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The passwordless future comes into view

September 20, 2021, 6:23 PM UTC

Americans are terrible with passwords, me included. 

For me, the keys to my email, bank accounts, and social media are all mostly the same—with slightly different variations. A few extra numbers here. A different symbol there. But they are far from the complicated cryptographic combinations that Silicon Valley, privacy experts, and the government suggest using. 

I’m not alone (nor, in my opinion, the worst offender). In 2019, a survey conducted by Google and The Harris Poll found that 24% of Americans use “password,” “123456,” or some other ridiculously easy combination as the key to their online world. More than a third of people in the U.S. and Canada keep their passwords in notebooks or on Excel, according to a 2019 study from HYPR, the self-anointed “passwordless company.” And the same report detailed how 72% of people reuse their passwords in their professional and personal lives, while 49% just add or change a particular digit or character in their passwords when prompted by their employer. Of those last two, I will admit I am guilty. 

Well, the tech community seems to have had enough of people like me.

Our laziness to dutifully keep track of and change passwords has helped create a world where there are an estimated 18 billion password attacks by hackers every year, according to Microsoft.

“My friend, Bret Arsenault, our Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) here at Microsoft likes to say, ‘Hackers don’t break in, they log in.” That has stuck with me ever since I first heard him say it because it’s so true,” Microsoft’s Vasu Jakkal, a corporate vice president of security, compliance, and identity, wrote on Sept. 15.

So, Microsoft—long a proponent for a passwordless future—will finally allow users to get rid of passwords in favor of using an authenticator app. What does that mean? Microsoft users will be able to ditch password in favor of using its Authenticator app, security keys, or text messages to access their accounts, often with the help of biometrics. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we’re venturing toward a world where you need a retina scan like out of a James Bond movie to send a tweet. (Or at least, I don’t think it does?) Instead, tech companies are pushing to use tools like the iPhone’s FaceID capabilities, with which consumers are already well acquainted.

The news adds to the wave of momentum that has amassed during the pandemic in favor of killing off the password. The World Economic Forum notably signed on in early 2020, saying a passwordless future would cut down on cybercrime, improve user experience, and lead to lower costs for companies. Alphabet’s Google has signaled it believes that the future will eventually be free of passwords, too.

We may be a ways away from that, though. The expansion of biometrics is likely to set off a flurry of questions and concerns with consumers, regulators, and lawmakers about how tech companies holding the data related to scan of your face is protecting that information. And then there is the learning curve. Remember, there are still gobs of people using passwords like “123456.” But Microsoft’s announcement does mark a step toward a new era—one that is seemingly becoming more and more inevitable.

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And finally a programming note: A newly wed Robert Hackett will be back in your inboxes come Wednesday. Thanks for sticking with me today.

Declan Harty
@declanharty
declan.harty@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Hollywood streams. The 73rd Emmy Awards turned out to be a showcase of Silicon Valley's best TV effortsTed Lasso, the lovable Jason Sudeikis-starring series from Apple's AppleTV+, won best comedy series, while Netflix's The Crown walked away with best drama honors. Each of the top acting awards went to the individuals on camera for streaming services, as well. 

Red light. The head of the National Transportation Safety Board wants Tesla to hit the brakes on its plans to upgrade its driver-assistance software, known as Full Self-Driving Capability, to better function in cities. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Elon Musk’s carmaker still has “basic safety issues'' to address before the city-driving upgrade is broadly rolled out. Homendy added that the claim of Full Self-Driving from Tesla is “misleading and irresponsible.”

Twitter settles. Jack Dorsey's social media company plans to pay $809.5 million to settle a shareholder class action lawsuit that alleged the company Twitter misled investors about its engagement numbers, though both the company and other defendants named continue to deny any wrongdoing or improper actions. Twitter said it expects to take a charge for the settlement in the third quarter. 

Binance investigation. U.S. authorities are now investigating the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange for potential instances of insider trading and market manipulation, Bloomberg reported Friday. Binance was already under the U.S. government’s close watch, with the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service looking into the question of whether the exchange facilitates money laundering and tax evasion. 

Surface leak. An apparent leak of the new Microsoft Surface Pro 8 has surfaced online just ahead of its official release, The Verge reported over the weekend. On Wednesday, Microsoft is expected to release not only the new Surface Pro 8, but also a Surface Go 3, an updated Surface Book, and the next iteration of the Surface Duo. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“A Pac-Man Strategy.” Big tech just keeps gobbling up smaller rivals. In a new record, tech companies have spent $264 billion across 9,222 deals to acquire non-unicorn competitors since the start of the year, according to an analysis from the Financial Times that was published Sunday.

In Washington, D.C., though, regulators are taking a close look at the stream of M&A activity coming out of the tech sector and the $92 million valuation threshold that triggers a deal needing to be reported to authorities. The Federal Trade Commission, already investigating big deals like Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, recently released a report looking at the decade of tech consolidation that was the 2010s, which its chair, Lina Khan, said “underscores the need for us to closely examine reporting requirements.”

From the article

Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Microsoft made 616 acquisitions valued at more than $1m, more than 75 per cent of which included non-compete clauses for the target companies’ founders and key employees, according to the FTC report. At least 40 per cent of the deals showing the assets’ age involved companies that were less than five years old. 

Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, an FTC commissioner, said: “I think of serial acquisitions as a Pac-Man strategy: Each individual merger, viewed independently, may not seem to have a significant impact, but the collective impact of hundreds of smaller acquisitions can lead to a monopolistic behemoth.

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BEFORE YOU GO

Tacos, pizza, and booze. Late night munchers, brunchers, and anyone in between can now buy alcohol through food delivery giant DoorDash's app. With an expected bump to restaurants' average order values of 30%, CEO Tony Xu framed the move in an interview with CNBC as a "win, win, win." But the logistics of it do feel like they could get messy, just as food delivery did in New York City during the floods from Hurricane Ida.

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