the amount and locations of my Yubikeys!

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