What Is Multifactor Authentication? How It Works, Examples and Benefits

BY IT GLUE | October 31, 2023

Multifactor authentication (MFA) is an account login method that has gained significant prominence in recent years for its ability to fortify online security. In this blog, we’ll delve into the fundamental concepts of MFA, explore how it works and understand why it has become a vital tool in the ongoing battle against cyberthreats. Whether you’re new to the world of cybersecurity or looking to reinforce your knowledge, join us on this journey to uncover the layers of protection that MFA offers.

What is multifactor authentication (MFA)?

Multifactor authentication (MFA) refers to a login process requiring at least two verification factors to access an online account. In addition to a strong password, users must authenticate with an extra method like a secret code received on their mobile devices or a biometric verification using their fingerprints.

MFA aims to add an extra layer of security verification to your login accounts, preventing unauthorized account access in case of a password compromise. With cyberthreats evolving at a rapid pace, MFA systems play a critical role in an organization’s identity and access management framework.

Why is multifactor authentication important?

Digital security is of paramount importance in today’s data-centric business world. Organizations generate huge volumes of critical data daily, and preventing that data from falling into the wrong hands is essential. While passwords can be your first defense, they are vulnerable to brute-force attacks and credential thefts.

MFA can benefit you by preventing cybercriminals from accessing your accounts even if they acquire your passwords. Also, many users practice poor password hygiene by reusing the same password for all their accounts. In such cases, a cybercriminal who accesses one of your accounts may have the ability to access all your accounts. MFA provides a quick and effective way to counter this security loophole.

Is multifactor authentication effective?

It is estimated that over 80% of cyberattacks originate from stolen credentials. Credential harvesting is a serious risk plaguing most organizations globally. Cybercriminals often target organizational data since they know they can leverage this data to compromise bank accounts, credit cards and more.

According to Microsoft, incorporating MFA in your infrastructure will make you 99% less likely to be hacked. While threats like MFA fatigue attacks and session hijacking can still threaten MFA, having this added security measure in place still leaves you much safer than a single-factor authentication system would.

Incorporating MFA is relatively simple in most cases. You need an identity and access management solution that requires a few extra layers of authentication to gain access. This simple move could remarkably improve your security posture and prevent cybercriminals from accessing your critical information.

How does multifactor authentication work?

Most MFA systems still use a username and password as the first step of the authentication process. As always, a strong password is recommended. A robust password management engine with password auto-rotation capabilities is ideal to ensure better security. The MFA process typically begins after the completion of the first-level authentication.

Here’s how the MFA process works:

  • Registration: MFA begins with the registration of the additional layers of security. When you sign in for the first time, you will receive a notification to set them up. It could be a biometric authentication system like a fingerprint scanner or a code generated in an authenticator app.
  • Authentication: During subsequent logins, the system automatically connects to the registered item and sends the prompts for additional authentication. Once your identity is verified, you may gain access to the system.
  • Further logins: Some MFA systems require users to go through the verification process every single time, while others can remember login devices. MFA systems demand verification every single time in highly secure systems with critical data. For other regular usage, MFA authentication can be prompted periodically on a monthly basis.

What authentication factors are commonly used for multifactor authentication?

There are different types of authentication factors used in MFA. These factors authenticate a user’s identity and provide access to the account. The most common authentication factors are as follows:

Knowledge factor

Konwledge factor refers to an authentication factor that requires users to demonstrate knowledge of something hidden – usually a password or a PIN. It is also the most common type of authentication used. When used alone, this type of safeguard offers minimal security that a skillful hacker can compromise. This is why you need additional authentication factors.

Possession factor

Possession factor refers to an authentication factor involving the user’s physical entities. For instance, items like mobile phones, card readers, wireless tags, etc., can be possession factors during a multifactor authentication process.

Inherence factor

Inherence factor refers to an authentication factor that involves metrics intrinsically owned by the user. These factors are 100% unique and are designed to prevent unauthorized access to critical assets. Some of the most commonly used inherence factors include fingerprint scanning, voice recognition, retinal scanning, etc.

What is adaptive multifactor authentication?

Adaptive MFA refers to how organizations can configure MFA based on a user’s risk profile. It includes a broad range of authentication factors and leverages multiple authentication techniques to provide this level of flexibility.

In adaptive MFA, the system can analyze user behavior by considering a range of actions, such as login attempts, device type, location, accessed information, user role, source IP address and more. This analysis is used to adjust the authentication factors, either increasing or decreasing security measures as needed.

