Multi Factor Authentication

2FA vs MFA: 5 Key Differences and How to Choose

What Is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)? 

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security protocol that requires two distinct forms of identification before allowing access to a particular system or data. Typically, it adds one more layer of protection to traditional password-only authentication.

The two factors in 2FA can be a combination of something you know (like your password), something you have (such as a physical token or your smartphone), or something you are (biometrics like fingerprints or facial recognition). For instance, when you log into your email account, you might be asked to enter a password and then confirm your identity through a code sent to your mobile phone.

This is part of a series of articles about Multi-Factor Authentication

2FA is very effective in protecting digital assets from cyber threats. For example, if a hacker manages to obtain a password, they would still need the second authentication factor to gain unauthorized access. This significantly reduces the risk of phishing attacks, data breaches, and identity theft.

What Is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)? 

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) takes the concept of 2FA a step further. Instead of relying on just two factors for authentication, MFA incorporates three or more, significantly improving security.

The multiple factors used in MFA can be drawn from the same categories as 2FA: something you know, something you have, or something you are. For instance, when accessing a secure system, you might be asked to enter your password (something you know), verify a code sent to your smartphone (something you have), and scan your fingerprint (something you are).

MFA provides stronger security than 2FA, because even if a cybercriminal manages to compromise two of the authentication factors, they would still need to get past additional layers of protection to gain unauthorized access.

In many organizations, MFA represents a step towards passwordless authentication. Instead of continuing to use passwords, which are easy for attackers to compromise or crack, authentication is carried out by other, more secure methods, such as one-time codes and biometric authentication. By offering multiple authentication methods, organizations are better able to replace passwords and adapt to the security needs of specific use cases.

2FA vs. MFA: 5 Key Differences  

1. Number of Factors and Security

2FA utilizes two separate authentication factors, while MFA incorporates two or more of these factors, enhancing security. MFA is considered to be more secure, because it uses multiple layers of authentication, making it much more difficult for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access. 2FA can still be vulnerable if one of the factors is compromised.

However, it’s important to note that no authentication method is foolproof. Both 2FA and MFA rely on the user to keep their authentication factors secure. For example, if a user reuses their passwords or fails to properly secure their phone, attacks can overcome even two or more authentication factors. Hardware tokens, considered to be very secure, can be lost or stolen. Ultimately, the effectiveness of authentication methods relies on the user’s security vigilance. 

2. Ease of Application

2FA is generally easier to implement than MFA. In most cases, implementing 2FA only involves adding one  more authentication methods beyond the current, password-based method. It is also easier for users to adopt, because it maintains the existing access system and merely modifies it by adding another element.

The complexity of implementing MFA can vary depending on the specific methods used. For example, incorporating biometric data as an authentication factor can be more complex and require specialized hardware. Using hardware tokens for authentication can represent a significant cost for an organization. Other methods, like sending a verification code to a user’s email or phone, do not require special infrastructure, but are typically reliant on third-party services, which also have a cost and could become a single point of failure.

Many organizations use cloud-based identity management services to implement MFA. These services take responsibility for the availability and reliability of the MFA solution, and provide a wide range of authentication options, which can make implementation faster and easier.

3. Flexibility

MFA offers more options than 2FA. This is because MFA can incorporate a wide range of different factors, allowing it to be customized to fit the specific needs of a business. For example, a company might choose to use a hardware token for employees accessing sensitive data, while using less stringent methods like passwords and one-time codes for less sensitive data.

4. Scalability

Scalability depends on the authentication factors used. Some factors, like password authentication, can easily scale to accommodate any number of users. Other factors might require robust software systems, which need to be able to scale to support more users, or specialized hardware which needs to be purchased for each user or department.

5. Cost

The cost of implementing 2FA or MFA can vary greatly depending on the specific methods used. Some authentication methods, such as biometric authentication or hardware tokens, could have a high cost for organizations. Cloud-based identity management systems can provide a range of authentication options for an affordable monthly subscription. This can allow organizations to predict and manage their costs, even as the organization scales or adopts different authentication factors.

While cost is an important consideration for 2FA or MFA solutions, it’s equally important to consider the potential cost savings that can come from enhanced security. By preventing data breaches and other cyber threats, MFA can save a business significant amounts of money in the long run.

Related content: Read our guide to multi factor authentication examples

2FA vs. MFA: How to Choose the Correct Method For Your Business? 

When selecting between 2FA and MFA for your business, consider the following factors:

  • Risk level and security needs: Assess the level of security risk associated with your business operations. MFA offers enhanced security and is suitable for businesses handling highly sensitive data, where the consequences of a data breach are severe. 2FA may suffice for smaller businesses with less sensitive information.
  • User experience: Consider the balance between security and user convenience. 2FA is simpler for users to understand and manage, which can be crucial for businesses interacting with a wide range of users, including customers. MFA, while more secure, can be more complex and may require user training.
  • Implementation costs and resources: Evaluate the costs and resources required for implementation. MFA systems, especially those involving biometrics or hardware tokens, can be more expensive and complex to set up and maintain than 2FA systems. Assess whether your business has the necessary resources and expertise to implement and manage an MFA system effectively.
  • Regulatory cCompliance: Check if there are any industry-specific regulations or compliance standards that your business needs to meet. Some sectors may mandate a certain level of authentication security, which could necessitate the use of MFA.
  • Technology infrastructure: Consider the existing technology infrastructure of your business, and the authentication factors you can support with your existing systems. Also ensure that your existing systems are compatible with the MFA solution you are considering.
  • Future-proofing: Think about the scalability and adaptability of the authentication method. As your business grows and evolves, your authentication needs may change. MFA offers more flexibility and can be more easily adapted to meet future security challenges and technological advancements.

Authentication and Authorization with Frontegg

The industry standard today involves the use of authentication providers to “build the door”, but what about Authorization (the door knob)? Most authentication vendors don’t go that extra mile, forcing SaaS vendors to invest in expensive in-house user management development. This often leads to delays in core technology development, which negatively impacts innovation and time-to-market (TTM) metrics. 

Frontegg’s end-to-end user management platform allows you to authenticate and authorize users with just a few clicks. Integration takes just a few minutes and a few lines of code, thanks to its plug-and-play nature. It’s also multi-tenant by design and self-served by nature, something that helps reduce friction and improves user satisfaction. Also, all roles and permissions can be managed via a centralized dashboard. It’s really that easy.