What Is Two-Factor Authentication And How Does It Work?

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With most of our lives happening online on computer and mobile devices, we are not surprised that criminals are so determined to gain access to our devices.  Fortunately, it is easy for individuals and businesses to add an extra layer of protection using two-factor authentication. In today’s article, we will look at what two-factor authentication is and how it works.

Let’s jump in.

What is two-factor authentication?

Two-factor authentication, known as dual factor or two-step authentication, is a security process that requires users to provide two different authentication factors before they can gain access to an account.

What are authentication factors?

An authentication factor is a type of credential that a service requests to verify that a user is who he or she claims to be. In two-factor authentication, the most common authentication methods include:

  • A knowledge factor: this is something that the user knows. Examples include pins and passwords.
  • Possession factor:  this is something that the user has. For instance, a mobile device, security token, a smartphone app, or an ID card.
  • An inherence or biometric factor:  this is inherent in the user’s physical self or personal attributes.  Examples include fingerprints, voice recognition, facial recognition. Other examples are behavioral biometrics like speech patterns, keystroke dynamics, and gait.
  • Location factor:  the location factor limits authentication attempts to specific devices in a particular location. It also can work by tracking the geographic source of an authentication attempt.
  • Time factor: the time factor limits authentication to a specific period in which the user is allowed to log on.

Most two-factor authentication methods depend on knowledge, possession, or biometric factors. However, systems that require very high levels of security can use multi-factor authentication, a combination of all these factors.

How does two-factor authentication work?

  1. The website or application prompts the user to log in.
  2. The user enters their username and password, and the website finds a match and recognizes the user.
  3. If the process does not require the use of a password, the website or application generates a unique security key for the user. It processes the key with the authentication tool before the server validates it.
  4. The app or website prompts the user to enter the second login step. This step can take a variety of forms, but users generally have to prove that they have something only they would have. Examples include a smartphone, tablet, ID card, or security token. This is also known as a possession factor.
  5. The user keys in the one-time code sent to him or her through the possession factor in step four.
  6. Once users provide both factors, the website or application authenticates them and provides access.

Final word

Two-factor authentication is an efficient way of protecting against security threats that target passwords such as credential exploitation, brute force, and phishing attacks.

Although it might seem tiresome to go through two-factor authentication every time you want to access your account, security experts recommend you enable it in your email accounts, social media apps, financial  services, password managers and cloud storage services.  The added layer of protection will go a long way in preventing your sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.


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