At a time when cybersecurity breaches are at an all-time high, protecting sensitive data like personally identifiable information and protected health information (PII/PHI) and intellectual property has become a top priority for organizations. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a powerful tool that can help secure your digital identity and prevent unauthorized access to your accounts. It can also help ensure data privacy. This article explores MFA, how it works, and why it’s essential.
What Is Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)?
Multi-factor authentication, as the name suggests, is a security protocol that requires users to provide two or more forms of authentication to gain access to a system or application. This is in contrast to single-factor authentication, which relies on a single form of identification, such as a username and password. MFA combines different forms of authentication, such as something you know (password), something you have (security token), and something you are (biometric verification). More on these below.
Different Types of MFA
Different types of MFA are used in cybersecurity to strengthen the security of authentication mechanisms and reduce the risk of unauthorized access to systems or sensitive information. By requiring users to provide two or more forms of identification, MFA makes it more difficult for attackers to gain access through brute force attacks, social engineering, or other common attack vectors. Different types of MFA enable organizations to choose the most suitable method for their particular application based on security requirements, user convenience, and available technology. There are several types of MFA:
Time-based one-time password (TOTP) is a crucial multi-factor authentication (MFA) method that enhances the security of digital systems. TOTP generates a unique code that expires after a brief period, typically through a smartphone app like Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator. The time-based nature of the principles ensures that they cannot be used beyond a specific time frame, adding an extra layer of security beyond traditional passwords. TOTP is widely used and accepted by many online services, such as financial institutions, e-commerce websites, and email providers. With TOTP, users can rest assured that their accounts are significantly more secure, as it requires a physical device and a password for account access.
Short Message Service (SMS) is a widely used method of multi-factor authentication (MFA) that involves sending a one-time code to a user’s mobile phone. Although SMS is easy to use and convenient, it’s not recommended as a sole factor due to its vulnerability to interception. SMS-based MFA is vulnerable to attack by sophisticated hackers who can intercept and use the code to gain unauthorized access to a user’s account. Consequently, SMS should always be combined with another authentication factor, such as a password or biometric identification. Despite its limitations, SMS-based MFA remains a popular option, particularly in regions with limited access to more sophisticated authentication methods.
Push notification is an increasingly popular method of multi-factor authentication (MFA) that involves sending a message to a user’s mobile device, requiring them to confirm or deny the authentication attempt. This method of MFA is particularly effective, as it provides an additional layer of security beyond traditional passwords and does not require the user to enter a code. Examples of push notification MFA include Duo Security and Okta Verify. With push notification, the user is prompted to approve the authentication attempt with a simple tap, making it an easy and convenient method of MFA. Push notification is a highly recommended form of MFA for organizations seeking to enhance their security posture.
Biometric authentication is a highly secure method of multi-factor authentication (MFA) that relies on unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or voice to verify a user’s identity. This method of MFA is highly effective, as it is virtually impossible to replicate or forge the physical characteristics used for authentication. Biometric authentication is a highly recommended form of MFA for organizations seeking to enhance their security posture. Examples of biometric authentication include Apple’s Face ID and Windows Hello. While more sophisticated than traditional MFA methods, biometric authentication may require additional hardware and software to function correctly. Users may be required to go through a setup process to register their biometric information.
A smart card is a widely used method of multi-factor authentication (MFA) that involves using a credit card-sized device with an embedded chip to store user credentials. Smart cards are particularly effective in securing access to sensitive information, systems, and networks. This method of MFA is highly secure, as it requires the physical presence of the smart card, in addition to a password or PIN, to authenticate the user. Smart cards can also be used for physical access control, making them a popular choice in healthcare, finance, and government industries. While more sophisticated than traditional MFA methods, smart cards may require additional hardware and software to function correctly. Users may be required to go through a setup process to register their smart cards.
How Does MFA Work?
MFA works by adding a layer of security to the authentication process. The user first enters their username and password, as they would with single-factor authentication. However, with MFA, the user is prompted to provide additional forms of authentication. This could be a security token that generates a one-time passcode, a biometric scan of the user’s fingerprint or face, or even a confirmation message sent to the user’s mobile device.
