What Is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

Online security is more crucial than ever. With bad actors becoming increasingly creative and sophisticated in their attacks, even strong passwords can’t always guarantee your online safety. That’s where an additional layer of security comes in, and Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) is one way to execute it.

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Two-factor authentication, also called 2FA for short, is a security system that refers to a verification process where two types of identification are required from users before they gain access to a system or account. This ensures that even if your password has been stolen, bad actors would still be unable to access your personal account without the second factor.

What are “factors” in 2FA?

2FA involves factors that generally fall into three categories:

  • Something that you know: 

These are typically passwords, PINs, or answers to security questions. It’s the traditional method of authentication and the first factor most people encounter.

  • Something that you have: 

This refers to the user’s physical object, such as a mobile device with a code generator, a security key, or a smartphone with a verification app.

  • Something that you are: 

This category utilizes biometric authentication factors like fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans, or voice recognition.

How does Two-Factor Authentication work?

Simply put, 2FA works like a double-lock system that cannot be unlocked unless you provide two credentials. For example, when you log in to your social media account on a new device for the first time, you’ll be asked for your username and password (something that you know). The username-password combination is your first credential.

Since usernames and passwords can be stolen, somebody who obtained this information from you can use them to log in to your account. 2FA prevents this from happening since it will need a second credential that acts as a safeguard against unauthorized access even if your password is compromised. The second credential can be in the form of a verification code you’ll need to enter after receiving it on your phone or laptop (something that you have.) It could also be your fingerprint, Face ID, or any form of biometrics (something that you are.)

This way, even if someone manages to steal your username or password, they still cannot access your account without the second credential. Two-factor authentication significantly increases the security of your accounts by requiring two independent forms of verification, making it much harder for unauthorized users to gain access.

The origin of 2FA

The exact origins of 2FA are disputed, with different parties claiming credit for its invention. Early versions using physical tokens or codes sent over pagers emerged around twenty years ago. Notably, AT&T filed a relevant patent in 1998. Meanwhile, in 2013, Kim Dotcom also claimed to have invented 2FA, but his claims were disputed due to the existence of the aforementioned AT&T patent.

MFA vs 2FA

Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multifactor authentication (MFA) are both security systems created to protect sensitive and confidential data from unauthorized access. The key difference lies in the number of authenticating factors required.

As explained above, 2FA only needs two factors to authenticate users. Meanwhile, MFA is an evolved version of the security measure. It involves two or more verification factors that fall under the same categories: something that you know (password), something that you have (security token), or something that you are (fingerprint).

2FA’s role in cybersecurity

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security system that plays a crucial role in the modern landscape of cybersecurity. It’s a layer of protection that requires two forms of verification, making it a powerful tool in the fight against cyber threats. 2FA adds an extra hurdle for attackers, as even if they steal a password, they won’t be able to access the account without the second factor, reducing the risk of unauthorized access while keeping sensitive information safe.

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