As consumers spend more time online, cybercriminals are dedicating their lives to innovating new identity-based attacks and account takeover attempts to steal their information, which solutions like multi-factor authentication are designed to address.
Credential theft is one of the main risks organizations face. In fact, according to Verizon, 61% of all breaches involve stolen credentials, which attackers harvest with techniques ranging from phishing scams to social engineering to brute force.
Multi-factor authentication aims to address these security challenges by adding extra steps to the authentication process so that even if an attacker manages to steal your credentials, they won’t be able to gain access to your account. But what is multi-factor authentication exactly?
This article will examine not only ask what multi-factor authentication is but also why it’s important, what it does, and how it can protect your users from threat actors.
What is Multi-Factor Authentication and How Does it Work?
Multi-factor authentication is a type of authentication model where a user must provide two or more verification factors to gain access to an online account or resource. There are three main authentication factors you can use to verify users:
- Something you know – A piece of information the user knows, such as a password or PIN.
- Something you have – An element the user possesses, like their smartphone or a cryptographic token.
- Something you are – Something unique to the user like a fingerprint, voice, Face ID, or other biometric data.
Most consumer multi-factor authentication solutions use passwords alongside one-time-passcodes sent to the user’s email address or smartphone to verify their identity by validating their access to specific accounts or devices.
As a security measure, having one-time passcodes sent to your email address or smartphone means that even if someone steals your password, they cannot use it to log in to your account (unless they already have access to your phone or account).
While multi-factor authentication isn’t a silver bullet for protecting against unauthorized access, researchers estimate that using it could prevent as much as 80-90% of cyber attacks by adding extra steps to the authentication process.
Why is Multi-Factor Authentication Important?
Multi-factor authentication shouldn’t be considered a “nice-to-have” security tool. It’s a must-have because it’s vital for preventing password-based attacks and account takeovers that take place through phishing scams and social engineering attempts.
For example, suppose a cyber criminal manages to steal your credentials via a phishing scam or purchasing them on the dark web. In that case, multi-factor authentication prevents them from accessing your online accounts if they don’t have access to the other authentication factors.
In this sense, multi-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security for online accounts and reduces the effectiveness of credential theft attacks.
Given that over 15 billion stolen login credentials are on the dark web, deploying multi-factor authentication is a simple way to protect against some of the most common credential-based attacks online.
The Limitations of Multi-Factor Authentication
As mentioned above, multi-factor authentication isn’t a silver bullet. The reason is that skilled attackers can still find ways to sidestep the authentication mechanism if they have the skills and time to do so.
For example, at the start of 2021, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) discovered a breach. They believed that hackers had hijacked the cookies of an authenticated user’s session to bypass the authentication mechanism and gain access to the user’s account.
Likewise, there is a growing increase in SIM-swap attacks, where cyber criminals will impersonate an individual and phone up their mobile service provider to trick the support representative into transferring the victim’s number to a SIM card the attacker controls.
The attacker can then try to log into the victim’s device with any one-time passcodes sent directly to their device. These attacks are rising to the extent that in 2021, the FBI received 1,611 SIM-swapping complaints compared to 320 between January 2018 and December 2020.
As a result, when implementing multi-factor authentication, it’s important to remember that it’s not foolproof. You also need to combine it with other security best practices to reduce the chance of any unwanted intrusions.
5 Security Best Practices to Combine with Multi-Factor Authentication
If you want the best results when using multi-factor authentication, there are some simple security controls that you can use in parallel to reduce risk. These include:
1. Using phishing simulation tools
Use a phishing simulation tool to help educate employees on how to spot manipulative emails and phishing scams so they can’t be tricked into handing over personal information.
2. Implement security awareness training
Deploy security awareness training to educate employees on the importance of enabling multi-factor authentication on their devices. This strategy also helps keep phishing and social engineering threats top of mind.
3. Provide ongoing communication and campaigns about new threats
Offer employees access to ongoing communication campaigns about new cybersecurity threats and phishing attempts, especially if they sidestep multi-factor authentication, and educate them on best practices like setting strong passwords and using a VPN.
4. Set out network access rules
Establish network access rules that limit the use of personal devices and the sharing of information outside your corporate network so that if a hacker compromises a device, they only have access to a small segment of information.
5. Update all infrastructure
Ensure all applications, operating systems, network tools, and internal software are up-to-date, with endpoints protected with antimalware and anti-spam software so that attackers don’t have any convenient entry points to the environment.
With credential theft reaching new highs, implementing multi-factor authentication is essential for protecting your users and making it that much harder for unauthorized individuals to gain access to your organization’s data assets.
Although it’s not entirely infallible, multi-factor authentication will keep out most password-based attacks targeting users’ online accounts and protect you if an employee gets caught handing over their password to a phishing scammer.
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