Multi-factor authentication: minimise cyber risks and maximise security

Imagine coming into your office and discovering that your email account has been hacked and important and confidential company data has been stolen. This scenario is more realistic than ever: a single successful cyber attack can be enough to cause serious damage to your organisation. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is proving to be a secure defence strategy against cyber threats. It ensures that even if a password is compromised, the attacker cannot simply gain access to your sensitive systems and data.

MFA requires each user to provide at least two pieces of evidence before access is granted - for example, a password combined with a fingerprint or a one-time code sent to a mobile device. This "multi-method" closes security gaps that are very often caused by simple or reused passwords.

In a world where digital security is synonymous with corporate security, MFA helps you to protect your customer data, financial information and trade secrets from unauthorised access. So don't just implement MFA as part of your IT, establish it as an integral part of your organisational culture.

What is multi-factor authentication?

Multi-factor authentication is a security measure that requires users to provide at least two different types of proof to confirm their identity before gaining access to an account or network. MFA is a multi-layered protection for your digital accounts and systems that goes far beyond traditional security methods by combining different independent security features.

Basics and functionality of MFA

MFA is based on the premise that the combination of several security factors forms a higher barrier against unauthorised access. The architecture of MFA integrates different levels of authentication that only allow access together. In practice, this means that after entering your password (knowledge factor), you must enter a code that has been sent to your mobile device (possession factor) or confirm your identity with a fingerprint (inherence factor). This interplay of factors ensures that only you personally can gain access to your sensitive information.

Differences between single-factor and multi-factor authentication

Compared to single-factor authentication, which relies only on a single piece of evidence - usually a password - MFA provides a comprehensive security control by requiring multiple independent authentication methods. This approach minimises the risk that someone other than you can gain access to your accounts, even if individual security elements are compromised. Implementing MFA is a clear decision in favour of an improved security infrastructure and demonstrates your commitment to compliance and the protection of your company data.

Advantages of multi-factor authentication

MFA is designed to strengthen security by making it much more difficult to gain unauthorised access. Even if a factor (such as a password) is compromised, the additional authentication step provides another hurdle for a potential attacker to overcome.  

Minimise the security risk

Firstly, MFA strengthens security by narrowing the gateways for cyber threats through multi-layered authentication verification. It mitigates the risk resulting from human error, such as password sharing or the use of weak passwords, by requiring you to prove your identity through multiple independent means, significantly reducing the likelihood of unauthorised access.

Improve responsiveness

Another significant benefit is the improvement in responsiveness to security incidents. MFA systems are configured to proactively send notifications when unusual or suspicious login activity is detected. This immediate feedback allows you and end users to respond promptly to potential threats, limiting or even preventing damage. The ability to respond quickly to incidents is a critical aspect of the modern cyber security environment, and MFA provides an effective tool for this.

Driving forward digitalisation

MFA also enables you to realise digital projects with increased security. In an era where digital transformation is the order of the day, MFA creates a secure foundation to drive data-intensive projects and online services. By securing login processes and transactions, MFA ensures that you and your customers benefit from enhanced protection.

Why is multi-factor authentication more secure?

The implementation of multi-factor authentication (MFA) represents an evolution in digital security practice. It responds to the dynamic and complex threats you face in the digital landscape and provides a mechanism that significantly reduces the likelihood of a data breach.

Examples of security risks with simple authentication

Simple authentication methods, such as the use of a single password, are vulnerable to a variety of attack methods. Phishing, social engineering, brute force attacks and the exploitation of weak or leaked passwords are common tactics used by attackers to gain unauthorised access. These methods capitalise on the fact that many users use simple, easy-to-guess passwords or reuse the same passwords for multiple services.

How MFA protects against these risks

MFA addresses these vulnerabilities by introducing an additional layer of security. Even if an attacker obtains your password, it is useless without the second or third authentication factor. The combination of something you know, something you have and something you are creates a safety net that cannot be easily breached. MFA requires that a potential intruder not only knows your password, but also has access to your physical device or can forge your biometric data, which is unlikely in practice. MFA therefore significantly increases the security of your data and systems and is a central component of a well thought-out security strategy.

How MFA works

With multi-factor authentication (MFA), you will be asked to provide several independent proofs of your identity in order to gain access to digital resources.

A widespread approach for this is the use of one-time passwords (OTP). These temporary and automatically generated passwords usually consist of a series of 4 to 8 digits. They are sent to you by email, SMS or via specialised apps and offer a high level of security as they are only valid for a short period of time and cannot be used after they have been used or have expired.

The 4 steps of MFA

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires you to store multiple proofs of identity when creating an account. This information is securely stored in the system and forms the basis for authentication for future logins.

1. Registration

When you create your account, you will be asked to provide various pieces of information - your password and additional identifiers such as your mobile phone number or an authentication app. This information is exclusively assigned to you, which is why it must be treated as strictly confidential.

