What Is The Difference Between 2FA And MFA?

What Is The Difference Between 2FA And MFA?

Effective authentication helps ensure appropriate access. By verifying employee or consumer identities before allowing them to leverage specific applications or services, companies can significantly reduce the risk of compromise.

While many businesses are comfortable with the concept of two-factor authentication (2FA) — which often takes the form of one-time text messages or codes — they’re less familiar with multifactor authentication (MFA) for security.

Here’s what you need to know about the difference between 2FA and MFA, and what both mean for your security.

Why Authenticate?

Usernames and passwords are familiar but flawed. If users select easily guessed passwords or are victimized by phishing attacks, malicious actors could gain access to critical systems and services. In the best-case scenario, IT teams identify and remediate these issues ASAP. In the worst case, attackers could encrypt, exfiltrate or even destroy data before they can be stopped.

Two-factor authentication and multifactor authentication offer a layer of security by requiring users to provide additional information that verifies their identity.

What Is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)?

Often described as something users know, usernames and passwords form the “first factor” of authentication. While they provide some protection against threats, attackers only need to compromise a single layer of security to access key data.

The second factor of authentication is something users have, such as a one-time text code or USB key that must be physically attached to verify identity. Two-factor authentication offers a way to circumvent one of the most common attack vectors: account compromise.

Consider a familiar phishing scenario: Your employees receive a legitimate-looking email asking them to verify their usernames and reset their passwords. They click on the link, provide their information — and suddenly they’re locked out of their accounts. Despite best intentions, they’ve provided their information to an attacker that has now compromised their accounts. They contact IT, but some damage is done. Systems may need to be isolated, passwords company-wide may require a reset, and teams now need to track any data that was stolen or compromised.

Two-factor authentication offers a way to stop this type of breach before it happens. In the same scenario above, users can’t simply access data with their username and password. Instead, they’re sent a code through their mobile device or via approved authenticator app, or must verify their ID with a USB device.

Even if attackers are equipped with username and password data, they lack this second authentication factor and are denied access. Reports of these access attempts are then sent to IT teams to help identify potential threats.

Worth noting, 2FA exists in addition to usernames and passwords — not as a replacement. For users to access key systems, they must provide their username, password, and text code or USB confirmation to complete the authentication process.

What Is Multifactor Authentication (MFA)?

MFA goes a step further by layering at least one additional factor. While 2FA is also technically a form of MFA because it has more than one layer, the term 2FA is generally used to indicate the combination of something users know and something users have, while MFA refers to any additional authentication layers.

These additional layers might be another knowledge of possession check. For example, users might be required to answer specific security questions or use RFID badges for authentication. MFA may also take the form of biometric or behavioral data, often described as something users are. Common types include fingerprint or facial scans to confirm identity, or the use of AI-driven behavioral analysis tools capable of identifying differences in typical user behaviors — such as where, when and how they’re logging in — to flag suspicious activity.

Two-Factor Authentication vs. Multifactor Authentication

Two-factor authentication and multifactor authentication are designed to increase security by providing an additional bar to entry that can’t be easily obtained by attackers.

The difference is in the details. For example, 2FA tools that leverage one-time codes sent via SMS or email can be intercepted and used by attackers. In turn, this makes it harder for IT teams to identify fraudulent activity. MFA solutions, meanwhile, run the risk of increasing operational complexity and reducing productivity if users are forced to complete multiple authentication steps upon login.

Empowering Authentication

The goal of authentication is to increase overall protection by creating a multilayered defense. Even if attackers manage to compromise passwords, one-time codes and biometric verification may frustrate their efforts.

At MXOtech, our teams can help your business add protective layers with solutions such as employee training to identify key threats; device management to track and secure digital resources on your network; and robust system security policies that help ensure consistent operations across your network.

When you’re ready to empower security efforts, start with 2FA and MFA. Looking to fully integrate these solutions with additional protection? MXOtech can help. Let’s talk.