The increased sophistication and pervasiveness of hacking has resulted in many high-profile breaches of security over the last few years, compromising the personal information of everyone from email account holders to federal employees. While many organizations have responded with increased vigilance and more stringent password requirements, the combined threats of brute-force attacks, phishing scams and malware are forcing many businesses and consumers to consider additional security measures to reduce risk.
One of the most prominent types of security is two-factor authentication (TFA). If you’ve ever signed onto an account and received a message with a code to input to verify your identity, you’ve experienced TFA. It’s a powerful tool, and one that consumers will increasingly use to safeguard their accounts. In fact, Tesla has just implemented it to prevent vehicle hacking.
Understanding Two-Factor Authentication
TFA is a type of security that relies on the entry of both a password and a second key, typically system-generated, to complete the authentication process. A multi-factor authentication mechanism relies on knowledge (something you know), possession (something you have) and inherence (something you are). Typically, TFA uses two of these options — knowledge and possession — and usually requires a password, pre-selected photo or security code sent in a text message or email.
The practice has been around for years, with codes generated by key fobs slowly being replaced by SMS codes or desktop applications for enterprise users. However, the increased risks of fraud are bringing this practice into the consumer world, as government branches like the Social Security Administration are introducing TFA to improve security.
While there’s no doubt that this method of authentication is more secure than a login and password alone, little is known about how effective it is. Identity theft is a huge concern for many consumers, and that leaves weaknesses in the TFA process.
Security Issues with TFA
Unfortunately, TFA is still vulnerable to hacking, and many businesses leave weaknesses in their implementation that increase the risks of the authentication process. For example, many businesses neglect the mix of factor types, choosing a password and a security question instead of a physical item or biometric reading.
Yet another weakness is the combination of a password and an SMS code. Many hacks involve SIM swapping, which provides the phone number to the hacker and, by extension, the TFA code. Hackers can easily obtain the information needed to gain unauthorized access to an account. In addition, many phone numbers are readily provided to companies as part of signup procedures, introducing even more vulnerabilities.
Moving Forward with TFA
Despite the risks, TFA is a valuable security tool for online users. Hackers will always look for ways to exploit existing systems, but the widespread use of TFA will help to identify its weaknesses and implement it more effectively. Regardless, the increased use of TFA by financial institutions and other entities means that consumers are becoming more comfortable with TFA. As TFA use increases, businesses should look to adopt it as a means of improving consumer security and confidence.
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