Multi Factor Authentication

8 Multi Factor Authentication Types and How to Choose

What Is Multi Factor Authentication? 

Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) is a security system that requires more than one method of authentication from independent categories of credentials to verify the user’s identity for a login or other transaction. This approach combines at least two of the following elements: something you know (like a password), something you have (such as a security token), and something you are (biometric verification).

As cyber threats become more sophisticated, relying on a single form of authentication, like a password, is increasingly insecure. Passwords can be easily compromised through phishing, cracking, or brute force attacks. MFA adds additional layers of security, making unauthorized access significantly more challenging. By requiring multiple forms of verification, MFA ensures that even if one factor is compromised, unauthorized users are unlikely to have access to the other required factors.

Moreover, MFA can be adaptive, providing flexibility in security. For instance, access to less sensitive data may require fewer authentication factors, whereas more sensitive information can trigger additional authentication methods. This adaptability not only enhances security but also improves user experience by not imposing unnecessary barriers for lower-risk actions.

In this article:

10 Types of Multi-Factor Authentication: Beyond Passwords 

The most obvious factor in multi-factor authentication is a password. Many MFA solutions still use passwords, in combination with other factors, while others are fully passwordless. Here are common factors used to augment, or replace, traditional password authentication.

1. Email Codes

A common MFA method is the use of email codes. When you attempt to log in, a unique code is sent to your registered email address. You are then required to enter this code on the login page to verify your identity.

The advantage of email codes is that they are straightforward and convenient for end-users. However, the security of this method depends on the strength of the email account’s security. If the email account is compromised, so is this method of MFA. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure users have strong security measures in place.

2. Text and Call One-Time Passwords (OTPs)

Another common method of MFA is the use of one-time passwords (OTPs) delivered via text message or phone call. When you try to log in, an OTP is sent to your registered mobile number. You must then enter this OTP on the login page to verify your identity.

While this method is also easy to use, it is vulnerable to SIM swap fraud, where a fraudster convinces the phone company to assign a phone number to a new SIM card. Once successful, the fraudster can receive OTPs, effectively bypassing this layer of security. Therefore, it’s crucial for users to protect their phone numbers and be aware of the signs of SIM swap fraud.

3. Biometric Verification

Biometric verification is a rapidly growing MFA method. It involves using unique physical or behavioral characteristics to verify a user’s identity. These characteristics can include fingerprints, facial recognition, voice recognition, and even retinal scans.

The advantage of biometric verification is that it is difficult to fake or steal biometric data since it is unique to each individual. However, hackers are already finding ways of manipulating or bypassing biometric verification. It also raises privacy concerns, as biometric data is highly sensitive, and must be stored securely and only used for authentication purposes.

4. Authenticator Apps

Authenticator apps are a relatively new but increasingly popular MFA method. These apps generate OTPs, which are then entered on the login page to verify your identity. The advantage of this method is that it does not rely on your phone number or email account, which can be compromised.

However, like any other MFA method, authenticator apps are not foolproof. They rely on the security of the mobile device and the app itself. Therefore, it’s crucial to keep device operating systems and the app updated and protected with robust security measures.

5. Magic Links

Magic links are a user-friendly MFA method that involves sending a unique, time-sensitive link to a user’s email address. When a user attempts to log in, they receive this link, which directly authenticates them when clicked. This bypasses the need for entering a password or code.

Magic links offer simplicity and convenience, as they reduce the steps required for authentication. However, their security hinges on the security of the user’s email account. If the email account is compromised, the magic link can be intercepted. Additionally, there’s a risk of phishing attacks where users might be tricked into clicking malicious links.

6. Social Login

Social login is an MFA method that allows users to authenticate using their existing social media accounts, such as Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn. Instead of creating a new username and password, users can log in using their social media credentials. This method typically includes additional security checks by the social media platform, such as OTPs or email confirmations.

This MFA method is popular due to its convenience, as most users already have social media accounts and are familiar with their interfaces. However, it relies on the security of the social media platform and the user’s ability to maintain strong account security. Furthermore, there are privacy concerns, as linking authentication to social media accounts may expose user data to third-party tracking and profiling.

