Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is an authentication form that contains a layered approach to securing access whereby the system requires a user to present a combination of two or more different authenticators to verify a user’s identity for login. This is part of a core component of the Identity and access management policy. It increases security since even if one authenticator becomes compromised by hackers, they will not meet the second authentication request condition and will be denied access to the account or computer system.
As the years pass by and new interventions and ideas are being launched and improved. For instance, MFA relied on Two-Factor Authentication whereas in recent years many users are moving towards the MFA. This has been viewed as an upgraded form of security whereby the 2FA had a limit of the number of required factors to two whereas in MFA the factors can be more than two.
Multi-Factor Authentication works by combining two or more authentication factors in one go. These authentication factors are categorized as described below:
The knowledge factors – This usually refers to something that you know. This can be a user ID and password, a Personal Identification Number (PIN), or answering a security question. This is the most common and basic form of authentication. It is prone to security breaches via brute force attacks and phishing attempts.
The Possession factors – This refers to something that you have in your possession, such as a security key or token. Currently, this is being implemented by methods such as:
- Physical USB tokens – these are connected to the computer system to authenticate the user.
- Mobile push notifications – a push notification sent to the user’s phone.
- One-time Passcodes (OTP) – a one-time passcode sent to the user’s phone to enable login only once. This can be sent via email or SMS and should be used within a given time frame.
- Phone security keys- a secret key or passcode stored on the phone that uniquely identifies the user.
- Authenticator apps- these apps provide randomly generated codes for the registered services for authentication.
- URL link – an email or SMS is sent embedded with a link to validate the user.
The inherence factors – This refers to something that you are a unique characteristic, typically biometric. These include:
- Fingerprint – the use of a finger biometric reader to allow the user to register their print for authentication.
- Face recognition– the use of face recognition software to scan users’ faces and enable authentication.
- Voice recognition – the use of voice recognition software to enable users to use their voice for authentication.
- Iris and retina recognition – the use of retina scanners to enable users to authenticate their identity.
Location and time-based factors – These are less common and usually less secure forms of authentication and therefore are embedded with other factors. For example, OTPs or push notifications can be programmed to only be sent within a given location and to be used within a given time frame otherwise they expire.
You may come across some organizations, systems, or apps that only implement Two-factor authentication, which is a subset of MFA, but not as secure.
The difference between Two-factor and MFA is the number of authentication factors used. Two-factor authentication only uses two factors for the authentication process, such as a knowledge factor a password, and an inherence factor such as fingerprint scanning.
Organizations should strive to increase the authentication layers to three factors since it makes it difficult for hackers to compromise the system. Some of the benefits of Multi-Factor Authentication realized include the following:
Security – MFA enhances security since multiple layers of authentication make it more difficult for a hacker to gain access to an organization’s information systems, even if passwords or PINs are compromised through phishing attacks or other means. The extra layer of security provided by requesting a possession factor and inherence factors will deny access to the system.
Usability – Using MFA provides the possibility to phase out the use of passwords. Users have trouble managing passwords for so many apps. Working with MFA allows the use of other authentication factors that offer a better user experience and simplicity to the users, such as fingerprint scanners, therefore enabling an easier login process.
Reduce cost – Successful defenses against attacks can provide a reduction of organization losses, for example, preventing a costly attack on an organization’s system leading to loss of resources. Preventing such attacks, especially in the financial industry provides a huge benefit.
Customizable Security Solutions – Authentication factors offer multiple options, providing organizations with the ability to customize their solutions to meet their user’s and employees’ needs. For example, users might have access to fingerprint scanners on their smartphones, but not retinal or face scanners. Therefore, the organization can customize the solution to best fit its users.
Regulatory compliance – In certain industries, regulations are in place that requires MFA compliance. For example, the banking sector regulations require implementing MFA.
Manage Devices – In the current hybrid working environment, many employees are working from home using personal devices to access their organization’s network. Malicious software on employees’ machines can be transferred to the organization’s network. MFA enables organizations not to worry about the security of remote employees’ machines since malware and vulnerabilities are detected soon.
Currently, security experts tend to encourage organizations to strive to implement MFA in their systems since the pros outweigh the cons. In addition to that, upgrading to MFA has been made much easier than ever since most cloud providers have inbuilt MFA in their systems that match industry standards.
In a few years from now, most organizations and users will appreciate the importance of Multifactor Authentication. For this is the future of cyber security and we should embrace it. Modern devices come equipped with these new technologies such as facial recognition and fingerprint scanners. We should use this opportunity to improve our digital security and data by implementing MFA on all our accounts and devices.
Moreover, in recent years we have seen many organizations embracing cloud computing and with this MFA has played an important factor in cloud computing. For this, stringent measures need to be taken into consideration to ensure those users having access to those systems are secured at all times.