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What Is Multi-Factor Authentication? (+How it Protects Your Data)

Mara Calvello
Mara Calvello  |  July 10, 2019

Consider how much of your life takes place on a computer or a mobile device.

Whether that be checking your email, logging into various social media accounts, or entering your credit card number after some online shopping, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to enhance our online cyber security efforts.

Each and every one of our digital accounts could be at risk for a breach, which is why it’s crucial to add an extra level of protection with multi-factor authentication, or MFA for short.

If you aren’t sure what MFA is or how it can be used, just keep reading!

What is multi-factor authentication?

First things first, let’s break down exactly what multi-factor authentication is.

Multi-factor authentication’s (MFA) most common form is two-factor authentication. While MFA combines any total number of authentication factors to validate someone’s identity, the most common is two, thus 2FA.

Additionally, MFA can be triggered by a failed two-step authentication process or some kind of suspicious user behavior. This is common for 2FA systems capable of MFA. It may also just be required for additional security when accessing more important files or sensitive data, such as health or financial records.

This additional layer of security in the log-in process can provide peace of mind that your personal information will stay out of the wrong hands.

Multi-Factor Authentication

How does multi-factor authentication work?

When you activate MFA for a website or service, you typically provide your phone number. Usually, with MFA, you enter in your username and password upon login and then a unique code that is sent via text message.

Doing so not only requires proof that you remember both your username and password, but also that you are in possession of your smartphone, which is “registered” as a device to receive these types of codes.

While you may feel like this process is a minor inconvenience, or it takes too long to set up, it’s worth it in the long run to have a higher level of security. Think of it this way: in 2016, roughly one billion accounts and records were compromised worldwide, which equals out to be about three for every American citizen. MFA can help prevent this.

Tip: Check out the easiest-to-use multi-factor authentication software to improve security across your company.

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Types of authentication factors

There are three main types of authentication factors that can be used for you to gain access to your accounts.

  • Something you know: This entails anything from a PIN number, a password, or an answer to a “secret” question you have previously set up.
  • Something you have: This would be something already in your possession, like a credit card or your smartphone.
  • Something you are: The most advanced out of the three, this consists of a fingerprint or your voice.

For example, when I log into the banking app on my smartphone, the app texts me a code to type in before I can access my account. This method of MFA falls under the “something you know” category, as it’s a PIN number I have to enter before I am able to fully connect to my online bank account.

US Bank Multi-Factor Authentication

My Discover Card app takes it one step further by asking for “something you are” upon login-- my fingerprint.

Discover Card App MFA

Or, think about when you go to the gas station to fill up your tank. After you swipe your credit card, the machine at the pump asks that you enter in your zip code. This would fall under “something you know” and is an older type of MFA.

TIP: Don't get your cybersecurity terms mixed up. Multi-factor authentication is a form of risk-based authentication, but they are not the same thing.

Why you should use MFA

You store an abundance of information in the cloud, from credit card numbers to passwords. Why wouldn’t you want to help protect your sensitive and personal data?

Let’s take Google for example. Think about all that your Google account is linked to and the information it stores. And I'm not just talking about the memories uploaded into Google Photos. I also mean your contacts, email, and calendar, that are all synced within this account. Think about all of the information a hacker would be able to easily access if MFA wasn’t set up.

While a hacker can find a workaround, via phishing or malware, making their job harder from the get-go gives you a better chance of keeping your data secure and stopping the attack before it occurs.

Interested in taking your security efforts even further? Check out our roundup of the best cyber security software providers that protect against hacking, viruses, and other threats.

See the best cybersecurity providers →

Two is better than one

And three is even better. At least, when it comes to your security efforts. More and more websites, services, and apps are taking advantage of two, or even three, factor authentication as an added layer of protection. The next time you sign up for an account, make sure you take the extra few minutes to set up MFA and protect all of your sensitive data.

There was a time when you didn’t even need a password, let alone MFA, to login to your computer. Learn more about how far we’ve come with the history of computers.

Get 50+ cyber security resources, FREE.    Get my resources →

Mara Calvello

Mara Calvello

Mara is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at G2. In her spare time, she's typically at the gym polishing off a run, reading a book from her overcrowded bookshelf, or right in the middle of a Netflix binge. Obsessions include the Chicago Cubs, Harry Potter, and all of the Italian food imaginable. (she/her/hers)