What Is Two-Factor Authentication, and Why Do I Need It?

Two-factor authentication is being used by an increasing number of banks, credit card firms, social networking networks, and gaming sites. If you’re not sure what two-factor authentication is or why you should use it, keep reading to see how it can keep your data safe.

What Is Exactly Is Two-Factor Authentication?

Let’s look at what one-factor authentication is and compare it to both real and virtual security models to better grasp what two-factor authentication is.

You’re using easy one-factor authentication when you arrive home from work, pull out your keys, and unlock your back door. It makes no difference to the door and locks assembly whether the person holding the key is you, a neighbor, or a thief who stole your keys. The key is the only thing that matters to the lock (you don’t need two keys, a key, and a fingerprint, or any other combination of checks). The physical key is the only way to verify that the person holding it has permission to enter the door.

When you connect to a website or service that only requires your login and password, you are using the same degree of one-factor authentication. You enter that data, and it serves as the only proof that you are, in fact, you.

You’re safe as long as no one takes your keys or cracks/steals your password. While having your keys stolen is a low-risk scenario, virtual security is more complicated (and, unlike online security breaches, more difficult). For example, your apartment complex manager would never replicate all of your keys and leave them on the street corner with your name and address written on them).

Security breaches, sophisticated assaults, and other regrettable but all-too-real realities of working and playing in a virtual realm demand increased security procedures such as multiple and diverse difficult passwords, as well as two-factor authentication where possible.

What exactly is two-factor authentication, and how does it affect you as a user? Two-factor authentication necessitates the use of at least two of the three regulatory-approved authentication variables, such as:

  • Something you know (like the PIN on your bank card or email password).
  • Something you have (the physical bank card or an authenticator token).
  • Something you are (biometrics like your fingerprint or iris pattern).

If you’ve ever used a debit card, you’ve already experienced a simple version of two-factor authentication: in order to access your bank account via an ATM machine, you must have both the PIN and the physical card.

The 2-of-3 criteria can be met with a variety of two-factor authentication methods. A tangible token, such as those commonly used in banking, can be used to produce an over-the-air code for you. You’ll need your username, password, and unique code to log in (that expired every 30 seconds or so). Other companies forego bespoke hardware in favor of providing mobile phone apps (or SMS-delivered codes) that perform the same functions. You might also employ two-factor authentication based on biometrics, which isn’t very prevalent (such as security an encrypted file via password and fingerprint).

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Why Should I Use It and Where Can I Find It?

Any time you add a new layer to your security regimen, you have to ask yourself if the extra effort is worth it. Multi-factor authentication is plainly overkilled for a muscle car discussion forum that contains no personal information and is in no way linked to your real email or bank information. Having a second layer of authentication for your credit card or primary email account, on the other hand, is simply practical—the personal and financial harm that an identity thief or other malicious entity would cause if they had access to those things far outweighs the minor inconvenience of entering an extra piece of information.

When two-factor authentication is available for a system, and the loss of that system would cause you severe pain, you should use it. When your email is hacked, it opens the door for other services to be hacked as well because email servers act as a type of master key for password resets and other inquiries. Take advantage of your bank’s mobile authenticator or other tools if one is available. Even if it’s only your roommate’s Diablo III account—players spend hundreds of hours crafting their characters and frequently spend real money on in-game products; losing all that work and gear is a bad idea, so put an authenticator on it!

Unfortunately, not every service provides two-factor authentication. The best approach to find out is to look through the FAQ/support files and/or contact the service’s help team. Nonetheless, many businesses are vociferous about their use of multi-factor authentication.

Google offers two-factor authentication via SMS and a mobile app; see our instructions for installing and setting the mobile app here.

LastPass supports a variety of multi-factor authentication methods, including Google Authenticator. We have a guide to setting it up here.

Facebook utilizes an SMS-based two-factor authentication method dubbed “login approvals.”

Two-factor authentication is available in SpiderOak, a Dropbox-like storage service.

Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft and Diablo, offers a free authenticator.

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Even if it appears that the company in question does not have two-factor authentication based on their FAQ file, send them an email and inquire. The more people who inquire about two-factor authentication, the more likely the organization is to install it.

While two-factor authentication isn’t completely secure (a sophisticated man-in-the-middle attack or someone stealing your secondary authentication token and beating you with a pipe could crack it), it’s far more secure than a regular password and having it enabled makes you a far less appealing target.

Do you know of a service that provides two-factor authentication, no matter how big or little it is? To alert your other readers, post a message in the comments section.

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