It wasn’t long ago that many of the conversations surrounding cybersecurity focused on the necessity of selecting strong, high-quality passwords. But now, as cyber threats become increasingly advanced and prevalent, it is essential to establish multiple “layers” of security, or authentication factors, to effectively protect accounts, data, and assets.
Authentication factors generally fall into three basic categories:
- Knowledge: Something the user knows, such as the answer to a security question or a password
- Possession: Something the user has, such as a security token or key (hardware token, fob, mobile device, etc.)
- Inherence: Something the user is, such as a behavioral characteristic or biometric marker (fingerprints, voice recognition, retina scan, location behavior, etc.)
Whereas single-factor authentication requires only one type of authentication evidence, such as a user password, to grant access, it is now the norm to rely on methods that call for multiple factors:
- Two-factor authentication (2FA), sometimes called 2-step verification, requires a user to present two factors (or pieces of evidence) for authentication before accessing an account.
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires users to provide two or more factors for authentication before they can access an account (or assets/data).
Determining whether to use 2FA or MFA, as well as which authentication factors to use, should be based on the unique risks and needs of your situation. But before you can make an informed choice, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the basic differences between 2FA and MFA, including some of the more nuanced contrasts.
2FA vs. MFA: What is the Difference?
While both two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) involve multiple forms of authentication, 2FA only requires two factors, typically a password and a one-time code sent to your phone. In contrast, MFA goes beyond 2FA by requiring two or more different factors, such as biometrics, smart cards, or geolocation.
So, while 2FA is a form of MFA, not all instances of MFA are 2FA.
Which is More Secure 2FA or MFA?
If you are looking to improve your online security, both two-factor authentication (2FA) and multifactor authentication (MFA) are great options to consider, and they are both generally more secure than single-factor authentication. MFA is generally considered to be the most secure option because it offers additional layers of protection against cyber threats, but the solidity of each particular MFA solution can vary widely.
In certain scenarios, 2FA could be more secure than MFA based on the selected factors.
Let’s say your organization opts to use a 2FA strategy that requires recognition signals, such as mobile push (possession) and location behavior (inherence). These are among the most robust factors available, so using these can make your 2FA solution more secure than an MFA approach utilizing less secure methods.
The integrity of an MFA strategy hinges on the security of its selected authentication methods.
The strength of any MFA effort is only as secure as its authentication methods. Although MFA is engineered with multiple layers to create added safeguards against unauthorized access, certain authentication methods are simply less secure than others. And if your MFA strategy uses these lower-security factors, you could be unintentionally undermining your whole approach.
For example, SMS and email verification codes are not necessarily as reliable and secure as other authentication factors. Because both SMS and email platforms can be easily hacked, it is not difficult for cybercriminals to bypass these types of methods. MFA is at its most secure when it employs biometric authentication factors, as these are extremely unlikely to be replicated.
Which is Better: 2FA vs. MFA?
Ultimately, the level of security you need – and the specifics of your approach – depend on your specific situation and risks. The best way to optimize your 2FA or MFA strategy is to partner with risk professionals who can create a plan tailored to your unique needs.
Regardless of your selected route, the benefits of 2FA and MFA implementation can support your organization in multiple ways:
- Enhanced security: First (and perhaps most obviously), the primary purpose of MFA is to increase security for your data, assets, and operations. The overall strength of any system largely depends on the number of factors, or layers, that have been built into its security efforts. So, systems that employ two or more factors will inevitably be far safer than those using single-factor authentication methods.
- Streamlined usability: Although it may not seem like adding more layers of security will contribute to less hassle for users, it can actually make a significant difference to simplify the user experience. MFA provides an easy and secure way to access accounts without having to constantly juggle and update multiple passwords.
- Compliance: For many organizations, MFA is a basic requirement for compliance within their industries. Many states have also established clear expectations that organizations utilize MFA in specific scenarios. In these situations, multi-factor authentication is a must in order to avoid audit issues and potential fines.
Update Your Security Strategy to Meet Modern Demands
If your organization is still relying on single-factor authentication, it’s time to make targeted changes to reinforce your security solutions. And even if you’ve already employed 2FA or MFA, you may want to confirm that you’re using the best-suited factors to keep security risks at bay.
I hope you found this information helpful. As always, contact us anytime about your technology needs.
Until next time,