The pros and cons of 2FA methods
When hackers gain access to your database, they can steal valuable and sensitive information. In 2018, the average cost per compromised record in a data breach was $148 while 60% of small companies that suffer a cyber attack go out of business within 6 months.
Popular among hackers for years, phishing techniques continue to evolve and represent a large portion of cybercrimes that plague organizations large and small.
Did you know that just by gaining access to a few standard accounts or one admin account, hackers can compromise an entire organization?
The biggest challenge faced by most companies is to prevent hackers from gaining access to their systems through end-users (e.g., employees and contractors) by exploiting their login credentials. To do so, organizations need effective ways to verify the identity of those logging into their systems.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is one of the most effective ways for verifying users’ identities before granting access to your organization’s network and data. Here are how it works and the different types of 2FA:
How 2FA Works and 2FA Methods
Two-factor authentication requires users to enter two pieces of information in order to access an account.
Typically, users will first enter “something they know” (e.g., username and password) and then they’ll be prompted to provide “something they have” (e.g., a code sent to their smartphones) and./or “something they are” (e.g., fingerprints.)
Here are the most common 2FA methods used today:
Users are asked to choose one or more security questions and set up the answers. When they access the system, they have to enter their username/password and then provide the right answers to the questions.
This method is low-cost, easy to set up, and doesn’t require additional devices.
However, many answers to common security questions can be found in public records (e.g., mother’s maiden name) or stolen by hackers using social engineering techniques (e.g., phishing email or spoof website,) which undermines the effectiveness of this method.
When users need to log into a system, a verification code will be sent via SMS message to their smartphones after they have provided their username and password. They will then enter the code to gain access to the network.
The SMS message is convenient to use and doesn’t require additional hardware since most people have an SMS-capable device and can receive SMS messages at no additional cost.
However, since phone numbers aren’t tied to devices, it’s possible for hackers to circumvent this authentication method without having access to users’ smartphones. In addition, cell phone reception is required for this type of 2FA to work.
Users will install a code-generating app (e.g., Google Authenticator) on their smartphones or mobile devices. When they need to log into the system, they’ll get a one-time passcode from the app to authenticate their identity.
The codes are refreshed frequently (e.g., every 30 seconds) and generated based on a unique algorithm for maximum security. The secret key is stored on the device so this method works even if the user has no reception and there’s no way for hackers to intercept the code.
However, it’s possible for a hacker to clone the secret key and generate their own secret codes. Not to mention, if a device is lost, runs out of battery, or gets “desync-ed” from the service, users will be unable to log in.
Biometrics is “something you are” – such as facial recognition, voice recognition, and fingerprints. This method is commonly used in systems that require a high-security clearance.
Biometrics is very hard to hack and the level of complexity required to do so is often enough to deter criminals from attempting.
However, the implementation of biometric 2FA is often complicated and costly. Not to mention, once the biometric information is compromised, it’s compromised for the rest of the users’ lives.
Universal 2nd Factor Authentication (U2F)
A standard backed by the FIDO Alliance, U2F authentication is executed via a hardware module, typically in the form of a USB token, that users insert into their desktop or laptop devices to generate a one-time password based on a predetermined algorithm.
Since all the necessary data is stored in the token, cellular reception or Internet connection isn’t required – which can prevent hackers from intercepting the transmissions of a code needed for accessing a network.
This method is also very easy to use. All a user needs to do is to insert the token into a device and press a button.
However, this standard is relatively new and not as widely supported as most other 2FA methods. There’s always the risk that an employee leaves the token in the USB port of a computer, undermining the concept of 2FA.
The Most Secure 2FA Method For Your Organization
There are a variety of factors affecting how a company implements 2FA, such as cost, user adoption, and level of security (e.g., for industry compliance.)
The most secure 2FA method to date is U2F, which is backed by international corporations such as Google, PayPal, Lenovo, MasterCard, Microsoft, Visa, etc.
Besides protecting corporations from email phishing attacks, the technology also ensures that a computer’s browser is indeed communicating with the real website instead of a spoof web page set up by hackers.
As such, U2F has been proven at scale to be the strongest defense against phishing attacks that hijack a web browser session – the “man-in-the-middle” attacks.
Using U2F, none of Google’s 85,000 employees have had their work accounts hacked for over a year by phishing or spearphishing attacks. In addition, FIDO U2F is currently the strongest and GDPR-compliant authentication solution available on the market.
Simply by using a $20 device, organizations can drastically improve their cybersecurity by preventing hackers from exploiting vulnerabilities posed by the sheer number of end-users, the prevalence of social engineering, and the unpredictable factor of human errors and negligence.