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Multi-Factor Authentication vs 2FA – What Is the Best Login Security?

When securing access to sensitive IT infrastructure, professionals must consider what authentication methods are going to be implemented to protect the data and content stored within.

With the prominent and growing concerns of cybercrime and internet security in the computing industry, a simple single-factor authentication process with a standard username and password to access online accounts, computers, servers or even banking services is insufficient.

To maintain security, it is essential that only approved users or authorized personnel are granted privileged access to IT solutions and services. Most organizations choose to implement a security standard that uses either Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) or Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).

Both 2FA and MFA are secure authentication methods that share similar security techniques that require the user to prove their user identity; however, there are fundamental differences between them, and although you may not realize it, it is quite likely that you already use these authentication solutions in your day-to-day lives.

In This Article

What Is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security practice wherein access is granted to a user upon provision of two different authentication factors.

What Is an Authentication Factor?

An authentication factor is a type of security credential used to verify a specific user’s identity before they are granted access to a system or place, typically something only they know (also called a knowledge factor, usually a password) with a security item they have (also called a possession factor).

This item is usually a physical device provided by an organization or 3rd parties, such as a mobile phone, a PKI security card, or an RSA Secure Token. These secured items often display a changeable code or PIN. The user must enter their Username and Password, as well as the PIN code to access or log in.

As most of the population carry smartphones, many organizations opt to send SMS text codes to users when either accessing secure sites and services or when conducting sensitive transactions, such as removing funds from digital financial services like PayPal or Skrill.

Applications have also been developed, like One-Time Password (OTP) Authentication, which generates a security key that only you and the provider share. Timed One-Time Password (TOTP) apps add a further level of security, as the PIN code or security key a TOTP generates will change at a predefined timed interval.

Two-factor authentication is extremely popular on the Internet and is used by organizations like Amazon and Google services like Gmail and YouTube.

Many business compliance standards, such as Healthcare HIPAA standards, or SOC1/SOC2/SOC3 SSAE, demand that at least two-factor authentication be implemented for the protection of sensitive data and transactions. This is because it is a much more difficult authentication method to compromise. Server-side authentication devices and those of the user need to be aligned, which makes security breaches unlikely.

What Is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security practice like two-factor authentication but with an additional layer of complexity to secure login access. A user is required to provide three authentication factors – something only they know (again usually a password) with a security item they have (a possession factor) and something unique to the user (such as a fingerprint or retina scan – a biometric factor). In extremely secure environments, there may be even more than three authentication factors required to gain access.

MFA is a favored authentication method among Managed Service Providers (MSPs), as requiring multiple authentication factors offers significant protection to enterprise files and applications.

Besides verifying the identity of each user, the systems can diagnose the health of each multi-factor authentication device. By establishing the presence of vital security controls and checking for out-of-date software, multi-factor authentication can easily block high-risk or infected machines or devices.

What Is Single-Factor Authentication?

In single-factor authentication (SFA), only a single password needs to be compromised or cracked to gain unauthorized access.

There are password-cracking tools available online that can breach low-quality or common passwords in a matter of seconds.

In SFA, it is the user’s responsibility to ensure that a strong password is created, and IT infrastructure administrators cannot always guarantee an employee is not going to use low standards or share their simple passwords.

2FA vs MFA vs SFA: What Authentication Methods Are Best?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is generally more secure. Adding additional authentication factors will increase the security of the system and make it harder for unauthorized users to gain access, as each additional authentication factor requires users to provide additional proof of their user identity.

However, ease of use must be balanced with security in authentication practices. While strong security is a core concern in IT, it is important to consider the user and how security impacts the user. Not everyone is technically skilled and two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication can create barriers within a system that less savvy users will have difficulty surmounting. Best practice should achieve a balance where the system is secure while not hindering the user experience.

Both two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication are significantly more secure than single-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication enforce additional layers of protection which the user must adhere to in order to gain appropriate system access.  Warnings can be flagged if an incorrect part of the two-factor authentication or multi-factor authentication is entered, and often IT systems will email the user stating that a failed login attempt has been monitored.

Two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication cannot be used in every scenario and are not a foolproof answer to a good password policy; for example, consider a scenario where a user has a mobile phone device that acts as a PIN code generator to access a system. If the user has no signal or if the mobile phone is in the repair shop, then the user will not get access because they do not have the ability to provide the appropriate authentication factor.

To counteract these problems, two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication are often only required at first log-in or when accessing sensitive data from a new terminal. Once initial trust is established through the use of cookies, single-factor authentication is often acceptable for future use for a certain period of time.

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