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What is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

Using a secure password for your online accounts is a good start, but there's more you can do to protect your personal information online. With the constant threat of identity and data theft looming, a growing number of websites are now allowing users to utilize two-factor authentication to increase security.

The process of verifying whether someone or something is who or what they claim to be is known as authentication. Authentication technology checks if a user's credentials match those in a database of authorized users or in a data authentication server to offer access control for systems. Authentication ensures safe systems, processes, and organizational information security in this way.

There are numerous forms of authentication. Users are often recognized with a user ID for the purposes of user identity, and authentication happens when the user gives credentials such as a password that matches their user ID. Single-factor authentication(SFA) is the practice of needing only a user ID and password. Companies have reinforced authentication in recent years by requesting additional authentication elements, such as a unique code sent to a user's mobile device when a sign-on attempt is made or a biometric signature, such as a face scan or thumbprint. What is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)? As the name implies, it's just adding additional factors to your password to get access to your online account or app.

Even if someone manages to steal your password, you can still prevent them from accessing your account by using two-factor authentication to provide an extra layer of security. Anyone attempting to log into your account will be required to provide a second piece of information in addition to the proper password. This is often a one-time code that will be delivered to you immediately.

This code is sometimes delivered to you through text message, albeit this isn't always the most secure method of getting it. After all, a hacker may use SIM switch fraud to obtain your phone number and gain access to your verification code.

Today, 2FA is often used to tighten access restrictions to more sensitive areas of a web application (e.g., admin panels or regions that contain card details and/or personal data) in online banking services, social networking platforms, and e-commerce sites.

Businesses and government agencies may be more productive and efficient by using two-factor authentication, which allows staff to do distant activities with significantly fewer security worries.

Let's discover how it works, now.

How Does 2FA Work?

The following are examples of these two factors of authentication:

  • something you know (like a password or a PIN)
  • something you've got (like a phone or a hardware key)
  • something you're (biometrics, something like a fingerprint or a face scan)

A bank account with a debit card is a popular example of a system that employs two-factor authentication, as you must know your PIN and have your actual debit card to withdraw money. A two-factor authentication app works in a similar way, only the second element is your phone rather than a real card.

Simplistic diagram of the Two-Factor Authentication Process

Figure 1. Simplistic diagram of the Two-Factor Authentication Process

This is how it works. You log in, as usual, using your username and password when two-factor authentication is activated on an online account. That is the first factor. The site will then prompt you for a security code. That is the second component. This code might be in the form of a text message, an email, a software token obtained through a two-factor authentication app, or a hardware token obtained from a physical device. Due to the simplicity of SIM switching, text-message verification is not recommended, unless it's your sole alternative, in which case it's still better than nothing (when someone uses social engineering to get your phone number assigned to a new SIM so that they can intercept your SMS tokens). Email verification can be safe, but only if you have a secure email address.

Different 2FA techniques use different processes, but they all follow the same methodology.

A typical 2FA transaction looks like this:

  • To access the website or service, the user inputs their login credentials.
  • The password is validated by an authentication server, and if it is correct, the user is eligible for the second factor.
  • The authentication server generates a one-of-a-kind code for the user's second-factor device.
  • The user proves their identity by confirming the extra authentication.

While the core procedures of multi-factor authentication are mostly the same across providers, there are many different methods to implement it, and not all approaches are created equal.

Why Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

In recent years, we've seen a significant increase in the number of websites that have lost their consumers' personal information. Companies are discovering that their outdated security solutions are no match for contemporary threats and attacks as cybercrime becomes more sophisticated. It's not uncommon for them to be revealed due to simple human mistakes. User trust isn't the only thing that can be harmed. Global corporations, small enterprises, start-ups, and even non-profits can all incur significant financial and reputational damage.

Obviously, online sites and apps need to be more secure. Consumers should also get into the habit of using anything other than a password to protect themselves whenever feasible. Two-factor authentication provides that extra layer of protection for many.

Two-factor authentication is important to the individual user since it safeguards personal information such as email, bank records, social media, and other sensitive data. Businesses, too, require two-factor authentication to keep corporate secrets safe from leaking into the ether, and they must ensure that all users, internal and external, are using it.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic's surge in remote work, two-factor authentication is now more important than ever. For the foreseeable future, remote work will be the norm, which implies that many professionals will be connected to networks that aren't secure and exist outside of offices.

