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What is MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication)? Learn How it Works

What is MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication)? Learn How it Works

Kyle Chin
Kyle Chin
updated Jun 23, 2022

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an authentication method that requires at least two forms of verification of the user’s identity to gain access to an account, application, or data set. Instead of needing just a username and password to log in, MFA adds additional layers of security by requiring users to verify their identity. Each additional verification method can prevent unauthorized access from cybercriminals or hackers from executing a successful cyber attack.

Setting up authentication processes is one of the easiest and most essential cybersecurity practices any individual or organization can do.

Why is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Important?

An authentication system is critical to many security policies to secure sensitive data and prevent data breaches. Many cybercriminals use brute-force, malware, or phishing attacks that can steal user login information. Many people also use the same login information across multiple accounts, which can put them at higher risk of compromising their data. Without a verification process, those users become easy bait for threat actors.

Organizations should also have an Identity and Access Management (IAM) framework put in place to control user access to critical data within the company. IAM solutions also authenticate user, software, and hardware credentials before allowing access to additional data. Maintaining access control will prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to sensitive information.

This principle of least privilege combined with MFA creates a solid foundation for securing a network or system. A 2020 Microsoft report found that 99.9% of compromised users did not use MFA, and only 11% of enterprises (>1000 employees) had some MFA solution. Many outdated security systems use old security protocols that don’t include MFA enabling, putting millions of workers and company data at risk.

How Does Multi-Factor Authentication Work?

Authentication factors are generally divided into three different categories. Each additional factor adds additional security that prevents hackers from getting through while confirming your identity as well. MFA requires at least two factors from the following three primary forms of authentication:

  1. Knowledge (what you have)
  2. Possession (what you know)
  3. Inherence (what you are)

Multi-Factor Authentication Examples

Examples of user authentication factors for each category include:

1. Knowledge

Knowledge-based authentication factors typically include user-based information for identity verification. Knowledge factors are typically the easiest to use or remember. These can include:

  • PINs (personal identification numbers)
  • Personal security questions
  • Secure passwords

2. Possession

The possession factor requires the user to have something specific in their physical possession to verify their identity. These factors can include:

  • One-time passwords or one-time passcodes (OTP)
  • Mobile phones (SMS text messages, authentication apps)
  • Smartcards or SIM cards
  • Hardware tokens/hard security tokens (embedded chips with digital information)
  • Software tokens/soft tokens (digital authentication keys)
  • Physical key or keycard

3. Inherence

Inherence authentication means taking identification through the physical features of the user. These typically include biometric data that is unique to the user, including:

  • Fingerprint ID
  • Face ID or facial recognition
  • Voice recognition
  • Retina scanning

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) vs. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

2FA maintains the same idea of authentication as MFA but only requires a second factor to verify user identity. When authentication was first introduced to the public, users typically only needed two forms of verification. However, over time, hackers became more sophisticated and could easily steal passwords or PIN codes.

To adapt to the changing threat landscape, many companies and organizations began requiring MFA along with new forms of authentication for additional security. While MFA is more secure than 2FA, having 2FA at a minimum requirement can increase account security immensely.

Challenges of Multi-Factor Authentication

Although MFA solutions were designed to increase security, each additional factor can complicate the process and discourage individuals from enabling MFA. Individuals may forget their passwords or lose their mobile devices that allow them to sign in. MFA should be used wherever possible. However, it shouldn’t be the ONLY form of security in place.

Here are some of the main challenges when implementing MFA:

  • Phones can be lost or stolen
  • Passwords or answers to security questions can be forgotten
  • Biometric scanning is not 100% accurate
  • Physical tokens can be lost or stolen
  • Security keys can be easily shared
  • Expensive to implement

So how can businesses simplify the authentication process while also keeping the same level of security? Here are a few solutions that many organizations have already started to use:

  1. Adaptive MFA - Adaptive MFA integrates machine learning (ML) into the authentication process by considering a wide range of information like location, time of access, IP addresses, devices used, VPN used, and private vs. public network. This risk-based authentication method analyzes suspicious behaviors and, if flagged, will prompt an additional verification factor. However, users will only need basic login information to access their accounts if no suspicious activity is detected.
  2. Single Sign-On (SSO) - SSO is a secure authentication process that allows the user to verify their identity for multiple applications or websites. The user authenticates their credentials through a third-party provider, and then an SSO token is shared with each application or site to confirm their identity. An SSO eliminates the need for remembering multiple passwords or authentication multiple times to simplify the entire process.
  3. Push Authentication - Push authentication through a mobile app can be more secure than OTPs sent through SMS text messages. Authenticator apps are tied to a physical device rather than a phone number. Since text messages can be stolen through methods like SIM card swapping or SS7 attacks, using an authenticator app is a more secure way of verifying identity. When an identification code is generated, it’s sent to the organization’s servers, then to the user, who only has to click “Accept” to verify their identity. Push authentication removes the need to re-enter an OTP while creating a seamless user experience.

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