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Now you can log onto Windows with a hardware security key

Yubico releases software that lets you secure your machine with its little YubiKey USB devices.

Yubico's YubiKey 5Ci hardware security key supports Lightning and USB-C ports.

Yubico's YubiKey 5Ci hardware security key has Lightning and USB-C connectors so it also works on PCs and Android devices.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

 Hardware security key maker Yubico has released software that lets you log onto Windows with one of its USB keys, a security measure that offers stronger protections than just a password. The Yubico Login for Windows tool has been in testing for a half year but now is available for anyone to use, the Swedish company announced Thursday.

YubiKey, Google Titan and other hardware security keys require you to plug a small piece of hardware into a USB port to log on, usually in combination with a second authentication factor like a password, fingerprint, face ID or PIN code. Some hardware security keys also offer wireless authentication over NFC (near-field communications) or Bluetooth connections.

Microsoft has offered hardware security key support for Outlook, Skype, Xbox Live, Office and other online services for months, a big step toward a future in which you might not have to remember a password at all. But logging on to Windows itself wasn't possible. Yubico also offers MacOS software to let you sign on to Macs with its hardware security key.

With so many of us reusing the same passwords -- and so many of those passwords in the hands of hackers thanks to countless data breaches -- extra security precautions are becoming more important. Hardware security keys are one avenue, though even the cheapest cost $25, and you'll probably want multiple keys to protect against loss. 

Protecting laptops and phones is a nice extra feature, especially for those who travel and are more likely to leave a laptop in a taxi or have it stolen in an airport. But for most people, protecting online accounts is more important since those can be attacked from anywhere on the internet. 

Yubico says its Windows logon software offers easy enrollment of new keys and a process to recover if you lose your key. Corporate PC users should be warned, though, that Yubico's software doesn't work if your laptop is managed with Microsoft's widely used Active Directory software, so your consult your company's IT crew if you're interested.

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