Remote employees who have access to sensitive data and access it from their homes or public networks need two-factor authentication. Despite this, estimates show that less than half of firms use multi-factor authentication across the board.

What are the Types of 2FA Methods?

Anyone with sensitive information secured by a password requires a second method of account security, which is why two-factor authentication is used. Two-factor authentication may be used in a variety of ways to safeguard accounts. Some of the well-known methods are as follows:

  1. U2F Security Tokens

  2. Hardware Tokens

  3. Phone Callbacks

  4. Biometrics

  5. Mobile Passcodes

  6. SMS Passcodes

  7. Authenticator Apps

1. U2F Security Tokens

U2F stands for universal two-factor authentication tokens and is a new standard. These tokens may offer two-factor authentication for a range of applications via USB, NFC, or Bluetooth. Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and GitHub accounts are already supported in Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.

U2F token

Figure 2. U2F token

U2F devices are now little USB devices that you plug onto a USB port on your computer. They can be used with Android phones because some of them have NFC capabilities. It's based on "smart card" security technology that already exists. The browser on your computer can connect with the USB security key using safe encryption technology and deliver the necessary answer that allows you to log into a website when you insert it into your computer's USB port or tap it against your phone.

2. Hardware Tokens

Hardware tokens are the most basic method of authentication.

A standard hardware token is a tiny device, similar in size to a credit card or keychain fob. The most basic hardware tokens, known as dongles, resemble a USB flash drive and include a limited amount of storage including a certificate or unique identity. More advanced hardware tokens include LCD displays, keypads for entering passwords, biometric readers, wireless devices, and other security features.

Many hardware tokens have an inbuilt clock that, when combined with the device's unique identity, an input PIN or password, and maybe other parameters, generates a code that is typically displayed on the token. This code is updated on a regular basis, usually every 30 seconds. The infrastructure used to maintain such tokens can forecast what the right output would be for a specific device at any given moment and use this to authenticate the user.

Hardware token

Figure 3. Hardware token

3. Phone Callbacks

Phone callbacks are a less common type of 2FA, but they are a viable - if time-consuming - way to deploy a second factor. When a user signs in with a phone callback established, they receive an automated phone call asking them to accept or refuse the access request.

4. Biometrics

There are three sorts of authentication factors in multi-factor authentication (MFA): something you know (knowledge), something you have (possession), and something you are (being) (inherence).

Inherence is the third category, which includes biometric authentication. Biometrics is a type of authentication that uses a user's unique biological traits (physical characteristics or behavioral characteristics) to confirm their identification.

There are two types of biometric authentication methods:

  • Static: Fingerprint, face, iris, and retina scans, as well as hand geometry, fall within the static group.
  • Dynamic: Methods that emphasize behavioral patterns, such as voice and/or speech patterns, typing rhythm, body resonance, and the old-fashioned signature, are included in the dynamic category.

Fingerprint authentication is the most generally acknowledged and utilized biometric technique. When you scan your fingerprint, it is immediately matched to a saved fingerprint template to verify your identity.

The following is how it works: On a sensor, you press or swipe an enrolled fingerprint. Your fingerprint is recognized by the MFA solution, which compares it to three or more fingerprint templates that are encrypted and stored on a server.

Your fingerprint picture is not collected or saved to preserve your privacy; instead, a template is utilized. Then, depending on your company's policies, you enter a PIN or password connected with it. You are granted access to the operating system or application after your identification has been validated.

5. Mobile Passcodes

We frequently consider time to be our enemy. However, you may use the time in your favor. The Time-Based One-Time Password (TOTP) method employs a physical device, such as a security token or an app on your phone. As an example of a mobile passcode-supporting app, the passcode is generated using an authenticator app. After a short length of time, the code changes. When you log in to an app integrated application, It prompts you to enter the passcode issued by the app. It provides you access when you enter the passcode.

But what makes Mobile Passcodes an effective authentication method? One excellent argument is that Mobile Passcodes may be used offline. Logging into your Mobile Passcode app integrated apps does not require an Internet connection. Offline access may be necessary if you are flying or have temporarily lost your Internet connection on your mobile device.