Organizations can use a combination of static and adaptive policies to enjoy the maximum benefits of MFA. For instance, a remote worker working with the company device uses a trusted device on an untrusted network. In such cases, IT administrators can use static policies for device security and adaptive policies for network security.

Multifactor authentication vs. two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication, or 2FA, is a type of multifactor authentication that enforces only two authentication factors. The first authentication factor is typically a username and a password. However, the second authentication factor may vary depending on organizational preferences and compliance requirements.

When it comes to cybersecurity, more is always better. Hence, MFA is always better than 2FA. The more checkpoints you incorporate in your IT infrastructure, the harder it will be for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access. While MFA certainly adds to the system’s security, it can also create more friction for the users depending on the type of authentication factors used.

Adding more than two layers of security is recommended when critical data security is at stake. Also, the type of authentication factors used play a significant role in your security measures. For instance, push notifications on mobile devices and retinal scanning are much more secure than a one-time password.

What are examples of multifactor authentication?

You may already be using MFA or 2FA in various real-life scenarios without even realizing it. Here are a few examples of MFA in action:

  • Online banking: Most online banking systems use MFA to ensure proper identity management of their customers. In the first step, you must provide your login credentials. This is usually followed by a push notification or a secret code sent to your mobile phone. Even if you are logging in from your mobile device, the device information and location must match to establish your identity. Any mismatch will prompt the system to ask for more information.
  • Using an ATM: Getting cash from an ATM requires swiping the card and entering your secret PIN. It is a form of 2FA since it asks for two factors: your card and the PIN number. Modern banking systems also verify your face through the camera installed in the ATM. This serves as a form of biometric verification as well.
  • Logging into organizational software: Organizations that prioritize security implement MFA to ensure their users must provide additional verification to access their proprietary software. Also, expensive proprietary software has different levels of access based on user roles. By incorporating MFA, administrators can prevent unauthorized access to their software and protect it from piracy.

What are the benefits of multifactor authentication?

By now, we have established that MFA adds an extra layer of security to your system by incorporating more authentication factors. But how does this additional security benefit individuals and organizations? Here is a list of benefits offered by MFA:

  • Better controls over data access: To safeguard critical data, it’s essential to implement robust controls that restrict unauthorized access. With MFA, only the right people can access your critical data and confidential information.
  • Security against password risks: Did you know that about 65% of people reuse their passwords, even for business accounts? If these passwords are compromised, it increases the risk of potential breaches. MFA protects your IT infrastructure against these threats by adding additional security layers over sensitive information.
  • Compatibility with SSO: Additional security layers often translate to more friction for users. To ensure a seamless experience, organizations often incorporate single sign-on (SSO) for their users. This eliminates the need to create unique passwords and provides instant access to multiple applications with a single login. When SSO is combined with MFA, organizations can streamline identity management and reduce user friction.
  • Compliance adherence: Organizations must follow the maximum security standards to meet various compliance requirements. MFA is a standard outlined by various regulatory bodies for securing IT infrastructure. For instance, HIPAA requires healthcare providers to use MFA, and PCI-DSS requires MFA to be incorporated in systems that process payments.
  • Flexible to meet business needs: MFA can be tailored to meet the specific needs of organizations, allowing companies to implement it for their employees, customers and third-party vendors. When integrated with SSO, it simplifies identity management.

What are the cons of multifactor authentication?

Despite its multiple benefits, MFA is not without its limitations. You may witness the following shortcomings when using MFA in your system:

  • Adds friction to the login process: When Google urged customers to adapt 2FA in 2018, less than 10% signed up for it. This indicates that people prefer convenience over security. Despite being beneficial, extra layers of protection add more friction to the login process. Also, it takes more time to gain access with multiple login layers.
  • Requires a new solution: MFA requires incorporating a new software tool in your system to establish this feature. Many companies often buy a new password management solution to take advantage of this feature. However, it is even more beneficial if this feature comes with your existing documentation and security solution.

Secure your IT documentation with multifactor authentication

Security is the number one focus for IT Glue. As a leading cloud-based documentation platform, IT Glue comes with multifactor authentication to prevent unauthorized access in any form. IT Glue is equipped with a next-generation password management engine to ensure users have easy access to passwords without the need to memorize them all.

IT Glue has granular permissions so you can control who can access your passwords, and it also has a One-Time Password (OTP) capability for admin passwords so that multiple technicians can access accounts like Office 365 securely and quickly. It also comes with SSO, IP access control, host-proof hosting, audit trail and more within a SOC 2 type II compliant solution. Additionally, with its automated AD password rotation feature, you can keep passwords fresh and easily keep your data secure.

To learn more about how IT Glue can help you with password management, request a demo.

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