Multi-factor authentication (MFA)

  • Fabian Sinner
  • March 8, 2024

Table of content

    Multi-factor authentication (MFA)

    Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security measure that requires users to provide two or more pieces of evidence (factors) to confirm their identity before gaining access to an online account, system, or resource.

    These factors typically include something the user knows (such as a password), something the user possesses (such as a smartphone or security token), or something unique to the user (such as a fingerprint or other biometric method).

    The main purpose of MFA is to increase security by making it more difficult to gain unauthorized access. Even if an attacker gets hold of a password, it would still be difficult for them to gain access without the second factor.

    How does multi-factor authentication (MFA) work?

    Multi-factor authentication (MFA) works by requiring multiple pieces of evidence (factors) from a user to confirm their identity before granting access to a system, network, or application. These factors are divided into three main categories:

    • Something the user knows (knowledge factor): This is typically a password, PIN, or an answer to a security question. It is information that the user knows by heart and serves as the first level of security.
    • Something that the user owns (possession factor): This can be a physical device, such as a smartphone, a security token, a smartcard, or a USB stick that generates or receives a one-time code. Authentication apps on smartphones that generate one-time passwords (OTP) or SMS messages with a code also fall into this category. The possession factor ensures that the user must have something physically with them in order to authenticate themselves.
    • Something that is the user (inherence factor): This refers to biometric characteristics of the user, such as fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scan, or voice recognition. These factors use unique physical characteristics of the user for identification and offer a high level of security as they are difficult to falsify.

    The user first enters their username and password (knowledge factor) to start the login process. Once the password has been successfully entered, the system requests a second factor. This could be, for example, a prompt for a code sent to the user’s smartphone or a request to leave a fingerprint on a scanner.

    The user enters or confirms the requested second factor. If both factors are successfully verified, the system grants access. If one of the factors is incorrect or is not submitted, access is denied. Additional factors (multi-factor) can be added to this process.

    Why is multi-factor authentication (MFA) important?

    Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is critical to the security of digital resources and online identities for several reasons. It adds an extra layer of security that goes beyond a simple password. Even if an attacker obtains a user’s password, unauthorized access is significantly more difficult without the second authentication factor.

    MFA can protect against phishing and other fraud attempts. Phishing attacks aim to trick users into revealing their login credentials. Even if a user unknowingly enters their details on a fraudulent website, MFA provides an extra layer of protection as the attacker also needs access to the second factor.

    Automated attacks such as brute force or credential stuffing attacks are also made more difficult by MFA due to the additional layers essentially negating any accessible credentials obtained through hacking processes.

    Multi-factor authentication can also reduce the risk of identity theft, which can have serious consequences for both individuals and organizations. MFA makes it more difficult for cybercriminals to use stolen identities, as stealing a password alone is not enough to gain access.

    Many industry standards and government guidelines now require the implementation of MFA to secure sensitive data. Companies that use multi-factor authentication can thus meet compliance requirements and avoid potential penalties. By implementing MFA, companies signal to their customers and users that they take security seriously. This can strengthen trust in the brand and increase customer loyalty.

    MFA allows organizations to adjust the level of security based on the risk level of a transaction or access attempt. For example, stricter authentication methods can be required to access particularly sensitive data. In a world where cyberattacks are becoming more sophisticated and frequent, MFA is a fundamental security measure that helps protect digital identities and resources.

    Where is multi-factor authentication used?

    Multi-factor authentication is used in a variety of environments and for different purposes to improve the security of data and systems.

    • Online banking and financial services: Banks and financial institutions use MFA to secure customer transactions and access to financial information. This protects against unauthorized access and reduces the risk of fraud.
    • Corporate networks and data: Organizations use MFA to protect access to internal networks, databases, and sensitive corporate data. MFA helps ensure that only authorized users have access to critical resources.
    • Cloud services and SaaS applications: Many cloud-based services and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications offer MFA options to secure access to accounts and stored data in the cloud.
    • Email accounts and social media: Email services and social networks offer MFA options to protect user accounts from unauthorized access and takeover.
    • Government and public sector: Government agencies and organizations in the public sector use MFA to secure access to government systems and confidential information.
    • Healthcare: In healthcare, MFA is used to protect access to patient records and medical information, which is especially important to ensure the privacy and security of sensitive healthcare data.
    • Educational institutions: Universities, schools, and other educational institutions use MFA to secure access to educational resources, student information systems, and research data.
    • VPN access and remote work: MFA is often used to secure VPN access, which is especially important for remote employees and companies with geographically dispersed teams to ensure that only authorized users have access to the corporate network.
    • E-commerce platforms: Online retailers and e-commerce platforms use MFA to secure transactions and protect customer accounts from abuse.
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