7. Soft Token Software Development Kits (SDKs)

Soft token Software Development Kits, or SDKs, are one of the most versatile forms of MFA. They allow companies to embed security features directly into their apps, providing an extra layer of protection for users. These soft tokens are typically generated through a smartphone app and change regularly, making it difficult for attackers to predict or duplicate them.

SDKs also provide flexibility in terms of customization, allowing companies to tailor the authentication process to their needs. In terms of user experience, soft token SDKs are often preferred because they don’t require any additional hardware. Users can use their existing devices, making the authentication process seamless and convenient.

8. Smartcards and Cryptographic Hardware Tokens

Another form of MFA is the use of smartcards and cryptographic hardware tokens. These physical devices provide an additional layer of security, ensuring that only those in possession of the token can access the secured system.

Smartcards are credit-card-sized devices that are embedded with a chip. This chip can store and process data, making it a secure method of authentication. Cryptographic hardware tokens are small devices, typically fitting into a pocket, that generate a unique code at set intervals. This code must be provided to gain access to a system.

While these methods offer strong security, they do come with some potential drawbacks. For instance, they can be lost or stolen, potentially granting unauthorized individuals access to your system. Additionally, they can be expensive to implement and maintain, particularly for large organizations.

9. Security Questions

Security questions are a much simpler form of MFA, but they can still be effective when used correctly. These are questions that only the user should know the answer to, like the name of a pet, or the user’s first employer.

It’s important to note, however, that security questions should never be used as the sole form of authentication. They’re best used in conjunction with other methods, such as a password or fingerprint scan. This is because the answers to security questions can often be guessed or obtained through social engineering techniques.

10. Adaptive Authentication

Strictly speaking, adaptive authentication is not another authentication method. However, it can be used to make intelligent use of the methods listed above. Adaptive authentication adjusts the level of authentication required based on the risk associated with a particular action. 

For example, a user might be able to access a low-risk application with just a username and password. However, if they attempt to access a high-risk application, they would be required to provide additional authentication, such as a fingerprint or one-time passcode. Similarly, a user might need only two authentication factors to access their banking application, but when trying to make a financial transfer, they might be asked for a third authentication factor.

This method is beneficial because it improves the user experience by not requiring unnecessary authentication. However, it also ensures that high-risk actions are sufficiently protected.

Related content: Read our guide to multi factor authentication examples

How to Choose the Most Appropriate MFA Methods 

Selecting the right multi-factor authentication (MFA) methods depends on balancing security needs with user convenience and resource availability. Here are key considerations:

  • Risk assessment: Evaluate the level of security required. High-risk data, like financial information, necessitates stronger MFA methods, such as biometric verification or cryptographic hardware tokens. Lower-risk data might be adequately protected with simpler methods like email codes.
  • User experience: Consider the impact on users. Complex MFA methods can enhance security but may impede user convenience. For instance, biometric verification might require specialized devices, while email codes require users to open a separate email app to continue. The goal is to find a balance that maintains security without significantly hampering user experience.
  • Infrastructure and cost: Physical tokens, like smartcards, may offer strong security, but they require investment in hardware and management systems. Software-based solutions like authenticator apps are more cost-effective and easier to deploy but rely on the security of end-user devices.
  • Accessibility and inclusivity: Ensure that the chosen MFA method is accessible to all users. Some users might not have smartphones capable of handling authenticator apps, while others might have disabilities that make certain biometric methods challenging.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Check for any industry-specific regulatory requirements. Certain sectors may have specific guidelines about the types of MFA that must be used.
  • Technology Integration: Consider how easily the MFA method can integrate with your existing systems. Compatibility with your current IT infrastructure is crucial for a smooth implementation.
  • Security awareness and training: Whatever method chosen, ensure that users are educated about its importance and how to use it properly. Training can significantly enhance the effectiveness of MFA by reducing user errors and increasing compliance.

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.