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What Is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?

June 17, 2024


The days of relying solely on passwords are quickly coming to an end. Today’s IT security teams are using more secure options for managing user identity and access, one of these being multi-factor authentication.


You may have heard of this term before, and have probably guessed that it’s related to security. Well, you’re right! But, there’s a lot more to MFA than what meets the eye, and understanding how it works can save you from all sorts of digital threats and attacks.



What Exactly Is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA), as the name implies, uses a number of different factors to verify a person’s identity whenever they want to access a resource such as a website or application.


What this does is decrease the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive data. It requires people to verify their identity in more than one manner, giving users greater certainty that they are who they say they are. We’ll give some examples in the next few sections.


After all, entering a stolen password to gain access is one thing, but entering the stolen password along with an OTP that was texted to the legitimate user’s smartphone is quite another.



How Does MFA Work?


The working of MFA

MFA requires you to input more than just your password.


When a person registers for an account, multi-factor authentication asks for numerous forms of ID from them. And, when a user logs in again, the system will utilize this ID and other user data to confirm their identity. As you can tell, it’s a multi-step process on top of just entering your password.


So, you can find that MFA uses a bunch of authentication methods. Let’s quickly take a look at them below.


1. Inherence multi-factor authentication


Inherence basically makes use of data that is personal to the user. To give you a better understanding of how it works, here are a few examples of inherence authentication factors:


  • Voice recognition
  • Retina/eye scans
  • Fingerprint scans
  • Facial recognition
  • Keystroke dynamics, a type of behavioral biometric


When signing up, the app you’re using must gather and retain this data along with the password. And, along with passwords, the company managing the program is responsible for safeguarding your biometric information.


So, unless they have you physically or a part of your body (which hopefully won’t happen!), they won’t be able to access your information.


2. Possession multi-factor authentication


Multi-factor authentication isn’t just limited to inherence, but it can also be something that only you possess. Here are a few instances of how it works:


  • Physical devices such as cellular phones, authentication tokens, display cards, hardware fobs, and encryption keys.
  • Digital possessions such as email accounts and authenticator programs.


Basically, these physical devices or digital assets will receive a secret code from the system through a digital message, which you need to enter again into the application you’re trying to log in to.


This is a great authentication method except for one flaw. If your digital asset is misplaced or stolen, your account may be jeopardized. Luckily, some devices such as security tokens avoid this difficulty by connecting directly to your system. This makes your account inaccessible to hackers, since they need to have your exact physical token to log in. It can still be pretty scary to think about though.


3. Knowledge multi-factor authentication


For the last multi-factor authentication method, you can disclose information that no one else is aware of to verify your identity. This is one of the most common ways for authentication and this can be done through the use of secret questions that only you know.


For instance, it can be the name of your childhood best friend, your first pet, or even your mother’s maiden name.


This method is great but all of these processes are safe ONLY IF the hidden information remains a secret. So, when browsing the web, criminals might look into your web history or trick you into disclosing this information. These cybercriminals might even use a brute-force strategy of guessing every four-digit number combination imaginable to crack your pin codes.


Fortunately, there are multiple ways to keep yourself safe on the internet such as using a great VPN. With one, you’ll be able to encrypt your traffic so people can’t keep track of your activity and where exactly you are in the world.



How Is It Different From Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?


The distinction between MFA and 2FA is pretty straightforward. When using two-factor authentication (2FA), the user’s identity is always confirmed using ONLY two authentication factors. For instance, you can confirm your identity through the use of a code in your email or phone.


On the other hand, multi-factor authentication, as the name suggests, involves more than two of these authentication factors. So basically, 2FA is just a subset of MFA.


And in terms of security, three is more than two, so it means more ways to be secure right? Yeah, pretty much!


MFA vs 2FA

It’s a lot harder to gain access with MFA compared to 2FA.


For example, let’s say you have multiple layers of authentication that use biometrics such as fingerprints, voice or facial recognition, and more. This means that unauthorized users have to access more layers of authentication, making it so much harder for them to get to your information.


Think of it this way: if it’s already difficult to gain access to an account with 2FA, what more if you have multiple forms of authentication?



Do I Need Multi-Factor Authentication?

mfa benefit

MFA has more benefits outside of just protection.


After learning more about MFA, you might be wondering if the additional protection is even necessary. Well, don’t just take our word for it: MFA has so many advantages, that it’s even becoming a standard offering by a lot of online services – especially things like cloud storage, to keep your precious files safe.


Interest piqued? Then let’s quickly run through the additional benefits, shall we?


  • An added layer of security
    This one is pretty obvious. Extra security layers mean more means to get through the point of access. This makes it harder for malicious people to gain ahold of your information.
  • Making digital initiatives possible
    Multi-factor authentication is essential for ensuring the safety of online interactions and transactions in the digital age.
  • Easier to log in (SSO Compatible)
    MFA technology offers single sign-on possibilities, allowing you to access all related programs without having to log in again.


These are just a few of MFA’s many advantages. These can vary per person or industry but generally, you’ll be able to keep yourself safe from those with malicious intent.



4 Best Practices When Setting Up MFA


So, if you’ve decided to give MFA a go, here are some tips and practices to maximize your protection:


  1. Use secure, difficult-to-crack passwords
    Your password will be harder to crack the more complicated and lengthy it is. You can use random numbers, symbols, and letters for your password but make sure to note it down somewhere so you won’t forget. You can also use a great password manager to make and store the strong password for you.
  2. Use a variety of authentication methods
    You shouldn’t just keep using the same method of authentication across all accounts. Yes, this applies differently and codes can change especially for OTP authentication. But, having the same type of authentication makes your MFA process linear, making the risk of people accessing your information higher.
  3. Balance ease-of-use and security
    You need to have a strong MFA process, but also make sure that it won’t be a taxing process to access your data. After all, inputting lengthy verification info over and over again would be a hassle for any account owner, especially if they’re in a rush.
  4. Turn on MFA for all of your online accounts
    After all that, it’s now finally time to enable MFA everywhere. This only takes a few minutes and it’s a lot better than having to recover months or even years’ worth of work after a data breach.


You can now protect yourself on the web from those trying to steal your information!



Keep Yourself Safe


Nowadays, we depend more and more on cloud services and accounts for our day-to-day tasks. Hence, making sure your accounts are protected against cyber threats is crucial.


Good thing multi-factor authentication is here to save the day!


In the office, school, and pretty much in our daily lives, MFA offers a simple and efficient method of securing our accounts. And, now that you know more about it, how it works, and the best practices when setting up one, you’ll be able to keep yourself safe in the digital world!