2FA vs. MFA: Their differences, explained

July 5th, 2021
2FA vs. MFA: Their differences, explained

At a time when cyberattacks such as phishing scams are becoming more successful at infiltrating users’ accounts, using passwords alone is no longer enough. To combat this problem, many online services have implemented two-factor authentication (2FA) and multifactor authentication (MFA). MFA and 2FA are authentication methods that confirm the identity of a user on top of a password.

These terms are often used interchangeably, so their differences might not be clear to some people. In this article, we’ll talk about 2FA and MFA, their differences, and which one you should implement for your business.

What is a factor?

Before we discuss the differences between 2FA and MFA, it’s important to know what a factor is. Shorthand for authentication factor, it is a security credential used to verify the identity of a user attempting to gain access to a file, application, or system.

There are four commonly used authentication factors, which include:

  • Knowledge: This refers to something only the user should know to access their account, such as a password, username, PIN, answer to a security question, or address.
  • Possession: This involves something a user has in their possession like a one-time passcode (OTP), security token, or a smart card.
  • Inherence: This involves characteristics unique to the user, such as fingerprints, facial features, iris and retina print, and voice.
  • Location: This refers to where a user is. Location is tracked and determined using different technologies that track a user’s IP address and notify of any malicious activity detected.

What is the difference between 2FA and MFA?

2FA requires two factors (the first being a password) to verify a user’s identity. MFA, on the other hand, could involve two or more factors. This means that 2FAs are MFAs, but not all MFAs are 2FAs.

So does this mean MFA is more secure than 2FA? Yes. The more authentication factors you use to protect your account, the more secure it gets. This is because while hackers can easily get a hold of a user’s password, it’s difficult for them to acquire a user’s OTP and physical security key. Fingerprints and facial features are even more difficult to steal.

What should you consider before implementing 2FA/MFA?

You need to consider the user experience before deploying 2FA/MFA solutions. If you have complicated security controls, employees could start finding ways to circumvent your system.

For example, they might reuse passwords for multiple accounts, use weak passwords like “123456,” “picture1,” or “password,” or write down passwords on sticky notes or their computer. If you think three authentication factors are inconvenient for your business, then two authentication factors may suffice.

Alternatively, you can implement adaptive multifactor authentication (AMFA). AMFA is a method for using business rules and contextual information to determine the authentication factors to apply to a particular user in a certain situation.

Let’s say an employee remotely accesses business applications hosted in a data center. Sometimes, they work from home using a trusted computer and a broadband connection. Other times, they access the company’s IT network using a different laptop and a public Wi-Fi connection. With AMFA, an organization can apply different sets of security controls depending on the employee’s situation.

This means that by the first time the employee signs on from home, they would be required to enter their username and password, as well as an OTP sent to their mobile device. Once they provide the right credentials and code, trust is established. In the future, the employee could sign in from home using only their username and password.

On the other hand, when accessing the corporate network from an untrusted device and IP address, they would be required to provide multiple authentication factors, like a username/password combination and an OTP or physical security key.

What is the future of 2FA/MFA?

According to Ankit Giri, security engineer at JPMorgan Chase & Co, there will be a rise in the adoption of biometrics as an additional authentication factor. Before, biometric authentication technology was expensive and difficult to use, but thanks to its integration with consumer products like smartphones and tablets, it became more affordable, user-friendly, and accurate.

Furthermore, the use of app-based authenticators like Microsoft Authenticator, Google Authenticator, and Authy will become more prevalent. When a user sets up an authenticator app with a website, that site generates a secret key in the form of a QR code. Once the user scans it, the key is then saved to their device.

When the user logs in to that website, it will ask them to enter a code generated by the authentication app. The app generates the code by combining the key the website gave the user with the current time. If the key in the access code is the same as the one the website generated, it knows the right user is trying to sign in.

Ready to get started with 2FA/MFA? Founders Technology Group can help you identify and deploy the best authentication solution for your business. Call us today for a FREE, no-obligation consultation.