The following steps illustrate how MFA works:
The first step in the authentication process is the user-initiated authentication request. This step requires the user to request access to a system by entering their username and password or other authentication factors. An authentication request is a widely used user authentication method in online techniques like banking, e-commerce, and social media platforms. However, the security of this authentication method depends heavily on the strength of the user’s password and their ability to keep it secure from potential attackers. Therefore, it’s recommended that users employ additional security measures, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), to enhance the security of their accounts.
After the user enters their login details, the system proceeds to validate their information to ensure that they are authorized to access the system. Once the system has confirmed the user’s credentials, it sends an authentication response to the user’s device. The authentication response may come in various forms, such as a time-based one-time password (TOTP) code, a push notification, or an SMS message. The purpose of the authentication response is to ensure that only authorized users can access the system and prevent unauthorized access.
Once the user’s credentials have been validated through the authentication response, the next step is to verify their identity through a second form of identification. The user will be prompted to provide this second form of identification, which may include entering a time-based one-time password (TOTP) code, approving a push notification, or entering a one-time code received via SMS. This process is known as identity verification and ensures that the user is who they claim to be. By requiring a second form of identification, the system can provide an additional layer of security and prevent unauthorized access.
If the user completes the identity verification process, the final step is to grant them access to the system. This step, called Access Granted, signifies that the user has been authorized to proceed with their intended task. Once access is granted, the user can move confidently, knowing they have been authenticated and verified. The ultimate goal of the authentication and identity verification process is granting access, as it allows the user to interact with the system safely and efficiently.
Why Is MFA Important?
Passwords are no longer sufficient to protect sensitive information, as they can be hacked or stolen. MFA provides an additional layer of security that makes it much more difficult for attackers to access customer data, intellectual property or other confidential information stored in systems like enterprise content management (ECM), customer resource management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and other systems.
MFA is essential for organizations that handle sensitive information, such as financial institutions and healthcare providers. By implementing MFA, these organizations can significantly reduce the risk of data breaches and protect their customers’ personal information. In many cases, MFA also helps organizations comply with data privacy regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and many more.
MFA and sensitive content communications are two critical components of a comprehensive security strategy and are closely related. MFA is, once again, a security mechanism that provides an additional layer of protection to access a system or application. Sensitive content communications, by contrast, refers to the secure sharing of confidential data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), financial data, legal documents, and healthcare records (PHI).
Also, by integrating MFA with a secure content communication channel like managed file transfer (MFT), organizations can ensure that all files are secure and only accessible by authorized users. For example, a user attempting to transfer a sensitive file would be required to authenticate using MFA before gaining access to the MFT system. Once authenticated, the user could securely share the file using the MFT solution.
What Are the Challenges of Implementing MFA for Businesses?
While MFA provides a significant security improvement, there are several challenges businesses may face when implementing MFA. Here are some of the challenges:
Usability of MFA
MFA methods such as smart cards or biometrics can be challenging for some users, especially those who aren’t comfortable with technology, and can impact productivity. Organizations therefore need to choose user-friendly MFA methods such as SMS or push notifications.
Integration of MFA
Integrating MFA with existing applications and infrastructure can be challenging. Many MFA solutions are now based on open standards like OATH, which makes integration easier.
Cost of MFA
The cost of implementing MFA can be a barrier for many businesses. MFA solutions vary in price, with hardware-based solutions such as smart cards being more expensive than software-based solutions like TOTP.
Complexity of MFA
MFA adds another layer of complexity to the authentication process. Businesses must ensure that MFA methods are manageable and that users receive sufficient training.
Security of MFA
While MFA enhances security, it is not foolproof; there are still vulnerabilities. For example, SMS-based MFA can be vulnerable to social engineering attacks.
The Kiteworks Private Content Network enables organizations to unify, control, track, and secure sensitive information they share with trusted partners. Kiteworks provides several authentication and user management capabilities, including Radius and native multi-factor authentication mechanisms, as well as TOTP Authenticator one-time passwords via any SMS service, such as Twilio, CLX, CM, FoxBox, and more. If you’re interested in learning more, schedule a custom demo.
Get email updates with our latest blogs news