Say goodbye to passwords: WebAuthn, the foundations

Right here is the primary article of a serie devoted to understanding and implementing Web Authentication API (WebAuthn) in a demo utility.

The Web Authentication API (also called WebAuthn) is a specification written by the W3C and FIDO, with the participation of Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, Yubico, and others. The API permits servers to register and authenticate customers utilizing public key cryptography as an alternative of a password.


On this article, I’ll clarify the foundations of WebAuthn: public-key cryptography.

Public-key encryption

In laptop science, cryptography is especially involved with safety of messages exchanged via insecure networks like web. Its principal utility is encryption.
Encryption is the method by which a message, referred to as plaintext, is rendered incomprehensible by an algorithm referred to as cipher. The encrypted message can also be referred to as ciphertext. The cipher takes as enter the plaintext and an encryption key which will be secret or public relying on the kind of cipher. The cipher carries additionally the decryption, which is the method of getting the plaintext from the ciphertext. Strictly talking, the cipher consists of the encryption and decryption algorithms, which aren’t essentially similar.

The important thing used throughout the encryption course of will be the identical used throughout the decryption course of, by which case, we speak about symmetric encryption. In any other case, when the decryption secret’s completely different from the encryption key, we speak about uneven encryption or public-key encryption.

In uneven encryption, the receiver of a message generates a pair of keys. One of many secret’s secret and stored securely by the receiver and known as personal key. The opposite secret’s distributed to the message sender and is taken into account public, therefore the identify public-key encryption. The sender makes use of the general public key to encrypt the message. The cipher is designed in a means that solely the corresponding personal key can decrypt the ciphertext. On this case, solely the proprietor of the personal key, the receiver, can decrypt the ciphertext.


If you encrypt a message with a personal key and decrypt it with a public key, it is referred to as signature and never encryption, as this course of alone doesn’t guarantee confidentiality however authenticity.

Digital signature

Digital signature will be seen as a message metadata that stands as an attestation of the message authenticity and integrity. Authenticity is insurance coverage in regards to the message creator id and integrity ensures that the message isn’t tampered with throughout transit.

Earlier than explaining how public-key cryptography will be concerned within the technique of digital signature, we have to introduce one other idea: hash capabilities.

In cryptography, a hash operate is a one-way operate that generates a hash worth (additionally referred to as message digest) from a message in a means that even the slightest modification of the unique message generates a completely completely different message digest*.* The hash worth is a serie of bits typically shorter than the unique message. It’s not potential to get the unique message from the message digest. Nevertheless, given the identical enter parameters, a hash operate can be utilized to regenerate the message digest from the unique message to make it possible for it has not been modified by evaluating hash values.


Now, let’s examine how digital signatures will be generated utilizing public-key cryptography and hash capabilities.

For instance Bob needs to ship a doc to Julie. He needs to ensure to Julie that the doc has been created by him and that nobody has modified it throughout the transit. Bob has already generated a pair of public/personal keys and distributed the general public key to Julie.

First, Bob generates the message digest by hashing the doc. Then, he indicators the hash worth utilizing a cryptographic cipher and his personal key. The result’s Bob’s digital signature of the unique doc. Since he’s the one one who owns his personal key, solely him can generate such signature.
Bob then sends the doc and his digital signature to Julie. She makes use of Bob’s public-key to confirm the signature by getting again the message digest. Julie additionally regenerates the message digest with the acquired doc utilizing the identical hash operate and make sure that the hash values match.
Any modification of the doc occurred after its signature will render the signature invalid and any try by a 3rd social gathering to exchange the signature will fail as a result of solely Bob has the personal key essential to generate a legitimate signature.


As beforehand talked about, to confirm a digital signature, the receiver wants the general public key of the sender. If the variety of senders grows, the variety of public keys to keep up by the receiver could also be unmanageable.
Now for instance that Julie receives a public key from an individual claiming to be Bob. How Julie can make certain it’s really Bob’s public key and never a person within the center attempting to impersonate Bob?
These points are solved by digital certificates as we’ll see subsequent.

Digital certificates

Within the context of public-key cryptography, a digital certificates is a public key with id signed by a trusted third social gathering additionally referred to as certificates authority. As an illustration, Bob’s digital certificates would comprise Bob’s identify and his public key signed by a certificates authority.
The opposite events who belief the certificates authority maintains his public key so as to confirm the certificates he delivers.

Digital certificates remedy the general public key distribution points talked about above. As a substitute of sending his public key to Julie previous to sending her a signed doc, Bob can ship the signed doc alongside his digital certificates to Julie. Since Julie has the general public key of the certificates authority, she will be able to confirm Bob’s certificates and belief Bob’s public key after a profitable verification. Julie doesn’t have to retailer Bob’s public key anymore and nobody can forge Bob’s certificates as a result of it could require having the personal key of the certificates authority.

The issue of getting the general public key of the certificates authority stays, however it’s a lot less complicated. The receiver has to get and retailer securely just one public key and solely as soon as.


It’s potential to have a number of certificates authorities by which case the receiver shops the general public keys of all of them.
In some circumstances, there will be a number of layers of certificates authorities. For instance, a root certificates authority can ship a certificates to an intermediate certificates authority who delivers Bob’s certificates. On this case, Julie solely must retailer the foundation certificates authority’s public key and Bob will ship to Julie the signed doc, his certificates and the certificates of the intermediate certificates authority. Julie will belief the intermediate certificates as a result of it has been delivered by a root certificates authority she trusts. She may even belief Bob’s certificates delivered by the intermediate certificates authority.

The system involving certificates authorities for digital certificates supply and distribution within the context of public-key cryptography known as Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).


Public-key cryptography supplies highly effective instruments to make sure confidentiality, authenticity and integrity of messages exchanged via insecure networks.

Within the subsequent article, we’ll see how WebAuthn leverages on these instruments to drop password in person authentication.

Thanks for studying and keep tuned.

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