That’s the post. What are passkeys? I don’t have answers, just questions. I believe passkeys are a great idea but the tech world is doing a terrible job explaining them. Someone really needs to explain how passkeys work in Internet products. Existing descriptions aren’t sinking in, as evidenced by the confusion online. For instance this Hacker News discussion where a new Passkey product announcement is met with a bunch of basic questions about what Passkeys even are.
Update: see these newer Passkey overview articles here and here. Also my own notes written after this was published.
The tech is pretty well defined: Passkeys are a password replacement that uses WebAuthn to log you in to stuff. Companies are widely deploying them now: Apple, Google, Microsoft, 1Password. Passkeys are an industry consensus and are arriving in production very soon or already has. Great! Now then what are they really?
Here’s some questions from my perspective as an ordinary if expert Internet user. I own a few computers and phones and don’t want to trust just one company with my entire digital identity.
The core of many of these questions is exactly what a passkey is. What I want to read is an article that explains the gestalt of passkeys and identity on the Internet in a way the answers to all these questions becomes clear.
My understanding from what I’ve read is that passkeys are an authentication token, basically a replacement for a single secret like a password. Naively that’d mean I’d need a different passkey for every website I log in to (just like I need different passwords). But I could be wrong. Or maybe the passkey intention is that we use federated logins, so sites like my Mastodon server use Google to help me log in with my Google passkey? (That’s an enormous business problem, if so.)
My other understanding is a lot of my questions don’t have good answers yet. Ie: revocation of a passkey or migrating to new devices. The product announcements from various companies say “trust us, that’s coming soon”. But I do not trust a company like Google or Apple to later add a feature that will make it easy for me to migrate away from their loving embrace. That stuff has to be defined and working before Passkeys are a good product for consumers and the Internet.
Update: Ensuing discussion has made one thing clear: you don't share passkeys between sites. You have a separate passkey for each thing you log in to. That clears up several of my questions. I don't know how I didn't understand that already but the confusion isn't mine alone.
There really needs to be a good, clear description of Passkey as a product so questions like this aren’t being asked over and over again. I’m hopeful the folks working on this stuff understand the answers and just haven’t communicated it well.