Why two-factor authentication could be the solution to hacking fears

Two-factor authentication gives an extra layer of protection. For many organisations that process sensitive data on a regular basis, getting hacked seems like one of the worst possible problems to face. It could lead to all kinds of problems: from the risk that it poses of fines and punishments from regulators to the chances that it could cause a material impact on commercial growth and profit, there are plenty of reasons for organisations to avoid getting hacked wherever they can.

As a result, organisations everywhere are taking steps to reduce the chances of this happening. One of those steps, two-factor authentication, is one of the most simple and individualised – yet it can also be one of the most powerful in the ongoing fight against malicious internet forces. This article will explore just how two-factor authentication can help businesses looking to defend themselves from the worst hacking risks – and how it works in practice.

The evolution of hacking

Back in the not-too-distant past, getting hacked was a relatively rare occurrence. Prior to the mass proliferation of internet access, hackings were restricted to computer experts who had the skills to do it – and given that most computer experts were then employed by reputable organisations, the risks to the potential hacker were so big that they were often ignored. These days, however, everyone can, in theory, become a hacker. In an age when internet access is unmoderated by qualifications or expertise, a potential hacker can operate in a largely lawless fashion.

For organisations, this increase in the sheer volume of potential hackers has led to significant investment in security – especially if that organisation uses or offers cloud storage, which is one of the primary destinations for sensitive data in the modern age. First off, many organisations now make sure that they have a dedicated team devoted to heading off systematic and industry-wide threats – and this sort of technical expertise is highly valuable. However, on the most practical level, the main move from organisations has been to institute changes in the personal behaviours of their staff members – and this tends to revolve around methods such as two-factor authentication.

What is two-factor authentication?

Two-factor authentication is not a complex beast, and it’s surprisingly easy to understand – despite its complicated name. In short, two-factor authentication refers to the practice of requiring any user who logs into a system to prove their identity on two separate, provable occasions: once by inserting their username and password into a login screen, and once by doing some other action that demonstrates that they are who they say they are. That way, even if a person’s password has been compromised, their account will not necessarily have been compromised, as the ‘second factor’ will have quickly kicked in.

The second factor could be one of many things. However, it usually involves something to do with the ubiquitous smartphones that are now so common: sending a text message or making an automated voice call that contains a code are often chosen as options, while the existence of smartphone apps that generate time-sensitive codes designed to authenticate identity are also now common. For those who store their sensitive data in the cloud, this kind of protection is a lifesaver.

What are its benefits of two-factor authentication?

Perhaps the main benefit of two-factor authentication is the way that it offers organisations a chance to defend themselves against hacking without having to invest too much time in it themselves. Under two-factor authentication, the time burden of protection is passed to the end-user or the account holder: by insisting on two-factor authentication, an organisation can ensure that its accounts are protected with little input from management. This stands in contrast to the imposition of an unmanageable and untrackable rule, such as telling employees to change their passwords once every two weeks: this can’t always be tracked or monitored.

Two-factor authentication is also highly effective: one study from Microsoft showed that it can in theory block more than 99.9% of attacks on accounts. Perhaps one reason why it’s so effective is that it can easily be scaled up and rolled out to many different users: several software providers have begun providing two-factor authentication as a service, so they are able to provide all of their users with it on an almost industrial scale.

Two-factor authentication is also beneficial when compared to other major forms of identity verification because it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on complex provability. Some ID verification systems become expensive for this reason: take iris scanning, for example, or fingerprint recognition – both of which need rare and high-end hardware in order to effectively verify who a person is. With two-factor authentication, it’s more than possible to bring costs right down by relying simply on either ‘knowledge’ or ‘possession’ for the second factor of the process. With knowledge, the user can prove who they are in a matter of moments by showing that they know something that is not publicly available information, such as their first school. Or if they have a mobile phone or tablet computer in their possession, they can quickly authenticate themselves that way by inputting a key or code. Compared to more complex modes of ID verification, then, this one is easy.

Two-factor authentication is a big deal in the modern technology world. It comes with a whole host of benefits, including everything from low set-up costs to a surprisingly easy scalability and rollout potential. Also, thanks to its individual-friendly approach, two-factor authentication is the sort of system that can quickly be implemented – and this, in turn, ensures that a high level of uptake is possible. For an organisation thinking about designing a plan for protecting access to any cloud-based account, two-factor authentication should always be high on the list.