Authentication is how a system identifies you and opens your associated accounts. It is the binding of an identity to a subject. Identity belongs to an external entity like users, and the subject is a computer entity. The identity information comes from one or more of the following 

  • What the entity knows (like a password or secret information)

  • What the entity has (like badge or card)

  • What the entity is (like biometrics)

  • Where the entity is (like location)

The authentication factors are password, badge/card, biometrics, location, etc. Authentication is the way of validating the identity of someone or something, and it necessitates the presentation of credentials or some items of value to prove who we are. Thus, user authentication means verifying the identity of a user.

What is two-factor (2FA) authentication?

Two-factor authentication, often known as dual-factor verification or two-step authentication, is a process of verification that uses two different authentication factors to verify users. The system automatically redirects you to a prompt asking for additional verification information. 

2FA provides a higher level of security than single-factor authentication (SFA). Only one factor is used for user verification in single-factor authentication: a passcode or password.

However, in 2FA, two factors are used for user verification. The primary authentication factor is a password, while the secondary authentication factors could be security tokens like PIN code, OTP, text, etc., and biometrics factors like fingerprints or facial scans. Similarly, you can also turn off two-factor authentication on the iPhone.

2FA provides an additional layer of security from hackers. Even if the primary factor, password credential, were to be public, nobody can get access to your account without the secondary authentication factor. As long as the secondary authentication factor is safe with you, your data is safe from the hands of hackers.

How does 2FA work?

The enabling of 2FA varies from device to device and system to system. But, once enabled, the internal working process is similar. 

  1. The user enters what they know, the primary authentication factor like username and password.

  2. If the credentials entered match successfully, the system prompts users to a second login screen.

  3. This time the user is required to show what they have, something unique only to them, such as security tokens, biometrics, an ID card, smartphone, or mobile device. This is the inherence or possession factor.

  4. The user is required to enter the one-time code generated in step 4.

  5. Once the secondary factor also matches, the user is verified who they claimed to be and is granted access to the application or website.

It is similar to using a credit card in an ATM booth to withdraw money. You insert your ATM card into the machine and enter the 4 digit PIN code. The credit card is something you have, and the 4 digit PIN code is something you know.

Two-factor authentication is just scratching the surface of information security, and it only adds a single layer of security, while multifactor authentication offers multiple layers of security.

Now that we have some idea about two-factor authentication, let's dive right into how two-factor authentication helps to improve online security.

How can two-factor (2FA) authentication help to improve online security?

Two-factor authentication uses one extra layer of security that makes sure that only you with a trusted device have access to your account. But how does it function? Instead of immediately getting access after entering your login credentials, you'll be requested to provide yet another piece of information.

2FA necessitates a second login credential in addition to the username and password and obtaining that second credential necessitates access to something you own. For some, this might seem a lengthy process for login. But this one more step improves the strength of your security. 

Even if your password somehow ends up being public and you have two-factor authentication turned on, nobody except you can log in to your account as long as the security key is private to you only. 

Two-factor authentication is optional for some systems, while some use it by default. The extra step involved in verifying the credentials helps to improve online security. Only the authentic user will get access because of something only they know. 

Best way to two factor your accounts

As credential stuffing assaults become more common and data breaches become more common, many websites and services are doing all possible to protect their consumers' credentials from being stolen by hackers and used in phishing scams. 

The best ways to two-factor your accounts are by using the following two-factor authentication. 

  1. Physical token (Hardware token)

A physical token, also known as a possession factor, is a hardware token, such as a USB stick. The user needs to plug in the USB stick, which contains a secret key. 

The secret key combines a unique ID representing the security key registered. The information is encrypted using a key known only to the app and the server established during the account creation.

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  1. OTP codes (One Time Passcode)

OTP codes are pin codes or texts that a system randomly generates and sends to the users via SMS or email. When the user attempts a login from a device, the system sends an OTP code that verifies whether it is the same user and the same device accessing the system/app.

  1. Push notification 

Push notification is passwordless authentication that verifies a user by sending a notification to a secure app on the user's device. It alerts the user that an authentication attempt is happening. 

The user views the details and can either approve or deny access. It checks whether the device registered with the authentication system is in possession of the user or not.

  1. Biometrics 

Biometrics is also known as the inherence factor. It is something inherent to the user. It verifies users based on unique physical traits like fingerprints, facial scans, voice recognition, or behavioral biometrics like keystroke dynamics or speech patterns.

  1. Authenticator apps

This method requires an app on your mobile phone. Whenever you try to log in to your account, the system sends a code to your app. You can choose any authenticator app such as Authy, Duo, and Google Authenticator.

These apps send the code through an HTTPS connection, so it is nearly impossible for someone to snoop and steal the code before you use it.

Conclusion

2FA is secure but not as secure as we think. Only using 2FA is not foolproof. There are hackers out there who have bypassed two-factor authentication. Twitter's Chief Executive Jack Dorsey's account was hacked using a SIM swap attack. 

Only using 2FA can cause a data breach, but combining it with some password managers can make it secure. Even though it is not 100% secure, using 2FA adds a hurdle for the cybercriminals looking to get access to your account. It is better to have and not need than need and not have, and not using any is more vulnerable.

2FA alone may not be that secure, but it is an important part of a broader approach called multifactor authentication, and 2FA is a step toward achieving a secure logging-in system.

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