The U2F key is a network authentication tool. In a very simplified way, the U2F key is the key to the internet. 

What does U2F stand for?

U2F is an abbreviation of the English phrase Universal Second Factor, which is the universal second component used to authenticate online. This name is associated with two-factor authentication, i.e. network authentication, in which, in addition to the traditional static password, a second component is used to increase the login security level.

U2F Keys and Two-Factor Authentication

Two-Factor Authentication or 2FA was created to better secure user accounts on the Internet. Thanks to 2FA, it is more difficult for cybercriminals to gain access to users’ private data, as they have to get through not one (password) but two firewalls (the second component). There are many methods of two-factor authentication, although authentication based on U2F keys is indicated by cybersecurity specialists as the most secure mechanism.

Confirmed security of U2F keys   

U2F keys are often called the strongest authentication method, by some described as completely resistant to phishing. U2F keys gained their good reputation after the Google corporation introduced them massively for all its employees (over 85,000 people) and thus eliminated the risks associated with phishing and credentials theft. U2F keys at Google have been used since 2017 and since then the company has not registered a single case of employee’s account takeover.

How do U2F keys work?

In addition to security, the great advantage of U2F keys over other strong authentication methods is their incredible ease of use. U2F keys allow users to quickly and securely access any website or online service. To authenticate, the user simply inserts the U2F key into a USB port and then confirms their identity by pressing a button on the key. On smartphones or tablets, the key needs to be placed close to the NFC antenna.

a hand holding a u2f security key with secfense logo on it
Secfense allows you to easily introduce U2F keys to any application

What are the advantages of U2F keys?

Strong Authentication with U2F keys

Strong authentication using public-key cryptography that protects users from phishing, session hijacking, man-in-the-middle attacks, and malware.

Ease of use of U2F keys

The key works immediately after registration with the service, thanks to native support for operating systems and browsers, enabling instant authentication in any number of services. The key does not require memorizing, entering, or rewriting any codes, installing any drivers, or any additional applications.

High level of privacy

The U2F key allows users to create and fully control their online identities. A user may have multiple identities across different services, without any personal information tied to the identity. The U2F key generates a new key pair (private and public key) for each service where the service stores the public key and the private key never leaves the U2F device. Thanks to this approach, the risk of credential theft is eliminated.

A multitude of possibilities

Open standards provide U2F keys with flexibility and the possibility of various applications. Currently, U2F keys are mainly used to confirm identity in the network, in the future, they can also be used as access keys to authenticate the opening of physical doors, as a presence confirmation tool, voting tool, etc.

U2F key history

U2F keys were originally developed by a joint effort of Google and Yubico, with the participation of NXP Semiconductors. Currently, the standard is open and expanded by the FIDO Alliance – an open association whose mission is to reduce the role of passwords and replace them with stronger authentication methods.

Is U2F key the same as FIDO key?

There are many other words and phrases associated with U2F keys that are often confused with each other. The following glossary is intended to help you understand the most important terms.

What is FIDO?

FIDO is an open standard for web authentication developed by the FIDO Alliance. FIDO authentication allows you to replace a login that uses only a static password with a secure login that uses public key cryptography. The name FIDO comes from the abbreviation Fast IDentity Online (that is, fast online identity).

What is Fido Alliance?

The FIDO (“Fast IDentity Online”) Alliance is an open industry association founded in February 2013 with the mission of developing and promoting authentication standards that “help reduce over-reliance on passwords worldwide.” FIDO was founded by a group of companies which included, among others, Lenovo or PayPal. At the end of 2016, the number of FIDO members exceeded 260 and is still growing. Currently, the management board of the organization includes representatives of companies such as Alibaba Group, Amazon, American Express, Apple, Google, Intel, MasterCard, Microsoft and Visa.

What is FIDO2?

In the simplest terms, FIDO2 is an introductory step to passwordless, i.e. online authentication without the use of static passwords.

Delving into more detail, FIDO2 is the latest set of specifications developed by the FIDO Alliance. FIDO2 enables users to use devices used on a daily basis (such as smartphones and laptops) for easy authentication with online services in both mobile and stationary environments. The FIDO2 specifications are the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Internet Authentication (WebAuthn) specification and the corresponding Client-to-Authenticator (CTAP) FIDO Alliance protocol.

A hand holding a cryptografic security key called u2f with secfense logo on it
The implementation of U2F keys from Secfense does not require any interference with the protected applications’ code

How does U2F compare to FIDO2?

U2F is the ancestor or progenitor of authentication devices that support the FIDO standard. U2F keys allow you to create and confirm your identity on the network using public-key cryptography. Thanks to the FIDO2 specification set, devices such as smartphones with fingerprint readers and laptops with infrared cameras can also serve as authentication devices and – like the U2F key – can create and confirm identities on the network using public-key cryptography.  

Where can I use U2F keys?

Each of us can use U2F keys today. Many services that we use on a daily basis allow you to secure your data using U2F keys. The most popular social media or the largest service providers on the Internet already allow the launch of U2F as the second login component. 

How to introduce U2F in an organization?

Large organizations already secure the most important applications or accounts of key employees using U2F keys. The aforementioned Google Corporation uses keys to secure all employees on all applications. 

The implementation of U2F keys in business can be a complicated process or even impossible in the traditional approach to the implementation of security tools. However, there are ways to adopt strong authentication methods that completely eliminate the development work and allow you to enter U2F keys without the need to customize the application. This approach was developed by Secfense and is based on the implementation of security broker mechanisms that shifts the burden of implementation from difficult programming work to a simple network configuration. 

To learn how U2F keys and other strong authentication methods can be implemented globally across your organization, visit the User Access Security Broker technology page and contact us.  

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