2FA vs. MFA: What’s the Difference?

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When you’re setting up a website, it’s important that you put the right security measures in place. Not only do you need to secure your website against viruses and hackers, but you also need to ensure your customers are protected. Picking the right authentication factor system could be the key to keeping your customers’ data safe.

When you’re picking a security system for your site, there are a couple of different authentication factor systems you can use. Read on to learn more about the differences between 2FA vs. MFA and when you should use each.

Importance of Appropriate Security 

Before we dive into the differences between two factor authentication vs multi factor authentication, let’s talk some about the importance of having the right security. These days, every part of our lives interacts with the internet in some form or fashion. We check our bank balances online, we interact with friends online, we communicate with our doctors online, and we even work online.

While this level of connectivity is convenient and has been crucial in the last year, it does put us at somewhat higher risk. If websites don’t have proper security, almost anyone can get in and steal our most sensitive information. Appropriate security keeps us protected from hackers, identity thieves, and others who would take advantage of that vulnerability.

What Are Authentication Factors?

Authentication factors are the tools websites use to ensure that the person signing into their service is who they say they are. There are a variety of different things that can serve as authentication factors, which we’ll discuss more in a moment. Most of the time, this takes the form of a piece of knowledge that only you would have.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably run into authentication factors before. When you were a kid, your parents may have had a secret code word that adults had to give you if they picked you up from school. That passcode was a real-life example of an authentication factor used to keep you safe.

The Four Authentication Factors 

There are four different kinds of authentication factors websites may use. These are knowledge, possession, inherence, and location.

Of these four factors, knowledge is by far the most common. Like the secret code when you were a kid, knowledge authentication relies on the user providing a piece of information only they would know. This can include a password, a PIN number, a security question answer, an address, or more. 

Possession authentication relies on the user having a specific object that provides additional proof of their identity. You’ll see this most commonly when a website sends a temporary passcode to your email or phone. Only the person with that phone number or email address could get the passcode.

Inherence authentication uses qualities of who you are to verify your identity. Most often, this authentication takes the form of biometrics. You probably use it every day when you use your thumbprint or Face ID to unlock your phone, although voice recognition and retina scans can also be used.

Finally, location-based authentication uses your physical location to help verify your identity. This is often tracked through GPS signals, IP addresses, and other such tools. Your bank uses this form of authentication when they let you know that someone in France is attempting to use your credit card when you live and work in Idaho.

What Is 2FA? 

So now that we know a little more about authentication factors, let’s talk some about what 2FA is. Two-factor authentication, or 2FA, is a method of identity verification that relies on two of the factors we listed above. These two factors can be in the same category, or they may rely on two different methods entirely.

You’ve seen 2FA at work when you’ve logged into an online account and then they’ve sent you a temporary passcode that you needed to enter. Your phone also uses two-factor authentication, even if you have Face ID turned on. From time to time, you may need to re-enter your passcode or an app password to ensure that you still can provide those two authentication factors.

How It Works 

2FA is based on the idea that it’s much harder to get two sensitive pieces of information about someone than one. For instance, let’s say you have a password to get into your bank account and that’s all. Hackers can steal your password from a vulnerable device or simply try millions of different passwords until they get the right one and then have access to your bank account. 

But a hacker is much, much less likely to be able to steal or guess both the correct password and the correct PIN number. Stealing your phone and getting the right password will be even harder. And in order for them to get both your password and your fingerprint or Face ID, they would have to kidnap you to break into your bank account.

Advantages of 2FA 

Of course, the big advantage 2FA has over single-factor authentication is that it’s much more secure. For the reasons we just talked about, it’s rare that accounts protected by 2FA get broken into. This means you can rest easy at night knowing that your most sensitive information is safe from theft. 

2FA also provides a nice balance between security and convenience. As we’ll discuss more later, MFA can get cumbersome and can start to have a negative impact on your experience. But 2FA is simple enough that you can still log into your accounts securely and with minimal hassle.

Disadvantages of 2FA

What 2FA gives you in convenience, however, it sacrifices in security. This is especially true if the particular 2FA system a website is running uses two of the same types of authentication factors. It’s much, much easier to steal two knowledge-based factors or to get access to one possession-based device than it is to steal MFA information.