2. Authentication

As soon as MFA is set up, your password - the knowledge factor - is requested first each time you log in. The system then requests a second factor, which is often a code sent by text message or a code generated via an authentication app.

3. Verification

After you have entered the second factor, the system checks both factors. Access is only granted if both are correct.

4. Additional safety steps

In some cases, the system may request additional factors or steps when recognising suspicious or unusual login attempts - for example, from a new or unfamiliar end device.

MFA Info erklärt

Types of authentication factors

In the domain of digital security, the diversification of authentication factors is a fundamental strategy for minimising risk. The types of authentication factors you use are the pillars on which the fortress of your cyber security rests. Each of these factor types plays a specific role in a holistic security concept.

Something you know (password, PIN)

The knowledge factor is the most common type of authentication and includes everything that you have mentally anchored and that cannot be physically stolen. Classic examples are passwords, PINs and security questions. This information is secret and should be unique and known only to you.

Something you have (smartphone, Token)

Items that you physically own, such as smartphones, security tokens or hardware keys, serve as a means of authentication by proving that you have access to something that is assigned to you. These ownership factors provide a strong additional layer of security, as there is little chance that an external attacker can compromise both your knowledge and your physical possessions at the same time.

Something you are (fingerprint, facial recognition)

Biometrics are unique physical characteristics that identify you. Fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans and even voice recognition are examples of these types of authentication factors. They are considered particularly secure as they are difficult to falsify and create a strong link between the user's physical identity and access authorisation.

Areas of application Multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) has established itself as an essential security element that is used in various areas. It protects against unauthorised access in both the business and private sectors and ensures secure authentication.

Business use

Access to company networks, especially when employees work remotely, harbours risks such as data interception or unauthorised access. MFA offers considerable added value here by requiring a multi-stage check before access rights are granted. Wherever confidential customer data is handled, MFA is indispensable for meeting compliance regulations and maintaining the integrity of the organisation.

Private use

Online banking, shopping and social media accounts contain personal information that needs to be protected. MFA prevents cyber criminals from gaining access to your finances or personal accounts simply by guessing or stealing a password. Simply integrating MFA into your everyday life, for example by using authentication apps or SMS codes, can make a crucial difference to your personal security online.

Overview of MFA methods

Multi-factor authentication offers various methods for verifying a user's identity. Here are some common approaches that are frequently used in the digital world.

Time-based one-time password (TOTP)

TOTPs are short-lived, usually 6-digit numbers that are valid for a limited period of time, around 30 to 60 seconds. Users can generate these codes using an authentication app or a password manager. After entering the regular password to log in to the account, the TOTP code is requested as an additional security check. This method is considered very secure as the codes are dynamic and difficult to intercept.

MFA token on SMS basis

This involves sending a code to your mobile phone via SMS after it has logged in with its basic credentials. Despite being less secure than other MFA methods due to risks such as SIM swapping, they still offer basic protection and are easy to use.

MFA token on an email basis

However, similar to the MFA token via SMS, the email token sends the code to your email address. It is crucial to secure the email account with strong passwords, as a compromised email account can undermine MFA protection.

Security key (hardware)

These physical devices are linked to the user's account. For authentication, the key is inserted into a USB port or used contactlessly. They offer a high level of security as they must be physically possessed to grant access.

Biometric authentication

This method uses unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints or facial features to confirm identity. They are generally very secure as these features are unique. However, in the event of a data leak, there is a risk that biometric data cannot be reset.

Security issues

Although they are often used for verbal confirmation, e.g. in telephone conversations with financial institutions, they are also used digitally. Choose answers that are not easy to guess or use untraceable, invented answers to increase security.

Risk-based authentication

Risk-based authentication, often referred to as adaptive authentication, dynamically adapts the authentication requirements to the respective risk level. This type of authentication takes into account the human factor in the security process. Constant multiple authentications can be tedious for users and can lead them to bypass the MFA function, which reduces the security of their account.

In a risk-based system, for example, MFA could be dispensed with when logging on to a familiar work device, while access from an unknown device would require MFA to be activated. This reduces the frequency of MFA requests for the user. However, a potential hacker attempting to access the account from another device would still be prompted to perform MFA. This keeps the account protected without compromising the user experience.

Multi-factor authentication from the market leader

In the world of multi-factor authentication (MFA), there are various models and providers that are tailored to different security needs and areas of application.

Choosing the right MFA model and provider depends on the specific requirements of your organisation. Careful consideration of security needs, ease of use and budget is crucial to finding the optimal solution. To help you make this choice, we present the two most important models from the market leaders AuthN by Idee and RSA.

AuthN by Idee: Same-device MFA technology

The strength of AuthN by Idee lies in the same-device MFA technology. With this approach, no second device or additional app is required for authentication. You can use the device you are already using for verification. This efficiently transforms any end device into an MFA tool without any additional effort for the user.

