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Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Two-factor authentication (2FA), also known as dual-step verification or dual-factor authentication, is a security protocol wherein users furnish two distinct authentication factors to confirm their identity.

The implementation of 2FA aims to enhance the safeguarding of both a user’s credentials and the assets accessible to that user. This method offers a heightened level of security compared to authentication approaches reliant on single-factor authentication (SFA), where users only present one factor—typically, a password or passcode. Two-factor authentication mechanisms involve users providing a password as the initial factor and a second, distinct factor—commonly a security token or a biometric element, such as a fingerprint or facial scan.

The inclusion of two-factor authentication enhances the security of the authentication procedure, rendering it more challenging for unauthorized individuals to infiltrate a person’s devices or online accounts. This heightened security results from the fact that possessing just the password is insufficient to pass the authentication check, even if the victim’s password has been compromised.

Over an extended period, two-factor authentication has served as a pivotal method for regulating access to sensitive systems and data. Its application is on the rise among online service providers who seek to fortify protection against unauthorized access, particularly when hackers gain access to a password database or employ phishing tactics to acquire user passwords.

What are authentication factors?

Various methods exist for authenticating individuals using multiple authentication techniques. Presently, the majority of authentication methods center around knowledge factors, such as conventional passwords. However, two-factor authentication introduces an additional layer by incorporating either a possession factor or an inherence factor.

The authentication factors, roughly arranged in the order of their adoption in computing, encompass the following:

  1. Knowledge Factor: This involves something the user knows, such as a password, a personal identification number (PIN), or another shared secret.
  1. Possession Factor: This factor entails something the user possesses, like an ID card, a security token, a cell phone, a mobile device, or a smartphone app, used to authorize authentication requests.
  1. Biometric Factor (Inherence Factor): Inherent to the user’s physical self, this includes personal attributes derived from physical characteristics. Examples include fingerprints authenticated through a fingerprint reader, as well as facial and voice recognition, or behavioural biometrics like keystroke dynamics, gait, or speech patterns.
  1. Location Factor: This factor is indicated by the location from which an authentication attempt is made. It can be enforced by restricting authentication attempts to specific devices in a particular location or by tracking the geographic source using information such as the Internet Protocol (IP) address or geolocation data from the user’s mobile device.
  1. Time Factor: This restricts user authentication to a specific time window during which logging on is permitted, limiting access to the system outside of that designated timeframe.

The majority of two-factor authentication methods leverage the first three authentication factors. However, systems requiring heightened security may implement multifactor authentication (MFA), relying on two or more independent credentials for a more robust authentication process.

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What is the process of two-factor authentication?

Enabling two-factor authentication can vary depending on the specific application or vendor, but the general multistep process remains consistent:

1. The user is prompted to log in to the application or website.

2. The user inputs familiar information, typically a username and password, and the site’s server identifies and validates the user.

3. In cases where passwords are not required, the website generates a unique security key for the user. The authentication tool processes this key, and the site’s server verifies it.

4. The user is then prompted to initiate the second login step, where they must demonstrate possession or inherence of something unique to them. This could be biometrics, a security token, an ID card, a smartphone, or another mobile device.

5. In some instances, the user may need to enter a one-time code generated during step four.

6. Upon providing both factors, the user is authenticated and granted access to the application or website.

Elements of two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication falls under the umbrella of multifactor authentication (MFA). In essence, it is implemented whenever two distinct authentication factors are necessary for accessing a system or service. However, it’s important to note that utilizing two factors from the same category does not qualify as two-factor authentication. For instance, demanding a password and a shared secret is still categorized as single-factor authentication (SFA) since both elements fall under the knowledge authentication factor type.

In the realm of single-factor authentication (SFA) services, usernames and passwords fall short in terms of security. Password-based authentication poses challenges as it necessitates knowledge and attentiveness to create and remember robust passwords. Passwords are susceptible to various insider threats, including the careless storage of login credentials on sticky notes, retention on old hard drives, and exploits through social engineering. Additionally, external threats manifest in the form of hackers employing brute-force, dictionary, or rainbow table attacks.