And although it’s more convenient than some MFA systems, 2FA can also be a pain to deal with. Not only do you have to remember the specific password for that account, but now you also have to keep track of a PIN number or remember the answer to a security question. People may start to reuse the same passwords and PINs just to make things easier, canceling out the security 2FA is supposed to provide in the first place.

What Is MFA?

As you might guess from the name, multi-factor authentication, or MFA, uses three or more authentication factors to verify a user’s identity. Although this may sound cumbersome, you likely encounter it more often than you think. For instance, consider the process you go through to check your bank balance on your phone.

First, you must have a phone that you can unlock (possession and knowledge factors), and you must know your bank account password (knowledge factor). If you have a phone with a touch ID or Face ID, you may be able to use those to log into your account (inherency factor). And if your bank notices a log-in attempt from an unusual location, they may ask for an additional form of verification (location factor). 

How It Works

The idea behind MFA is to make it almost impossible for a hacker to gather all the information they’d need to break into a specific account. The only person in the world who will have all the authentication factors needed is the person who rightfully owns the account. Missing even one factor will keep the person locked out for good. 

The best MFA systems use a combination of different factor types and ones that come naturally to the users. You’ll never have to try to remember what your fingerprint is or where you normally live and work. But those authentication factors can be among the most challenging for hackers to replicate when they’re trying to break into your account.

Advantages of MFA

It should come as no surprise that the biggest advantage MFA systems offer is security. These systems are popular for the most sensitive information we have online, including bank accounts and medical data. As our lives move more and more online, MFA systems can protect our privacy and keep us safe.

MFA systems also allow for greater use of different authentication factor types. 2FA can use at most two of the authentication factor types, which still leaves opportunities for hackers. But by diversifying which factor types a system uses, it becomes almost impossible for someone to get all the factors correct and fake their way into an account.

Disadvantages of MFA

One of the major disadvantages of MFA, of course, is that it can get incredibly cumbersome if not handled right. Ideally, an MFA system will use factors that come naturally to you, such as security questions, location, or biometric identifiers. But if you have to remember three different passcodes to access an account, you may give up on it altogether.

MFA can also turn into something of a deadlock situation for users who may legitimately have forgotten their passwords. If they don’t know their password, an MFA system may ask for a different passcode that they also don’t know in order to access the system to reset the first password. A legitimate user may wind up locked out entirely or may have to call a support center for help.

When to Use 2FA

While each system has advantages and disadvantages, there are appropriate times to use each of the authentication systems we’ve discussed. When you need convenience to take priority over security, 2FA is the way to go. These systems provide enough security to keep your customers’ data safe without all the hoops MFA systems have.

2FA systems are well-suited to online shopping systems, social media platforms, and other such websites. These sites can have some sensitive customer data, and they need the protection 2FA systems provide. But they aren’t as critical as things like bank accounts and medical information, so convenience can take a higher spot on the priority list.

When to Use MFA

When your customers’ security is the most important thing of all, you need to implement MFA security measures. Not only is the extra protection critical to your operations, but your customers will also appreciate it. They may not even mind as much jumping through the extra hoops if they know it’s keeping them safe.

MFA systems should be used for financial institutions, medical applications, and school logins. Some companies may want to consider these systems for the platforms where their remote workers log in to do their work. When security is paramount and convenience doesn’t matter as much, MFA systems are the right place to put your trust.

Learn More About 2FA vs. MFA

When you run an online business or website, maintaining appropriate security measures is critical. Knowing the difference between 2FA vs. MFA can help you set up the right security measures for your situation. When convenience matters more than security, go for 2FA; when security is critical, MFA is the right choice for you.

If you’d like to get help setting up the most secure system possible, check out the rest of our site at Be Structured Technology Group. We support, protect, and secure your website, as well as helping you strategize for the future. Contact our sales department today for a free IT support consultation and discover the benefits of working with an award-winning Los Angeles IT support firm

About Chad Lauterbach

CEO at Be Structured Technology Group, Inc. a Los Angeles based provider of Managed IT Services for small business. I desire to help small businesses better utilize technology by assisting in high level planning to make sure that new systems will benefit them both operationally and financially. I am careful to implement and support systems using industry best practices.