What is Two-Factor Authentication and How Can I Use It?

two-factor authentication and how to use it

Nobody is completely immune from phishing or identity theft these days. However, we can always minimize the chances of being attacked by taking good care of our security and privacy online. The good news is that even a small, secure change can make a big difference, in this case—two-factor authentication ( 2FA). This article covers what two-factor authentication is, why it is important, and what are the biggest pros and cons of using it for your accounts and devices. But first, let’s clear up some terminology.

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Two-factor authentication is an online security mechanism designed to confirm a user’s claimed identity by requiring at least two types of credentials. Basically, 2FA is an additional layer of online security meant to make it harder for online criminals to break accounts and steal sensitive information.

When two-factor authentication is enabled, a person can access an account only after successfully presenting two pieces of evidence required by an authentication mechanism.

There are three major types of credentials: knowledge (a password or an answer to a security question), possession (a cell phone or a hardware token), and inherence (fingerprints, face, or voice). In other words, authentication can be something that you know, something that you have, or something representing who you are.  

The Difference Between Two-Factor Authentication and Multi-Factor Authentication

The only difference between two-factor and multi-factor authentication is in the number of factors required to confirm an identity. If there are just two, then you are dealing with two-factor authentication. When there are more, it is called multi-factor authentication.

Examples of Two-Factor Authentication

Even if you haven’t heard the term “two-factor authentication” before, chances are high that you do use this security mechanism in your daily life. Here are some of the most common examples of 2FA.

  • Gmail Account—When you register an email address on Google, the system wants to know your phone number, which will be used for authentication. When you log in from a new device that Google does not recognize, it will send you a text message with a verification code. You will only be able to login once you enter the code correctly. In this situation, your email password serves as the first authentication factor, and the code sent to your phone is the second.
  • Apple ID—When it comes to two-factor authentication, Apple gets rather serious. Since your Apple ID keeps sensitive information such as payment details, personal photos, and chats from iMessage, two-step authentication is a must. When signing into a new Apple device for the first time, you will have to provide two pieces of information—a regular password as well as a verification code automatically displayed on a trusted Apple device of your choice.
  • Banks—Two-factor authentication is popular in banks. To improve the security of customers’ accounts, banks make verification calls, ask security questions, or send confirmation codes to customers’ phones before proceeding with a financial transaction.

What Are the Pros and Cons of 2FA

Two-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security in today’s world of increasing online crime. However, there are both advantages and disadvantages associated with 2FA. Here are the biggest of them.

The Advantages of Two-Factor Authentication  

  • This feature provides an extra layer of protection, and makes it harder for online criminals to do their job (phishing, identity theft, hacking, etc.)
  • Dynamically generated passcodes sent to a mobile phone are safer than static login information. They are constantly changing, hence harder to guess.
  • Two-factor authentication allows for secure access to shared systems or databases, which makes it easier for employees to work remotely or safely access their company’s servers when necessary.
  • By improving security, two-factor authentication mechanisms allow companies to lower their security management costs.

The Disadvantages of Two-Factor Authentication

  • If text message verification is used, one must always carry a charged mobile phone, keep it within the carrier’s network coverage, and make sure it does not shut down because of temperature extremes.
  • There is a risk of text messages being intercepted by hackers.
  • Sometimes text messages take time to be delivered, which makes the process of authentication longer.
  • When security questions are used as one of the authentication factors, answers to them can sometimes be found in public records. Details like a name of hometown or mother’s middle name are not so hard to uncover.
  • If biometric credentials are used, this means trusting your face, fingerprints, or voice to third parties.

Two-Factor Authentication: The Final Wrap Up

One of the most popular questions people ask Google in regards to two-factor authentication is this:

“How to turn off two-factor authentication?”

The answer to this question depends on the system or platform on which you want to disable 2FA. Our general answer, however, is: do not turn 2FA off unless it is absolutely necessary.

As concerns over cyber-insecurity grow year by year, extra safety measures such as two-factor authentication no longer feel “extra.” Online crime has turned into the most common offense in the UK, leaving theft and criminal damage in the second and third positions, respectively.

In a world like this, protecting yourself with an additional layer of security is an absolute must. Don’t you agree?