Passkeys vs. SSO: What are the differences?

Understanding how passkeys fit into the existing landscape of security and authentication is what our ‘versus’ series is all about. The goal of authentication is to verify that the person trying to gain access to a secret (e.g. an account) has permission to access it.

In previous posts, we’ve compared passkeys to passwords, magic links, and 2FA and TOTP – now we’re going to dive into single sign-on (SSO).

What is SSO?

Single sign-on authentication allows users to sign in to accounts using a single identity provider rather than individual credentials for each account. This means people don’t need to remember unique credentials for every account. Instead, they just have to log in to their SSO provider.

To learn more about a topic we could discuss for hours, check out our blog post on the differences between SSO and password managers, and why they make a great pair.

What are passkeys?

Passkeys are the cool new authentication kid on the block. They’re the next serious contender to shift people toward a simpler, safer authentication experience, one that traditional passwords could never provide.

Passkeys don’t require a password, magic link, or one-time code. Instead, you only need your biometric information or device passcode to access your passkey-protected accounts. Passkeys are quick and easy to use, and more secure than other authentication methods.

Now that we’ve got some basic definitions out of the way, let’s compare passkeys to SSO so you can better understand when and why you might choose one authentication method over another.

Fast is better, at least for signing in

The purpose of authentication is to verify your identity to keep your accounts and data secure. But for most people, going through the sign-in process is just a necessary nuisance that slows them down. After all, no one actually enjoys the login process – it’s just a means to an end. That’s why improving the sign-in flow, especially the speed at which we sign in, is so valuable to workers and businesses alike.

The SSO process makes it so you only need to log in to one account – your SSO provider – in order to access the tools you need. This means you’re able to start working quickly since all your accounts are now accessible with a single sign on.

Passkeys are just as fast, in a different way.

While you still have to sign in to each account you’ve protected with a passkey, the process is quick, easy, and seamless. Scanning your fingerprint or face, or entering your device passcode, authorizes your passkey for use. The rest of the sign-in process takes place in milliseconds and entirely behind the scenes – you’ll be too busy getting on with your day to even notice how smooth the experience was. Passkeys are both seamless and passwordless.

Security is paramount for authentication

But with signing in feeling so simple, there can be a feeling that your accounts aren’t as secure. That’s simply not the case. Both SSO and passkeys are secure authentication methods and also do a great job at reducing your risk of attack.

SSO reduces the total number of usernames and passwords required for each employee. That means there are fewer entry points to be targeted, and thus exploited. The biggest risk for SSO security is that it has a single point of failure. If your SSO account is compromised, then all the accounts within that system are also compromised. That’s why choosing a strong, unique password and storing it somewhere safe is crucial to keeping your secrets secure.

SSO reduces the total number of usernames and passwords required for each employee.

Passkeys, on the other hand, are created unique for each account, meaning a breach on one website won’t expose anything useful that can be used for that website or any other. That’s because passkeys use public-key cryptography, which means that each passkey is made up of two parts: a public key and a private key.

When you opt to protect an account with a passkey, the website or app stores your public key. When you return to sign in, you authorize the use of your private key, which is only ever stored on your device – unless you securely sync or share your passkeys.

For someone to sign in using your passkey, they would need access to your device to steal your private key (unless you’ve shared it) – something not easily achieved. This makes you a more complicated target than someone using traditional passwords.

Risks versus rewards

No solution is without limitations.

Losing access to your saved secrets could be detrimental to your entire day, even if it is only temporary. From logging in to work applications to joining meetings, authentication is at the core of our workdays.

If your SSO provider experiences an outage, that means access to all connected sites is lost. Since SSO is used to sign in to multiple sites, your team won’t have access to the tools they need to complete their jobs. That’s lost productivity and lost business depending on how long it takes to get back up and running.

But if your team’s accounts are protected by passkeys, a provider outage might not be a problem. Of course, depending on how you choose to store your passkeys, you would have to create a plan should your storage solution experience an outage. And with passkeys you still need to consider storage, secure syncing across devices, and access control.

Whether it’s an SSO provider or the service you use to store your passkeys, losing access means a loss of productivity and business.

Implementation options

Now that we know what the differences and benefits of the two options are from security to usability, the question is: what’s easier to implement – SSO or passkeys? Well, it depends.

Different SSO providers have unique workflows that need to be considered with your own internal systems. Implementing SSO is complex and can be expensive.

Passkeys were designed to be both easy to use and secure. Employees can start using passkeys relatively quickly. All they have to do is set up passkeys to work with their biometrics or device passcode, and the login process will work seamlessly – and securely – in the background.

Not all websites and apps support passkeys at the moment. But the number that do is quickly growing, giving you more places to use this new, safer sign-in option.

The cost to your business to have employees start using passkeys rather than SSO would be minimal to none — especially if you’re already using 1Password. Passkeys you create and save in 1Password and are like any other items in your vaults. You can view, edit, move, and even share them with other people.

If your business is considering implementing passkey login for your own website, that can also be simple, since developers don’t have to start from scratch. Just as with passwords, off-the-shelf solutions exist for passkeys as well. Passage by 1Password has two options to help developers add passkey support to any website or app.

So which should you choose – SSO or passkeys?

Why not both?

Ever heard the saying that too much of a good thing is bad? That’s not the case when it comes to SSO and passkeys!

While passkeys are leading the charge to a passwordless future, SSO still has a necessary part to play in business and enterprise security. We would even argue that businesses will be more secure if they use both methods in tandem.

SSO gives admins a high degree of access control. For example, you can choose exactly which employees are able to create a Google Workspace account with their work email address. Passkeys are unlikely to replace SSO in a business setting but will be a secure way to protect everything not covered by SSO.

Protect the majority of accounts with SSO, and the others – including the SSO accounts – with strong passkeys.

Speaking of things that work well together, many SSO providers allow you to sign in with a passkey rather than the traditional username/password combination. This means organizations keep the administrative powers of SSO while reducing the risk of employees using weak or reused passwords.

The two systems work well in tandem to make securing your entire business less stressful. Protect the majority of accounts with SSO, and the others – including the SSO accounts – with strong passkeys.

Unlock 1Password with SSO, then create, save, and sign in to accounts with passkeys using 1Password (currently in beta).

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Content Marketing Manager

Stacey Harris - Content Marketing Manager Stacey Harris - Content Marketing Manager

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