What Is Multi-Factor Authentication?

what is multi factor authentication

Why Multi-Factor Authentication Is Important and How It Works

You’ve likely come across multi-factor authentication (MFA) – a security mechanism that adds an extra layer of protection to your account or device – if you’ve recently created an online account or signed in from a new device. 

In this post, we’ll explore what multi-factor authentication (MFA) is and how it works. We’ll also examine why you and your organization should leverage this cyber security feature. As cyber attacks grow more frequent and sophisticated, there’s no such thing as ‘too secure’ anymore. If you don’t already have it enabled, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security recommends the use of MFA.  

So, what exactly is multi-factor authentication? How does MFA work? And do you need it? 

What Is Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)? 

Multi-factor authentication is a cyber security feature offered by more and more websites, software, and apps. This mechanism requires users to confirm their identity using two or more methods. 

With single-factor authentication, all you need is a personal identification number (PIN) or password to sign into an account or device. 

With MFA, additional authentication factors are required to verify the user’s identity. These extra methods of authentication help to protect your account or device from cybercriminals. 

What Are The 3 Types of Multi-Factor Authentication?

As its name suggests, multi-factor authentication uses more than one method to confirm your identity. In general, there are three types of authentication methods used in multi-factor authentication. 

Most online service providers will use a combination of the following three factors to secure your account. 

Something You Know: This is often the first step in multi-factor authentication. Accounts and devices with single-factor authentication usually only use this factor. Some examples include: 

  • A password
  • The answers to your chosen security questions
  • A personal identification number (PIN)

Something You Have: This factor is something that only you would possess. In most cases, it’s a physical object. Some examples include: 

  • A mobile device 
  • A debit or credit card with a chip 
  • A badge
  • A fob or security key 
  • A one-time passcode sent to your phone number or email address
  • An access token or certificate
  • An authentication app

Something You Are: This type of authentication is not as commonly available for online services. However, it’s frequently used to unlock devices such as iPhones. Some examples include: 

  • Facial recognition 
  • Voice recognition 
  • A fingerprint 
  • A retina scan 
  • A picture ID 

How Does Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Work? 

If the MFA feature is enabled on your device or account, you have to confirm your identity more than once. Users are only granted access after they pass two or more authentication methods. 

Many online services that offer multi-factor authentication ask for two forms of verification. Since it’s easy to set up, two-factor authentication (2FA) or 2-step verification is the most common form of MFA. 

With 2-step verification, you typically need your password and a one-time passcode. You can receive the time-based passcodes as a text message or email. 

Another alternative used in two-factor authentication is an authenticator app. Similar to the SMS or email method, these apps provide a time-based code to enter after your password. 

Users who fail to enter the one-time passcode are denied access even if the first authentication factor is correct. 

Some service providers require 2-step verification every time the user signs in. Others only ask for a second verification factor if the user signs in from a new location, IP address, or device. 

The Benefits of MFA: How Secure Is Multi-Factor Authentication?

A strong and unique password is key to protecting yourself from hackers and other cyber threats. Unfortunately, it’s not completely foolproof. 

Multi-factor authentication adds an extra and often necessary layer of security. Here are a few reasons why you and your organization should take advantage of this cyber security feature: 

  • MFA protects your data in cases of compromised passwords. Even if an unauthorized user learns your password, they won’t be able to sign in. 
  • Multi-factor authentication protects against credential stuffing. This is especially useful for people who use the same password for multiple websites. If an attacker breaches one of the websites, they can’t access your accounts with MFA enabled using the stolen password alone.  
  • An analysis by the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security notes an alarming 151% increase in ransomware attacks in the first half of 2021 alone compared to 2020. 
  • While large organizations experience more cyber attacks, no organization is too small to be a target. Since early 2020, 1 out of 4 Canadian small businesses have experienced some form of cyber attack. 
  • It’s always a good idea to utilize as many layers of protection as possible. Multi-factor authentication provides greater protection than just the traditional username and password alone. 

What Is the Most Secure Method of MFA? 

Multi-factor authentication plays an important role in securing your data from potential attackers. However, not all verification factors are created equal. 

Mobile-based 2-step verification or 2FA is the most common form of MFA offered today. It’s also easier to compromise in comparison to other authentication factors. 

Most online accounts with 2FA enabled use a mobile number to send a one-time passcode via text message (SMS) or voice call. Users then have to enter this time-based code after their password. 

While this effectively blocks most unauthorized users, a highly skilled hacker could still gain access to your data through a process called SIM swapping. This scam exploits the weakness of mobile-based 2-step verification. 

Attackers can use SIM swapping to port your phone number to their mobile device and receive your calls and text messages. This allows them to intercept the one-time passcode and bypass the second verification factor. 

Fortunately, few cybercriminals are this determined to access your data. However, if you prefer a more secure method of MFA, here are some stronger alternatives to mobile-based 2-step verification. 

App-Based Authenticators 

  • Many service providers and software developers offer free authenticator apps. Google and Microsoft both have their own authenticator app, and there are free authenticator apps available to download. These apps generate unique and time-based codes that the user must enter in addition to their login credentials.

Security Keys

  • Hardware-based authentication factors are more difficult to compromise than other methods. 
  • Security keys are available in a variety of connection options, supported security protocols, and prices. Some high-end security keys come with biometric scanning which adds another layer of protection. 

At BSC Solutions Group, we offer a wide range of cyber security services to help organizations identify weak spots in their security protocols. Our IT cybersecurity team can help you minimize the risks of data breaches and ransomware attacks. 

If you want to learn more about multi-factor authentication methods and strengthen your protection against cyber threats, you can contact us for a free consult today.