NordLayer - Network Security

MFA vs. 2FA: what’s the difference?


By NordLayer
20 Sep 2022
10 min read
MFA vs. 2FA

Currently, almost 8 billion passwords are leaked. We get a constant reminder to be hygienic and responsible about user credentials. Yet, the internet and dark web are swarming with exposed passwords.

It’s now a standard to create a user profile for any content online. This demand creates an excessive number of accounts. Thus, the sign-up process ends with the most common username and password combinations.

Thus, a Single Factor Authentication (SFA) -one password - isn’t enough for securely accessing sensitive data. Here’s where Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) methods come to help. 

What is authentication?

Authentication shouldn’t be confused with an authenticator. Authentication is a process of a user validating their claimed identity. Meanwhile, an authenticator is a software, device, or token. It can operate via an app, smartphone, or code generator that provides a PIN or OTP (one-time password). Also, it can be a wearable for users to authenticate themselves.

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Two-Factor Authentication, as stated in the name, takes two factors to identify a user. The first part is a password — something you know. The second can be something you have, say, a smartphone or a token to verify a claimed person’s identity.

The second factor is not limited to a physical device. It can be anything only that person should have access to or knows. Most of the time, users can choose whether they want the second factor to be a code sent via email or text message. Some prefer additional security questions with pre-defined answers. A key is something only the person can access to proceed with authentication.

Implementing the second factor to the user authentication process is a significant addition to security. 2FA adds an obstacle that is difficult to pass through for threat actors in case of password leakage.

What is Multi-Factor Authentication?

Multi-Factor Authentication, by its name, means a few authentication factors. MFA is a more secure user access management tool. It combines different types of security items. By providing, for instance, a password, confirmation code, and biometric data, the user must give complex pieces of evidence from various sources confirming that they are that person for gaining access to requested systems or information assets. 

Types of MFA 

different types of second factors

To fully understand the scope of authentication factors, it’s easier to categorize them by type. The harder it is to replicate or get access to, the better:

Knowledge factor

It’s something the user knows — a password, PIN, lock pattern, answer to security questions, etc. Threat actors might obtain a repetitive piece of information via observation or technical cracks.

Possession factor

It’s something the user has — a hardware cryptographic device like a security key, mobile app, smart card, token, OTP, etc. It requires direct contact with a device at the moment of the user verification — an obstacle for a threat actor as it’s complicated to replicate or access.

Inherence factor

It’s something the user is — a fingerprint, face ID, iris scan, voice command, etc. Identification requires a unique feature of an individual that is challenging to simulate, compromise, or use via distance.

Context factor

It’s defined by user location — a connection an internal company network provides is identified as secure, thus, no additional metrics are required. However, other credentials to log in are needed once outside the premises.

Difference between 2FA and MFA

2FA is a multi-factor authentication method that requires exactly two authentication factors. MFA, compared with 2FA, has an additional dimension of authentication, requiring at least two or more authentication factors — two, three, or even more. Note that 2FA is MFA, but MFA cannot be considered a 2FA.

To constitute a 2FA, there’re no pre-defined restrictions on the second-factor type that follows the user name and password combination. It means that 2FA allows combining factors of the exact nature. Thus, the user can choose a password (knowledge factor) with a security question or code (knowledge factor). Using duplicate category factors is also known as Two-Step Verification (2SV). 2SV is just another type of MFA.

To fulfill MFA conditions, the identification factors must be independent. In this sense, MFA can have only two factors for identification. Yet they must be of an independent-factor nature. It’s applicable if the user proves who they are by providing information of separate categories: a password (knowledge factor) and a fingerprint (inherence factor) via mobile push notification on the phone (possession factor).

However, if all different factors are provided via the same device, it increases the risk in case of an infected or lost/stolen device. Therefore, the deeper access security is achieved, the broader network of approaches is used to apply multiple authentication factors.

Is Multi-Factor Authentication better than Two-Factor Authentication?

In terms of security, the more—the better should be the correct mindset. Therefore, MFA is a more secure method than 2FA because a user must respond to more checkpoints. Especially if authentication factors disperse through different access points that aren’t available online (like a token or security key) and require a physical presence.

Proving user identity multiple times instead of just submitting items of proof twice lowers the chance of a breach and helps achieve security compliance requirements.

Liability of a password

Either way, whether a user selects 2FA or MFA as an additional security measure, it’s more secure than a single password. Password is a vulnerability. It’s often forgotten, lost, repeated, or simplified, so it’s intercepted with low effort. Instead, two-factor or multi-factor authentication provides convenience, reliability, and security to user access management.

Single Sign-On for user identification

Single Sign-On (SSO) often comes as a part of the user authentication system jointly with 2FA/MFA, but they shouldn’t be confused. SSO allows users to authenticate once in a set timeframe (e.g., once a day) and does not request to re-verify who they are accessing the systems or applications, as does the MFA method. However, fewer user checkpoints also mean fewer threat actors’ impediments.

How to choose the correct authentication method for your company? 

For successful business performance, it’s critical to reduce the potential of human errors that lead to security threats and data breaches. Therefore, implementing authentication methods extends network security.

But which method to choose — should there be 4-factor authentication, or is two plenty? Define the best strategy by answering the following questions:

  • Will it affect productivity by consuming time?

  • What are current security measures, and what level would be sufficient enough?

  • What is the budget?

There’s no point in overdoing, even if we talk about cybersecurity. The right balance of input effort, efficiency, and actual benefit to the security design should be sufficient in terms of what would work best for your company.

2FA and MFA benefits for an organization

Large enterprises must deal with many employees, and micromanaging their security is impossible. Small and medium businesses might have more contained teams but also lack cybersecurity measures and authentication systems. Add remote access and hybrid work policies to a chosen setup — awareness of who and how is connecting to the internal company network is only a good guess.

Implementation of 2FA or MFA helps outweigh given circumstances and streamline the access process. Extended user authentication tools are accessible and straightforward to combine and use. It relieves the hardship for security managers on increasing security. Also, it’s not complicated for organization members as the instruments are automated. Moreover, it allows flexibility concerning the location and hybrid work strategy.

How can NordLayer help?

Human error, remote work environment, and insufficient cybersecurity mindset at a company can lead to data breaches, affecting business operations, reputation and finances. But why risk it when there are simple and practical solutions to mitigate the possibility of a data leak?

NordLayer’s cybersecurity framework implements the zero trust model, which embraces expanded identity verification. The solution combines separate identification controlsMFA, SSO, and biometric authentication seamlessly deploys to the existing company infrastructure.

Improving security policies within the organization can be easy and effective — reach out to our specialists to learn more about business-tailored cybersecurity approaches.

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