Multi factor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security to your application or web service, forcing your users to identify themselves in multiple ways before you grant access to their personal data. But why is this security measure so important? And why is it increasing in importance?
The Basics of Multi Factor Authentication
Every multi factor authentication solution has a few things in common, though they’re sometimes implemented in different ways with different features at the forefront. The name comes from the fact that this system requires multiple forms of authentication before a user is granted access to a system.
Typically, when you want to log into an account on a specific platform, you’re required to provide a username and a password. The username indicates which account you’re trying to access, while the password serves as a form of authentication, proving that you are who you say you are.
But what happens if some unauthorized party gains access to that password? In a system with single authentication, they would be able to get access to your account immediately. But if they’re forced to provide an alternate form of verification, they may be stymied, or at least delayed.
Think of it like providing two different forms of identification to the clerk at the DMV. Instead of only providing a birth certificate, you’re likely required to provide additional forms of verification, like a Social Security card and proof of address.
In most systems, users are only required to submit two forms of authentication, but more advanced systems with additional forms of authentication provide even more protection.
In addition to a password, users are typically prompted to provide information from at least one of the following categories as a form of authentication:
- Things you personally know. You can verify your identity by providing pieces of information that only you should know. Classic examples here include providing your mother’s maiden name, providing the name of the street you grew up on, or even providing a unique PIN number. Users may have the option to set these for themselves.
- Personal possessions. A person’s identity can also be verified with the help of a personal possession, like a smartphone or specific computer. If the device trying to access the account is authorized, it can allow the user through with just a password. If not, the user may be prompted to retrieve a verification code from an authorized device.
- Identity elements. Certain elements of your natural identity, like biometrics, can also be used. Providing a fingerprint, a retinal scan, or even a behavioral analysis may be enough for the system to recognize the individual.
The Value of Multi Factor Authentication
Why is this so valuable?
There are many security benefits, including:
- Protection against weak passwords. Ordinarily, a password that’s easy to guess is a massive security risk. But with MFA enabled, the guesser will almost immediately be stopped in their tracks.
- Protection against stolen passwords. MFA also provides protection against stolen passwords. If an employee of your organization accidentally gives out their password to an unauthorized party, the second form of authentication can halt the potential breach.
- Mitigation of external risks. BYOD policies are increasingly common, presenting new security vulnerabilities to the businesses that implement them. But with an MFA solution in place, third party devices aren’t quite as risky; even if a criminal gains access to them, they may not be able to use the information they retrieve to gain access to sensitive information.
- Solidification of the value of your main security measures. All your primary security measures will be rendered irrelevant if a cybercriminal can gain access tier systems with just a guessed or stolen password. Employing MFA means ensuring that your primary security measures can continue doing their jobs.
- Guard against abnormal actions. If an unauthorized login is attempted on an unfamiliar device, MFA can stop the attempt.
- Compliance. You’re legally responsible for protecting the data of your users. Enabling an MFA solution helps you ensure that compliance.
- Peace of mind. With MFA turned on, you’ll never have to worry about someone gaining access to your account just because they have your password.
Are There Downsides?
The downsides of multi factor authentication are few in number and mild in nature. For some users, multi factor authentication can be annoying or time-consuming. And it does cost a bit of time and money to initially implement. But for the most part, the implementation of a multi factor authentication system is well worth the initial cost and ongoing temporary annoyances.
For most businesses and most individuals, multi factor authentication is a no-brainer. It’s an extra layer of security that’s relatively inexpensive and easy to use, and it has the potential to prevent severe, ridiculously expensive data breaches.