2FA vs MFA: The Detailed Comparison7 min read17/10/2019
2FA and MFA are similar terms that’s why they’re often confused with each other. Furthermore, these technologies can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, they have a tiny difference that can have a huge impact on securing personal accounts and sensitive data from unauthorized access. Those accounts protected with none of these verification methods put personal data at serious risk.
Relying on a typical authorization procedure, which requires entering only a username and password, forms unlimited capabilities for hackers. They have a broad arsenal of hacking attacks to choose from in order to compromise user credentials. Even a long and complex password can’t guarantee a 100% protection from cyber attacks. This is where enhanced authorization techniques can come in useful and help secure a personal account from data theft. But what is the difference between 2FA and MFA?
In the core of multi-factor (MFA) and two-factor authentication (2FA), there lays the same approach. They both refer to types of the user authorization technology aimed at securing the process of accessing data. The definition, working principle, and difference between them result from their types based on authentication factors used to verify users. These factors are: knowledge, possession, inherence, and location.
- Knowledge. The knowledge authentication factor refers to something you know, i.e. sensitive data a user should know to access an account. This is the most popular factor used in a standard authorization process. Knowledge factor examples are:
- secret phrase
- date of birth
- favorite meal
- Possession. The possession authentication factor refers to something you have, i.e. an object or mobile device belonged to a user. Either an object or device contains or receives sensitive data to be used for authorization. Possession factor examples are:
- one-time password (OTP) sent to a smartphone via an SMS
- software token generated by an authentication app
- card verification value (CVV or CVV2) printed on a credit card
- radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag stored on a smart card
- OTP generated by a hardware token
- digital certificate
- Inherence. The inherent factor refers to something you are born with, i.e. essential human body characteristics that are unique for each person (biometrics). Inherence factor examples are:
- face recognition
- retina print
- iris print
- voice recognition
- vein pattern
- Location. The location factor refers to somewhere you are. It can be implemented with the built-in GPS tracker or IP address a particular device has. If the user location doesn’t match the location that was previously set, the MFA system blocks the authorization attempt.
Which Authentication Factor Does a Password Pattern Refer to?
How Many Authentication Factors Are There?
The difference between two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication is in the number of factors used in the user authorization procedure with no matter of their type. While 2FA relies on two authentication factors, multi-factor authentication uses two or more factors. The main requirement is that the involved factors should be different across the same authentication process.
|Security||2 factors||3 and more factors|
|Cost||free/$2 monthly per user||$2.5 monthly per user|
The comparison of 2FA and MFA makes sense only when assuming that the latter technology implies using at least three factors. Despite the result can seem too obvious, businesses can face a variety of challenges when trying to implement any of these solutions in order to secure corporate accounts because the difference between MFA and 2FA also lays in the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.
Users often simplify conducting hacking attacks for cybercriminals without realizing it by using easy-to-guess passwords or the same credentials for different accounts. Bearing in mind that 80% of Americans utilize the same password for online logins across different accounts, both two-factor and multi-factor authentication ensure more reliable protection from cyber attacks focused on compromising login data and getting access to personal accounts than a traditional one-step verification process based on a single factor.
However, one of these technologies is more secure than the other. The key reason lays in the number of cybersecurity levels. When it comes to reliability in the 2FA vs MFA comparison, multi-factor authentication creates more barriers for attackers with a greater number of authentication factors applied. As a result, hackers need to put more effort, time, and money to conduct a successful hacking attempt. This significantly reduces their chances to access user personal data.
More specifically, hackers have to conduct a brute force, dictionary-based, or phishing attack to bypass a knowledge authentication factor. These attacks are focused on either guessing a password or making a victim disclose it through a phishing email, phone call, or message. Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security, for example, it requires entering an OTP sent to a user mobile device, i.e. a possession factor. In this case, attackers also need to conduct a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack to intercept a code.
On the other hand, multi-factor authentication increases the level of protection even more, for example, with biometrics. To bypass a fingerprint scanner remotely, attackers have to exploit software vulnerabilities. They also can use masterprints for low-accuracy scanners or forged fingerprints which requires direct contact with the user device. This makes the overall hacking process more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. The more security layers you use, the more chances you have to avoid a hacking attack.
One of the main drawbacks of 2FA over MFA is fewer factors which is its biggest benefit at the same time because users spend less time to authorize themselves. Two-factor authentication often implies using an OTP sent to a mobile device or generated by a hardware token. Therefore, users only have to carry their smartphone or USB flash drive-sized token to pass verification.
When it comes to multi-factor authentication mostly associated with fingerprint or retina scanning in addition to the need for entering credentials and OTP, this technology provides more inconveniences for users despite today’s mobile devices have built-in scanners. This is an extra step that can lead to an account lockout if a scanner isn’t accurate enough or, vice versa, too accurate, thus requiring users to put their finger in a single possible way.
However, in the MFA vs 2FA comparison, the latter procedure isn’t necessarily less time-consuming, since the number of steps can be higher than the number of factors. In other words, both technologies can hypothetically rely on tens of steps while using the same authentication factors.
For example, the system can require entering a username and password, then ask for typing in a secret phrase, and at last send an OTP via a push notification. As a result, the authentication process uses two factors, which are knowledge (credentials and secret phrase) and possession (OTP), and three steps. Moreover, you can implement user location identification as a means of the third factor that demands no additional actions from users, thus setting MFA with the convenience level of 2FA.
Many software vendors provide free two-factor authentication. You can enable 2FA for your Facebook account, Google services, and other solutions for free of charge. However, when it comes to corporate usage, advanced authentication costs money. For example, Duo Security offers 2FA based on one-time passwords for more than $3 monthly per user with a free package available for less than 10 users. To authenticate employees with fingerprint scanning, businesses also have to spend a few dollars per scanner. The more factors used, the higher the price is.
Multi-factor authentication is the way more secure authorization method than 2FA. It significantly complicates a hacking attempt for cybercriminals due to additional layers of protection. Although, the increase in the number of authentication factors applied leads to a variety of inconveniences caused by more steps users have to pass in order to authorize themselves. Furthermore, this discomfort is accompanied by a higher cost of implementation for companies. Is more reliable protection worth it? It’s up to you.