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Make your iPhone a Physical Security Key

Google now treats iPhones as physical security keys with its new update to the Google Smart Lock app.


2 min read
Make your iPhone a Physical Security Key

The latest update to Google’s Smart Lock app on iOS means you can now use your iPhone as a physical 2FA security key for logging into Google’s first-party services in Chrome. Once it’s set up, attempting to log in to a Google service on, say, a laptop, will generate a push notification on your nearby iPhone. You’ll then need to unlock your Bluetooth-enabled iPhone and tap a button in Google’s app to authenticate before the login process on your laptop completes. The news was first reported by 9to5Google.

Android users have had this feature on their smartphones since last year, but now Apple product owners can also use this advanced, phishing-resistant form of authentication as an alternative to a physical security key.

The new process is similar to the existing Google Prompt functionality, but the key difference is that Smart Lock app works over Bluetooth, rather than connecting via the internet. That means your phone will have to be in relatively close proximity to your laptop for the authentication to work, which provides another layer of security. However, the app itself doesn’t ask for any biometric authentication — if your phone is already unlocked then a nearby attacker could theoretically open the app and authenticate the login attempt.

"According to a study we [Google] released last year, people who exclusively used security keys to sign into their accounts never fell victim to targeted phishing attacks," said Shuvo Chatterjee, Product Manager at Google's Advanced Protection Program.

According to one cryptogopher working at Google, the new functionality makes use of the iPhone processor’s Secure Enclave, which is used to securely store the device’s private keys. The feature was first introduced with the iPhone 5S, and Google’s app says that it requires iOS 10 or later to function.

To get started, you first need to install the Smart Lock app on your iOS device, pair your phone with your laptop over Bluetooth to set the phone as a security key for your Google account, and then enroll in Google's Advanced Protection Program.

Now, whenever you try to sign in to a Google service on the Chrome web browser with your username and password, you will be prompted to open the Smart Lock app on your iPhone and confirm the sign-in, and of course, you need to have Bluetooth enabled on both devices.

After activating this, you are also recommended registering a backup security key to your account, just in case you lose your phone.

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