NordLayer - Network Security

Multi-factor authentication best practices & strategy


By NordLayer
10 Jan 2023
6 min read
MFA Best Practices cover

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requests more than one identification factor when users log into network services. These factors could be one-time codes delivered by secure third-party providers. Or they could be biometric identifiers.

The aim of MFA is to verify user identities and strengthen network protection beyond the level provided by traditional passwords. But how should you achieve this goal?

This blog will explain some core MFA best practices. It will also lead you through a step-by-step guide to implementing multi-factor authentication. The result should be an MFA system that ensures rock-solid network protection where it matters most.

MFA best practices

Multi-factor authentication is an essential addition to cybersecurity setups. Properly configured, MFA allows workers to relocate to their homes, connect remotely as they travel, and use cloud resources anywhere.

These MFA best practices will help you create an authentication system that meets your needs.

1. Plan the right MFA solution for your business

Multi-factor authentication is not a one-size-fits-all technology. Choose the right authentication system for your business needs. For instance, types of MFA to think about include:

  • Biometric scanning, such as retinal scans and fingerprints.

  • One-time passwords (OTP) delivered by tokens, email, or SMS.

  • Hardware devices such as security badges, cards and tokens.

  • Contextual factors such as keyboard behavior, location data, and the network are used to make a connection.

Workers could benefit from biometric scanning if your business relies on mobile devices. Quick, user-friendly biometrics can provide secure access away from the office. Smartphones are well-suited to techniques like fingerprint scans.

Workforces where remote working is routine, might prefer hardware tokens or tags. These small devices are easy to carry between work and home. The tokens will still be required to access network resources if devices are lost or stolen. So they are a good extra defense measure.

Whatever solution you choose, it must comply with network infrastructure. Find an MFA system that is compatible with critical apps and employee devices.

2. Create an enterprise-wide MFA solution

Multi-factor authentication solutions must cover all access points to network resources.

Carry out a device audit before sourcing any technologies. This will help you understand which types of MFA tech to choose and how to train employees to use authentication systems.

Cloud assets and on-premises resources should all be included. Protect all cloud endpoints with more than one authentication factor, with additional protections for high-value assets.

3. Manage change to bring users on board

The biggest problem with multi-factor authentication is ensuring employees use authentication tools consistently and safely. Workers may lapse into unsafe behavior if MFA is too time-consuming or complex. That’s why change management is all-important.

Plan a staged introduction that makes every user feel part of the process. Extra authentication methods will disrupt working practices, at least for a while. But if you approach employees as participants in the process, they will respond positively.

Inform users about upcoming changes at the start of the project. Explain how MFA will benefit workers and how user identification works. Answer any questions as the project unfolds. Workers need to know exactly what is required and how to comply with security policies.

Change managers can isolate areas of potential resistance. Focus on chokepoints like using third-party devices, managing biometrics, and password management. Provide training and refresh user knowledge after MFA comes online.

4. Create user-friendly MFA systems

When mainstreaming MFA, companies need to craft user-friendly solutions. Systems should minimize friction and maximize speed while remaining secure.

Explore ways to reduce the work of users. Adaptive authentication can remove the need for passwords and use device or location information alongside biometrics. Single sign-on portals can bring services together and make logging on easier.

Where possible, provide multiple options for users. Some workers will embrace retina or fingerprint scanning. For others, it could be impractical or intrusive. They might prefer hardware tokens.

When people choose their own solutions, they are more likely to feel in control. When they “own” their authentication choices, workers will be less likely to back-slide and abandon MFA.

5. Combine MFA with single sign-on (SSO)

As hinted above, one common solution for MFA is single sign-on (SSO). SSO creates a single identity security portal. This gateway allows users to access core resources according to their individual privileges.

SSO fits neatly with MFA. You can combine standard password portals with biometrics and one-time passwords. Using a single portal and extra identity verification factors balances user experience and network security.

  • SSO reduces employee workloads, providing instant system access to all relevant resources. That’s particularly useful when connecting remote workers to cloud assets.