A prerequisite for the use of AuthN by Idee is the activation of Windows Hello. Users of Windows 10 and Windows 11 can log in locally using Windows Hello by setting a locally stored PIN. This authentication method, which can also integrate biometric data such as fingerprints or facial recognition, is based on the TPM chip, which is present in current devices as standard. TPM (Trusted Platform Module) is an international standard for a secure cryptoprocessor developed as a dedicated microcontroller to secure hardware with integrated cryptographic keys. As the PIN is stored locally, it is protected from external access and therefore safe from hacking attacks.

RSA: Comprehensive management and security system

The authentication solution from RSA requires the installation of special administration and management software. This can either be installed locally in the customer network or operated by an external hosting service. RSA also offers a cloud-based solution. Authentication cannot take place without this software.

Implementation begins with the installation of the software, followed by the definition of the number of licences required and the purchase of the necessary authentication tokens, which are available in both hardware and software form.

When tokens are purchased, a file is supplied containing information about the internal seed number of each token. This file must be imported into the management software, as the six-digit authentication code of each token is based on this seed number. Logging in is done using a user name and a password consisting of a personal PIN and the current token code. This system guarantees a high level of security, as access is only possible with knowledge of the personal PIN and the current token code. The effectiveness of this authentication is linked to a constant connection to the RSA software.

AuthN by Idee or RSA – who fits what?

To summarise, the main differentiating features of the two authentication systems lie in the use and integration of the security technology. While the Idee solution relies on the use of the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, which is integrated into modern hardware such as notebooks, PCs, smartphones and tablets, RSA is based on comprehensive management software that is provided either locally in the network or via a cloud platform and enables centralised management of the authentication functions.

For small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), we recommend implementing AuthN by Idee's MFA solution, while for larger organisations, RSA's comprehensive authentication services are considered more suitable.

Challenges in the implementation of multi-factor authentication

Introducing multi-factor authentication (MFA) into your organisation is a crucial step towards improving digital security. Nevertheless, the implementation is associated with challenges that need to be considered to ensure a successful integration.

User acceptance and usability

A major challenge when introducing MFA is user acceptance. Employees may find the additional steps cumbersome or time-consuming, especially if they have previously only used simple passwords. It is therefore important that you communicate the importance of MFA for security and demonstrate how MFA helps to protect personal and company data. Training and clear guidance will help allay concerns about ease of use and familiarise users with the process. The key is to balance security and ease of use - make sure MFA solutions are intuitive and easily accessible to encourage adoption.

Technical challenges and costs

Technical challenges and costs are other important factors when implementing MFA. Choosing the right MFA solution requires a careful assessment of your organisation's existing IT infrastructure and specific security requirements. We advise you to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to find a solution that is both effective and economically viable. Remember that the long-term benefits of a secure digital environment outweigh the initial investment.

Practical application examples for multi-factor authentication

The use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) is particularly important in modern working environments such as home office and remote work. These examples show how MFA can provide additional security in such scenarios.

Making working from home more secure

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is particularly important in the home office because employees work in an environment that is often less controlled and secure than the traditional office environment. However, as your employees also need access to the company's internal network and confidential customer data when working from home, MF authentication is a secure method:

  • Start the login process: The employee starts the login process on the company laptop by entering their user name and password.
  • Requesting the second factor: Once the password has been entered, the system automatically requests a second factor. As the employee is working from home, the system recognises a different access environment based on the IP address or geo-location.
  • Authentication via smartphone: The employee receives a notification on their smartphone, which is equipped with an authentication app such as Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator. The app generates a unique code that is only valid for a limited time.
  • Biometric verification: In addition, the system could require biometric verification, where the employee performs a fingerprint or face scan via an integrated sensor on the laptop, providing a third authentication factor.
  • Full access: The system only grants the employee access to the network once all factors have been successfully verified.

Additional protection for remote work

Remote work means that employees access company resources from a variety of locations and devices. MFA can verify that access is legitimate, regardless of location or device - this is particularly important because the risk of data leakage is much higher on public networks.

Best practices fort he introduction of Multi-factor authentication

Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) in your organisation is an essential step towards strengthening your cyber security. To make this process effective, we would like to give you two tips in particular:

Choosing the right MFA solution

Choosing the right MFA solution requires careful consideration of various factors. Consider the specific security requirements of your organisation, the ease of use of the solution and compatibility with your existing IT infrastructure. Also consider the scalability of the solution to support future growth and changing requirements.

Training and education of users

Effective user training and education are critical to the success of MFA. Invest time and resources in comprehensive training programmes to ensure your employees understand the need for MFA and how it works. This not only promotes adoption, but also raises general awareness of cyber security within your organisation.

FAQs: Frequently asked questions

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