Over time and with sufficient resources, attackers can often compromise password-based security systems, leading to the theft of corporate data. Despite these vulnerabilities, passwords persist as the most prevalent SFA method due to their cost-effectiveness, ease of implementation, and widespread familiarity.

Enhanced security can be achieved through the implementation of multiple challenge-response questions, depending on their execution. Standalone biometric verification methods also present a more secure avenue for single-factor authentication.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Two-factor authentication product types

Various devices and services can be employed to implement two-factor authentication (2FA), ranging from tokens and radio frequency identification (RFID) cards to smartphone apps.

Two-factor authentication products fall into two primary categories:

  1. Tokens for User Authentication: These are issued to users for utilization during the login process.
  1. Infrastructure or Software for Recognition and Authentication: This category comprises infrastructure or software designed to recognize and authenticate users who correctly employ their tokens.

Authentication tokens may take the form of physical devices, such as key fobs or smart cards, or they may be present in software as mobile or desktop apps generating PIN codes for authentication. Referred to as one-time passwords (OTPs), these authentication codes are typically generated by a server and verified as authentic by an authentication device or app. Each authentication code is a brief sequence associated with a specific device, user, or account and can be used only once as part of the authentication process.

Organizations must establish a system to accept, process, and either grant or deny access to users authenticating with their tokens. This system can be deployed as server software or a dedicated hardware server, or it may be provided as a service by a third-party vendor.

An integral aspect of 2FA involves ensuring that authenticated users are granted access only to approved resources. Therefore, a key function of 2FA is the integration of the authentication system with an organization’s authentication data. Microsoft offers essential infrastructure support for organizations to implement 2FA in Windows 10 through features like Windows Hello, compatible with Microsoft accounts. This system can authenticate users through Microsoft Active Directory, Azure AD, or Fast IDentity Online (FIDO).

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How do hardware 2FA tokens work?

Hardware tokens designed for two-factor authentication (2FA) come in various options, each supporting different authentication methods. One widely recognized hardware token is the YubiKey, a compact Universal Serial Bus (USB) device that accommodates One-Time Passwords (OTPs), public key encryption and authentication, and the Universal 2nd Factor protocol developed by the FIDO Alliance. These YubiKey tokens are marketed by Yubico Inc., headquartered in Palo Alto, California.

When users possessing a YubiKey engage in the login process for an online service that supports OTPs, such as Gmail, GitHub, or WordPress, they insert the YubiKey into their device’s USB port, input their password, select the YubiKey field, and physically interact with the YubiKey button. In response, the YubiKey generates a unique OTP, which is then automatically entered into the designated field.

The OTP, comprising 44 characters, serves as a single-use password. The initial 12 characters function as a distinctive identifier representing the security key registered with the account. The subsequent 32 characters contain encrypted information, utilizing a key known exclusively to the device and Yubico’s servers, established during the initial account registration.

The OTP is transmitted from the online service to Yubico for authentication verification. Upon successful validation of the OTP, the Yubico authentication server sends a confirmation message, affirming the correctness of the token for that specific user. With this process, 2FA is successfully completed, as the user has presented two distinct factors of authentication—the password serving as the knowledge factor, and the YubiKey functioning as the possession factor.

Mobile device two-factor authentication

Smartphones provide diverse capabilities for two-factor authentication (2FA), allowing companies to choose the most suitable options for their needs. Some smartphones can leverage features like fingerprint recognition, facial or iris scanning using the built-in camera, voice recognition through the microphone, and location verification via GPS as an additional factor. Voice or Short Message Service (SMS) may also serve as channels for out-of-band authentication.

A designated phone number recognized as trustworthy can receive verification codes through text messages or automated phone calls. To enroll in mobile 2FA, users are required to verify at least one trusted phone number.

