2 Factor Authentication vs. Multi-Factor Authentication
September 20th, 2021

Almost everyone knows that passwords alone don’t provide enough security anymore. Reused, weak, or old passwords account for 80% of data breaches across the globe. From ransomware to phishing to man-in-the-middle cyberattacks and zero-day vulnerabilities to password cracking, cyberattacks use faster tools and exploit existing weaknesses to compromise even the strongest passwords.

Every device, application, and login is a gateway to your business. They need maximum protection, such as CIAM security.

Pairing usernames and passwords with additional authentication factors is crucial to achieving better protection. However, when trying to find the right authentication solution, the terminologies used are often confusing, especially Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). In this article, we’ll go through a detailed comparison of 2FA and MFA to help you make an educated choice.

MFA vs. 2FA

Knowledge is the most widely used authentication factor. This form of authentication factor uses something you have in your possession, an object, or a device that’ll offer additional information needed to verify your identity. This factor is common with software tokens, security tokens, or one-time passcodes sent as an SMS to your mobile phone.

Single-factor authentication (SFA) offers the least security because the only thing hackers need to compromise your account is a password. Thankfully, many websites, businesses, and online services have outgrown SFA and are using additional layers of security that combine a possession and knowledge authentication factors.

2 Factor Authentication (2FA)

Since 2FA is also a type of multi-factor authentication, it might be daunting to differentiate between the two. Let’s discuss how the number of authentications used determines why every 2FA is an MFA, but not every MFA is a 2FA.

To understand 2FA better, let’s look at a common scenario using 2FA: Let’s say you’re signing into your Amazon, Facebook, or Google account. After entering your username and password successfully (the ‘something you know’ factor), you have to take one more step in the log on process to prove your identity. 

It could be a biometric check, the answer to a previously chosen question, or a one-time code that you have to enter; any one of these is considered the ‘something you have’ factor. The nature of this factor varies quite a bit, but what remains consistent is that there are always two factors.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA uses two or more authentication factors. Using a password and approving access through an app alert is better than just using the ‘something you know’ factor to verify your identity. Adding another authentication factor, such as facial or fingerprint recognition, adds more barriers for cyber attackers trying to hack your online accounts. 

You may hear mention of 3FA or 4FA, but these are just some additional types of MFA. Thus, it’s true to say that every 2FA is a type of MFA; however, not every MFA has just two authentication factors.

The Difference Between 2FA and MFA

To differentiate between MFA and 2FA, then, think of MFA as the use of at least three authentication factors. And apart from the obvious difference in the number of authentication factors used, each offers different levels of security and ease of use together with a different amount of time needed to complete the verification process. 

  1. Level of Security

Even though it's fairly easy for cyber attackers to conduct a brute force cyberattack for less complicated passwords, dealing with SMS text message authentication makes it much more difficult to hack an online account and, therefore, tiresome for the cyber attacker to gain access to your account. 

Phone authentication and phone numbers as identifiers aren’t that secure. Thus, adding a third authentication factor, such as biometrics, which are more difficult to compromise, will add a layer of security to your sensitive data. So, in terms of the amount of protection, MFA is better than 2FA.

  1. Ease of Use

Multiple authentication factors required to verify one’s identity presents a more time-consuming but secure process. Don’t let this encourage you to cut corners with easy-to-remember, weak passwords or use the same password for multiple online accounts. This undermines the effectiveness of MFA, making 2FA a reasonable option.

Further, with just two authentication factors to consider, you need not go through sometimes inconvenient and unreliable biometrics verification. For instance, with facial recognition, poor lighting can cause you to get locked out of your account because you can’t accurately confirm your identity. Fingerprint scanners can also be tricky because sometimes a scanner might not recognize your fingerprint, especially if your finger is in a position that doesn’t scan well. 

Unlike biometrics, if the location factor is implemented, it may not require any action from you, making MFA a much more user-friendly authentication method.

By looking at the authentication factors used, it’s clear that the right balance of convenience and security is needed to make the authentication process secure without interfering with the user experience.

Final Thoughts

MFA is the most secure authentication method because it uses two or more authentication factors. This makes it difficult for hackers to access your account because they now have to bypass an additional level of security. However, while MFA is the most secure authentication option, 2FA is usually easier to use for most of us, and it’s also more cost-effective to implement for both organizations and individual users.

Choosing between 2FA and MFA is really up to you. However, it’s essential to use some type of multi-factor authentication on your domain contact email to prevent the theft of your domain name, your email, and all your online accounts.

For further reading, check out our other articles like What Is a Privileged User Account? and The Difference Between Single Sign-On and Multi-Factor Authentication.