  • MFA supplements password security. This solves some problems associated with SSO, including the repeated use of passwords or the reliance on weak passwords that are easy to hack.

6. Make use of contextual factors

Multi-factor authentication systems use more than biometric scanners and hardware tokens. MFA can also leverage contextual information about individual users and their devices.

Contextual information is passive. Users do not need to provide information consciously. Instead, agents detect data about the user’s device or location. Agents on user laptops can tell whether the computer is in the owner’s home or connected to insecure public wifi. Blacklisting screens out unknown devices or those accessing from unsafe locations.

Users move. They won’t always be located at home. And if employees request access from elsewhere, MFA systems ask them for additional information. That complicates matters for laptop or smartphone thieves with access to worker devices.

More advanced authentication factors are also available for extremely high-security situations. Techniques like liveness testing and biometric keyboard verification provide maximum information about user identities. These contextual factors represent an extremely strong barrier against data thieves when used with physical tokens.

7. Think about passwordless solutions

In some cases, MFA allows companies to remove traditional password access from their network perimeter. Passwords are clumsy to use. Few employees use strong passwords or store them safely. Going passwordless can make a lot of sense from a security perspective.

MFA can use contextual information about mobile devices, user locations, or even user behavior. These factors may be sufficient to allow access when combined with biometric data. This saves time while providing a degree of security. However, strong passwords should be retained to access sensitive data and critical workloads.

8. Implement the least privilege to secure network assets

MFA can apply uniformly to all users, but it’s also better to implement role-based MFA to enforce the principle of least privilege. Part of Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA), this principle states that users should only have access to essential data and applications. All non-essential resources should be off-limits.

Identity and Access Management and network segmentation are core ZTNA technologies, but MFA also plays a role.

MFA systems can ask for additional information when users try to exercise administrative functions. MFA can also apply conditional access to high-security databases and request additional user credentials at regular intervals.

9. Use provisioning protocols for cloud compatibility

Companies can combine MFA systems and critical cloud assets by using provisioning protocols. For instance, Microsoft Azure Active Directory supports protocols like RADIUS and Oauth 2.0.

Standard protocols like RADIUS make it easier to combine legacy network tools and cloud applications. MFA systems must operate across all network devices and resources. Adopting an approach based on standard protocols makes this possible.

10. See MFA as an ongoing process

Deploying MFA doesn’t end when users start to apply biometrics or hardware tokens. Companies must see authentication as an ongoing challenge requiring constant attention and regular audits.

The threat landscape does not stand still. New phishing techniques emerge monthly. Novel malware threats can compromise previously secure endpoints. Network managers must be aware of these developments. Security teams must update MFA systems to reflect real-world cybersecurity risks.

Regularly assess MFA systems to ensure they are delivering effective security. Are workers using them properly? Do you need to use more or different authentication factors? Are any gaps not covered by authentication processes?

Companies also need to be persistent and determined when deploying MFA. Most MFA solutions experience problems. Users regularly report difficulties, which can cause IT teams to roll back authentication projects. Resist this urge.

Provide support to any departments or individuals experiencing issues. Drill down into the concerns reported by users. They may detect technical issues that were not apparent to security professionals.

Above all, don’t expect overnight success. MFA eventually becomes embedded in everyday work, but this won’t happen immediately.

Step-by-step MFA implementation strategy

When implementing MFA, here are the steps to follow:

1. Train users in how MFA works

Employee education is critical when implementing MFA. Every process must be centered around upskilling and reassuring users.

Poorly informed workers may resist authentication techniques or back-slide to unsafe practices. Here are some things to bear in mind when training staff:

  • Regularly communicate via email from the start of the project. Timely emails will ensure staff are aware of timescales and security policies. They can include contact details for project leaders.

  • Create ways for staff to engage with project managers. Messaging apps like Slack are a good option here. Make staff available to field any queries and provide updates if requested.

  • Stress the positive aspect of MFA. Always focus on why you are introducing MFA and how it will help individuals.