Apple iOS, Google Android, and Windows 10 all offer apps supporting 2FA, transforming the phone itself into a physical device to fulfill the possession factor. For instance, Duo Security, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and acquired by Cisco in 2018 for $2.35 billion, provides a platform enabling customers to utilize their trusted devices for 2FA. The platform initially establishes user trust before verifying the mobile device as a credible authentication factor.

Authenticator apps eliminate the need for receiving verification codes via text, voice calls, or email. In scenarios where Google Authenticator is supported, users input their username and password (knowledge factor) and are prompted to enter a six-digit number. The authenticator generates this number instantly, changing every 30 seconds and being unique for each login. By entering the correct number, users conclude the verification process, confirming possession of the correct device—an ownership factor.

These, among other 2FA products, provide details on the minimum system requirements essential for implementing 2FA.

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Push notifications for 2FA

A push notification serves as a passwordless authentication method, verifying a user by sending a direct notification to a secure app on their device. This notification alerts the user about an ongoing authentication attempt, providing details for the user to either approve or deny access with a single tap. Upon approval, the server acknowledges the request, completing the user login to the web app.

The authentication process of push notifications relies on confirming that the registered device, typically a mobile device, is in the possession of the user. Compromising the device by an attacker would compromise the push notifications as well. Notably, push notifications mitigate threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks, unauthorized access, and social engineering attempts.

Despite being more secure than some other authentication methods, push notifications still entail security risks. For instance, users might unintentionally approve a fraudulent authentication request due to the habitual approval of push notifications.

Is it safe to use two-factor authentication?

While two-factor authentication (2FA) contributes to improved security, the effectiveness of 2FA systems is contingent on the resilience of their weakest element. For instance, the security of hardware tokens relies on the integrity of the issuing entity or manufacturer. A notable instance of a compromised 2FA system transpired in 2011 when security company RSA reported the hacking of its SecurID authentication tokens.

The process of account recovery itself may be exploited, potentially undermining two-factor authentication. In some cases, the recovery process resets a user’s current password, sending a temporary password via email, thereby enabling the user to log in again and bypass the 2FA mechanism. This method was employed in the hacking of the business Gmail accounts of Cloudflare’s chief executive.

Despite being cost-effective, easy to implement, and user-friendly, SMS-based 2FA is susceptible to various attacks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has discouraged the use of SMS in 2FA services, as outlined in its Special Publication 800-63-3: Digital Identity Guidelines. NIST’s rationale is based on the vulnerability of one-time passwords (OTPs) sent via SMS, owing to potential mobile phone number portability attacks, attacks on the mobile phone network, and the risk of malware interception or redirection of text messages.

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Future of authentication

Authentication is evolving, with the future marked by heightened security measures. Environments emphasizing increased security are exploring three-factor authentication, typically incorporating possession of a physical token, a password, and biometric data like fingerprint scans or voiceprints. Emerging factors such as geolocation, device type, and time of day contribute to determining whether a user should be authenticated or denied access. Furthermore, continuous authentication, involving real-time monitoring of behavioral biometric identifiers such as keystroke length, typing speed, and mouse movements, is gaining prominence, offering ongoing verification rather than a single authentication check during login.

The reliance on passwords as the primary authentication method, while widespread, falls short of meeting the security and user experience expectations of companies and users. Legacy security tools, including password managers and multi-factor authentication (MFA), attempt to address username and password issues but are tethered to an essentially outdated architecture—the password database.

As a result, many organizations are shifting towards passwordless authentication. Methods like biometrics and secure protocols empower users to authenticate themselves securely within applications without the need for password entry. In a business context, this allows employees to access their work without dealing with passwords, while IT retains comprehensive control over every login. Innovative approaches, such as utilizing blockchain through decentralized or self-sovereign identity, are also gaining attention as alternatives to traditional authentication methods.

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