Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is a security system that verifies a user’s identity by requiring multiple credentials. Rather than just asking for a username and password, MFA requires other—additional—credentials, such as a code from the user’s smartphone, the answer to a security question, a fingerprint, or facial recognition.
MFA is an effective way to provide enhanced security. Traditional usernames and passwords can be stolen, and they’ve become increasingly more vulnerable to brute force attacks. MFA creates multiple layers of security to help increase the confidence that the user requesting access is actually who they claim to be. With MFA, a cybercriminal may steal one credential but will be thwarted by having to verify identity in a different manner.
Examples of Multi-Factor Authentication include using a combination of these elements to authenticate:
- Codes generated by smartphone apps
- Badges, USB devices, or other physical devices
- Soft tokens, certificates
- Codes sent to an email address
- Facial recognition
- Retina or iris scanning
- Behavioral analysis
- Risk score
- Answers to personal security questions
Types of authentication factors
When it comes to MFA, we typically refer to three types of authentication factors:
- Things you know (knowledge), such as a password or PIN
- Things you have (possession), such as a badge or smartphone
- Things you are (inheritance), indicated through biometrics, like fingerprints or voice recognition
The latest MFA solutions incorporate additional factors by considering context and behavior when authenticating. For example:
- Where you are when trying to obtain access, such as a cafe or home
- When you are trying to access, like late at night or during the workday
- What device you’re using, such as a smartphone versus a laptop
- What kind of network are you accessing, like private or public
Often called Adaptive Authentication, this type of MFA takes context into account to flag logins that are out of the ordinary. When a person tries to authenticate in an unusual context, Adaptive MFA may tighten security by requesting additional credentials. For example, if a user is logging in from a cafe late at night—and this is not typical for that user—the MFA tool may require the user to enter a code texted to the user’s phone.