6. SMS Passcodes

SMS 2FA is a declining two-factor authentication (2FA) method that depends on the supply of a one-time password (OTP) or another secret as an extra mode, sent through text message.

A user enters into their account using SMS 2FA by entering their username and password, but they are also asked to input an OTP or other secret given over SMS (short message service, or a text message). A third data field on the original login page or a new webpage would appear here, and the user would be logged in after they supplied the information.

SMS 2FA was a once-highly acclaimed breakthrough since it eliminated the need for a user to carry and manage the third device, as smartphones are now ubiquitous. SMS is currently in decline as a result of its flaws. SMS 2FA also relies on password authentication, which is a woefully inadequate foundation for any security solution.

7. Authenticator Apps

Authenticator applications might be the best security option for safeguarding our login process. Keep in mind, however, that not all authenticator software can provide the most secure service. Only a few applications have been officially recognized for this service, and we've gathered a list of them for your convenience. If you want to understand more about these applications and how to use them, check out the details for each one.

  • Google Authenticator
  • Duo Mobile
  • Microsoft Authenticator
  • Authy by Twilio

How to Turn on Two Factor Authentication?

Turning on Two Factor Authentication for different applications and web pages different from each other. To show it as an example let's explore how to turn on 2FA on Instagram.

Two-factor authentication is a security tool that aids in the protection of your Instagram account and password. When someone attempts to get into your account from a device Instagram doesn't recognize, you'll receive a message or be prompted to input a special login code if you've enabled two-factor authentication.

To enable two-factor authentication in the Instagram app, follow these steps:

  1. Tap profile or your profile picture in the bottom right to go to your profile.
  2. Tap more options hamburger menu in the top right, then tap settingsSettings icon.
  3. Tap Security, then tap Two-Factor Authentication.
  4. Tap Get Started at the bottom.
  5. Select the security technique you want to use and follow the on-screen prompts.

When you enable two-factor authentication on Instagram, you will be prompted to select one of two security methods:

  • Login codes are generated by a third-party authentication app (such as Duo Mobile or Google Authenticator). Please keep in mind that two-factor authentication via an authentication app can only be enabled via the Instagram app for Android and iPhone.
  • SMS (text message) codes from your cell phone.

To utilize two-factor authentication, you must have at least one of these setup.

How to Turn off Two Factor Authentication?

You can turn off 2FA, for example on the Instagram website, by following the next steps:

  1. In the top-right area of the screen, click the profile symbol.
  2. Navigate to the gear icon.
  3. Go to Privacy and Security.
  4. Scroll down to Two-Factor Authentication and then select Edit Two-Factor Authentication Settings.
  5. Uncheck both the Authentication App and Text Message options.

What is the Difference Between Two-Factor Authentication and Multi-Factor Authentication?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and two-factor authentication (2FA) are becoming more popular among IT security teams in charge of user identification and access control.

Is multi-factor authentication (MFA) more secure than two-factor authentication (2FA)? Is it possible to use the phrases interchangeably? What's the difference between the two if not?

The distinction between MFA and 2FA is straightforward. To authenticate a user's identity, two-factor authentication (2FA) always uses two of these elements. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) can use only two of the three factors or all three. Any number of factors more than one is referred to as a "multi-factor".

Authentication with three separate elements is more secure than with only two. Passwords are easily hacked, as most IT experts and even end users are aware. However, an attacker is unlikely to gain a user's password while also obtaining the user's dongle or mobile device.

The attacker's chances of collecting the user's fingerprints are extremely small. It's impossible to hack or steal inherence, which is why it's so useful as an authentication factor.

Two-factor authentication is usually restricted to two factors, but multi-factor authentication might contain two or three additional factors. Although requiring three methods of authentication is more secure, customers want an MFA solution to be simple to use. For example, the PCI DSS (The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) now demands two authentication factors, there is no certainty that this will remain the case in the future. In reaction to new threats, cybersecurity legislation and business standards are continually changing. PCI's shift from two-factor authentication to multi-factor authentication provides insight into where user authentication may be heading in the future.