How Multi-Factor Authentication Strengthens Your Cybersecurity
Everyone involved with a company’s information technology (IT) environment is responsible for its security. In today’s data-driven business environment, cybercriminals are constantly looking for ways to gain unauthorized access to mission-critical systems. Ransomware attacks that can cripple a company’s ability to do business and serve its customers have been steadily increasing over the past several years.
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a tactic organizations can employ to improve their cybersecurity. When implemented properly, MFA can make it much more difficult for cybercriminals to successfully breach IT security.
What is Multi-Factor Authentication?
MFA is a technique that enhances the security of protected IT resources by requiring a user to verify their identity with multiple methods. Simply supplying a login id and password is not enough to gain access when MFA is in play. This makes it an effective way to protect sensitive IT systems from unauthorized access if login credentials are compromised.
MFA necessarily slows down access attempts due to its multiple verification steps. In most cases, this should be seen as a minor inconvenience when compared to the enhanced security it provides. Would you rather spend a few extra seconds accessing IT resources or deal with the ramifications of a data breach?
What Factors Are Used for Authentication?
As its name implies, MFA requires that more than one factor is used to verify identity and authenticate an access request. Two or more of the following factors need to be satisfied to permit access:
- Something you know like a password or the answer to a security question;
- Something you have like a smartphone or security key;
- Something you are including fingerprints or voice scans;
- Something you do such as a typing pattern;
- Somewhere you are like an authorized location at a specific time.
To implement MFA, at least two of these factors must be used to successfully access an IT resource.
How Does MFA Work?
MFA can be implemented in a variety of ways depending on which authentication factors are used. Many users have been exposed to a simple implementation of MFA when attempting to access a banking website. After entering your id and password, the website generates a text message containing a numeric code to your phone or mobile device. This code must be entered within a certain time frame to complete the access request and let you into your account.
More complex forms of MFA can be used to provide additional protection for extremely valuable or sensitive systems or data. While it is unlikely, a code sent to a mobile device can be spoofed or sent to a stolen device. This is not the case with a fingerprint or retinal scan that cannot be falsified. Stringent MFA using biometric identifiers is often used to protect assets such as military installations or power-generating facilities that pose a risk to society if security is compromised.
Mitigating Specific Security Risks with MFA
Rather than considering MFA abstractly as a technique to improve a company’s cybersecurity standing, let’s look at some specific examples of multi-factor authentication in action. We’ll demonstrate how MFA thwarts various types of cyberattacks or protects against security lapses.
Brute-force attacks – In a brute-force attack, hackers attempt to gain access to a protected system by guessing the password. Long and complex passwords can help address this problem and make it harder for a brute-force attack to succeed. Implementing MFA makes brute-force attacks irrelevant because even if the password is guessed, the additional authentication measures keep hackers out of the attacked system.
Phishing emails – Phishing emails attempt to lure unsuspecting recipients into divulging login credentials. MFA thwarts phishing in the same way they protect against brute-force attacks. While the criminal behind the phishing email may obtain login credentials, they will not be able to access the IT resource without also compromising the additional authentication factors.
Accidentally divulged credentials – Users may accidentally divulge credentials to malicious internal actors intent on gaining unauthorized access to valuable systems. The malevolent insider will also need to get around subsequent authentication methods to break into any systems.
Unchanged default passwords – Many hacking attempts succeed because the default password on a device or application has never been changed. While best practices indicate that default passwords should always be changed, MFA can once again keep criminals out of the commuting environment.
Limitations of MFA
MFA is not a perfect solution to cybersecurity. It has certain limitations that organizations need to be aware of before implementing MFA in their computing environment.
- Stolen or lost devices may expose login codes on lock screens, allowing criminals to gain access to protected resources.
- Physical token-generating devices can be lost or stolen, allowing anyone to use them to subvert security.
- Incorrectly implemented MFA may give companies the mistaken impression that they are protected when, in reality, the second authentication step is bypassed.
- Lost or misplaced devices can make it impossible for users to gain required access to systems. In extreme cases, this can cause substantial disruptions to a business.
Implementing MFA to Strengthen Your Company’s IT Security
The strategic implementation of MFA is necessary to obtain the maximum benefits from this method of enhancing cybersecurity. It may not be an appropriate solution for all of an organization’s IT resources. MFA should be deployed selectively to secure the infrastructure components and data that require extra protection.
Working with an experienced managed service partner like Prescient Solutions can help a company implement MFA effectively. They’ll assist in identifying the right resource to protect with MFA while not unnecessarily affecting team productivity. Prescient can offer guidance on using MFA as part of an overall cybersecurity strategy to safeguard your valuable systems and data.
Prescient offers a guide that looks at MFA in-depth and discusses why it’s needed to guard against the risks posed by cybercriminals. Give it a read and then get in touch with Prescient to assess the best way MFA can be used to improve your company’s IT security.