2. Design an MFA system to suit your needs

Choosing the right form of multi-factor authentication is critically important. Some companies find that biometric scanners like facial recognition are appropriate. This works well when end users have access to smartphones with reliable cameras and fingerprint scanners.

Other companies prefer to distribute hardware tokens to remote workers. Tokens provide one-time passwords and can be tracked remotely by security managers.

Questions to ask when choosing an MFA solution:

  • What kind of devices will use your MFA system?

  • Is there a mixture of work-from-home and on-premises end users?

  • Is ease of use more important than pure identity security?

  • Do you need sophisticated solutions with fine-grained MFA controls?

  • Is cost an overriding factor, or can you afford to spend more?

  • What apps and services will your MFA solution interact with? Compatibility is essential to avoid friction and improve the user experience.

3. Apply privileges to roles and individuals

Create privilege levels for different access requests. This allows individuals to access core resources while keeping sensitive data off-limits to those who do not need it.

You might want to request extra identity data when accessing customer records or executing admin commands on cloud platforms. MFA requests every few hours may also be needed when accessing financial records.

Some resources may not need MFA at all. Contextual controls and passwords could be sufficient to protect low-sensitivity resources. However, risk assesses each asset to avoid leaving confidential data exposed.

4. Make sure your MFA implementation is compliant

Authentication is a core aspect of major data security regulations, including HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI-DSS. Sectors like health care or financial processing have specific requirements absent from other business areas. Knowing which regulations affect your business is absolutely vital.

For example, PCI-DSS requires:

  • Strong encryption of all customer data

  • Three-factor MFA for any servers handling customer data

  • Identity management to ensure customer records can only be accessed by authorized individuals

Third-party authentication providers should possess the accreditation. Look for an Attestation of Compliance (AOC) with PCI-DSS or HIPAA. This means the provider has been independently assessed as meeting compliance standards.

5. Create a streamlined way to request backup factors

Sometimes employees lose authentication hardware or business laptops. In these cases, they will probably also lose MFA data. Security best practice involves resetting the user’s account with a backup factor and creating a new set of authentication information.

One option is to enable multiple devices on a single account. If users have more than one authorized device, they can use it to request backup factors and reset their accounts.

Security teams should also be prepared to remove authentication factors from user accounts when thefts occur. There should be a clear process for quarantining compromised factors, making it tough for thieves to use stolen identity credentials.

6. Plan to on-board new remote workers

All work-from-home equipment must be audited and authorized with MFA software installed. But setting up MFA with remote workers can be time-consuming. It may leave security vulnerabilities if staff is left to their own devices.

Many companies provide work laptops for new hires. If you take this route, take time to lead staff through the MFA onboarding process. If necessary, schedule video meetings to explain the process. That way, you can verify that staff properly follow every step.

7. Configure adaptive MFA controls

Before MFA goes live, explore additional security controls your provider offers. This should include adaptive systems to detect anomalies and meet threats proactively.

At this stage, you can blacklist certain access locations. For instance, you may blacklist all public wifi hotspots. But you could even limit access from entire continents.

8. Plan to audit your MFA solution

Plan to reassess your authentication setup regularly. Every MFA implementation experiences some problems. They are generally not deal-breakers and tend to involve easing users into the authentication process.

Check that users are following MFA practices. And make sure privileges match up with risk assessments. Do multiple factors protect confidential data, or can general users access databases?

As new threats emerge, authentication systems can become outdated. Be prepared to update software or add new factors if the situation changes.

How can NordLayer help with MFA implementation?

NordLayer offers a suite of security tools allowing companies to create secure SSE architecture at the network edge. Guard cloud assets, on-premises data centers, and remote work laptops. And make life easy for workers to carry out their tasks.

Our products include 2FA or MFA for authentication to increase security levels while connecting to company networks. NordLayer caters to apps like Google Authenticator or Authy and USB devices to deliver security keys.

Adding MFA is quick and easy, especially when you combine authentication and SSO. The result is all-around security for critical business assets. To find out more, get in touch with the NordLayer team today.

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