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What is 2FA? Two-factor authentication explained

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Ai825)

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a term often mentioned but rarely understood. What exactly does it mean, and what implications does it have for data security? 

This article answers these questions and provides all the information you need to understand what this technology is and how you can leverage it in both a business and personal setting to improve data security and protect yourself from cybercrime and potential data loss.

What is 2FA?

2FA is a two-step authentication process used when attempting to access a website or online service and requires users to enter both their account password and a secondary authentication method. Most commonly this is as a one-time password or login code. It is therefore more secure than using a password alone (single-factor authentication). 

More broadly, it is a type of identity and access management (IAM), the overarching term for the frameworks within an organization that ensure the right people have the right access to digital resources. The term 2FA is also used interchangeably with multi-factor authentication (MFA). 

2FA is increasingly seen as a standard in account security, and most online services and websites will now offer some type of 2FA option for users. Some organizations, such as banks, have made 2FA compulsory for all accounts. We recommend using 2FA wherever possible, as it significantly increases the security of your account.

How does it work?

2FA requires that a user attempting to access a platform or service to authenticate themselves twice. The first mode of identification is almost always a password, whereas the second may be a one-time password sent to a user’s email account or phone, a login code generated on an authentication app, or a physical security token. In all cases, the goal is to ensure that in order to access an account, the user must both know their password and have access to a trusted digital identifier. We will now briefly explain the most common types of authentication used in a 2FA process.

One-time passwords are usually sent to a user’s email address or mobile number and are usually time-limited. This means they must be used within a short time frame, or they will expire.

Because anyone with access to your email account or mobile number may be able to access your one-time passwords, they are only as secure as the account they’re sent to. This makes them one of the less secure forms of 2FA.

Authenticator apps are more secure than one-time passwords because they are linked to only one device. When setting up 2FA using this method, users are required to download an authenticator app (Google Authenticator is one of the most common) and connect it to their account by entering a linking code or scanning a QR code. 

Once set up, the authenticator app will create six-digit codes that refresh approximately every 30 seconds. These six-digit codes can be used to verify the user’s identity on the app or platform they are logging into.   

The benefit of using an authenticator app is that the user must have access to their personal device when logging into the account. This means that if your device is in your hands, then it is practically impossible for your account to be remotely accessed. 

A security token is a physical device used to verify identity and log in to an account or computer. It is one of the most secure forms of 2FA. Security tokens come in many forms, such as cards or USB dongles. Some must be plugged into the device being used via a USB port, whereas others just need to be in proximity to the device using a Bluetooth connection. 

As with authenticator apps, the benefit of using a security token as part of a 2FA process is that it requires the user to have physical access to their identifier in order to log in.

Security tokens are most common in medium and large-sized organizations where 2FA and IAM are core components of the enterprises’ digital security framework.

Why 2FA?

2FA limits the ability of a cybercriminal to hack your account remotely using only a password. If you’re not using 2FA, your account could be compromised through a brute-force attack or your credentials might be stolen from your device via a malware attack. Your details may have even been bought from a marketplace on the dark web (this is where most passwords stolen in high-profile data leaks end up).

In any case, a strong password alone is not enough to protect your accounts. 2FA is one of the most effective steps you can take to improve your digital security. It can protect businesses, both large and small, against data loss when an employee’s computer or digital accounts are hacked remotely or via malware. In the vast majority of cases, 2FA will protect your accounts from cyberattacks and ensure personal or business data isn’t compromised or stolen.

Conclusion

2FA is one of the most effective ways to protect your accounts from unauthorized access and improve data security within your household or business. Today most websites and apps offer some sort of 2FA, and we highly recommend making use of it.

This article has explained what 2FA is and why you should consider using it wherever possible. Whether you choose to use a one-time password, an authenticator app, or a security token, 2FA will provide significantly enhanced security compared to using a password alone.