2FA vs. MFA: What Is the Difference?

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With cyber safety protocols, we are often caught in the middle between all that we have at our disposal to protect our accounts and a wish to have an enjoyable user experience that doesn’t involve too much hassle. So, what brings the optimal balance between security and comfort?

This article compares two-factor verification and a multi-factor verification or 2FA vs. MFA to see whether one is a better solution when your security is at stake. These two methods are commonly used on the majority of today’s devices, and in this article we examine them both and show their differences. 

How Does Authentication Work?

Authentication is a process through which the security system determines if the person who is trying to log in is in fact the owner of the account. In other words, the system needs a way to tell if the person who is logging in is the owner or a hacker trying to break into an account.

To discern this, the security system needs some information as proof of the owner’s identity. These pieces of information are called authentication factors. Both MFA and 2FA methods rely on authentication factors as the integral part of their defense.

What Is the Difference Between MFA and 2FA?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an authentication method that requires two or more factors of authentication, while two-factor authentication (2FA) is an authentication method that requires exactly two factors of authentication

It is clear that two-factor authentication is practically a subset of multi-factor authentication, as it involves two factors and thus can be considered a MFA. In this instance, when there are just two factors employed in the MFA, the 2FA and MFA present the equal level of protection. 

However, the reverse can’t be said – not all multi-factor authentication methods are two-factor authentication methods, as they can have more than two factors involved. If a security protocol is advertised as MFA, you should check how many factors it includes in its authentication process.

Does this mean that the 2FA vs. multi-factor authentication race has a definite winner? Not exactly. The 2FA is still a highly secure protocol, especially depending on the factors that your system uses and it requires less hustle when logging in. Also, enabling multi-factor authentication doesn’t automatically mean a stronger security protocol.

At the same time, using a 2FA doesn’t necessarily mean a weak cybersecurity protocol, as long as you choose two strong factors. The overall security comes down to the strength of authentication factors involved.

What Are The Authentication Factors?

There are many different authentication factors that your devices might require, like a password, fingerprint scan, your current location or a SMS notification. They can be divided into groups, including but not limited to: 

  • Knowledge factor is something that you know. This is most often a password, or a security question. A PIN you need to type in or a screen pattern you need to draw are good examples of knowledge factors. This is the most common among authentication factors, and it won’t make a difference between 2FA and MFA as it will likely be used by both.
  • Possession factor is something you have, like a physical token that generates a code for a single use that is time-sensitive, or a push notification sent to your mobile device. It can also mean your phone, or ID. 
  • Inherence factor is something that you are. It is something that is integral to a person, which is why it is also called a biometric factor. This can be a facial scan, a fingertip scan, or an iris scan. Another example of an inheritance factor is voice authentication. 

Do You Need More Than One Factor?

The most common authentication factor is the knowledge factor. If you have an email account that only needs your password to log in, that would be a perfect example of a single factor authentication defense

And if the hackers are good at anything it’s breaking into people’s passwords. Phishing attacks, brute force attacks, password spraying attacks, credential stuffing, are all aimed at breaking your passwords.

So when it comes to MFA vs. 2FA, in comparison to single factor authentication there is hardly any difference, as the second layer proves to be crucial in many cases, and they are both superior to single factor authentication. 

If you have a second layer of defense such as a push notification that sends a code to your phone that the hackers can’t gain access to, you’re increasing your security as this additional step will give you the opportunity to change the password in time.  

When Is MFA Better?

More factors usually means better security, as it gives you more layers of defense that the hackers have to break. This means you have more time to react and get your defenses back up. 

For example, if someone gets your bank card and PIN but there is a biometric factor in the protocol, like a fingerprint verification, they won’t be able to get into your account. Instead, you’ll get a notification from the bank that there was an unauthorized attempt to log in to your account, and you’ll be able to report it and stop the breach before there is any real damage done.

But there are other MFA advantages as well. Devices with more authentication factors can bring you a better user experience. Some accounts are set up so that if your location is confirmed, you don’t have to go through any other verification steps. 

However, for those critical accounts, like your bank accounts, you would want to enable multi-factor authentication and use all the multiple authentication factors that your device provides.

When Is 2FA Better?

Even though more factors usually mean better security, this isn’t always the case. You need to have secure factors to stay safe from black hat attacks. If the two factors that your device uses are harder to breach than individual factors on a device that uses MFA, you most certainly have a better defense set up.

For example, a biometric factor can be impossible for hackers to obtain, and if your 2FA device supports something like a behavioral method where the device can register different patterns in the way you use your phone, the cyber criminals can obtain your device, but they won’t be able to mimic the way you use it, like the way you type on the screen or swipe.

In some cases, you may find that 2FA has advantages when it comes to the user experience as well. This depends on the importance of the account you have a password for, because you do want to protect your personal information and bank data, but for sites that don’t hold important personal information, you want to be able to type in your password and get in without the hassle.

Finally, 2FA can be less strenuous on your budget. If you’re paying for your company’s security, you can find a better deal for 2FA. Also, your software may not support MFA, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with 2FA. 

Bottom Line

While there isn’t an unbreachable defense against hacking attacks, there are things that you can do that significantly improve your security and give you a chance against even the fiercest of cyberattacks.

2FA and MFA authentication methods are industry standards when it comes to cyber security. Whatever type of protection you choose for a given device, it is important that all the factors in the chain are strong, as that is the only way to keep your data protected. 

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