The Difference Between Single Sign-On and Multi-Factor Authentication
September 26th, 2021

Reliable security in government and nonprofit organisations, as well as business environments, isn’t just crucial today—it’s a must. And the simple combination of a password and user identification just isn’t enough these days to protect highly vulnerable information. Digital security must continually evolve to stay ahead of data breaches, identity theft, malicious actors, malware, and any other security threats. 

Security measures must consider the needs of the business and its employees while balancing the importance of encryption, protection, and ease of use. Contact Squareball to find out how we can help you with Customer Identity and Access Management

Most security providers have to choose between two fundamental security solutions—multi-factor authentication (MFA) and single sign-on (SSO). While the two solutions are not exclusive and can both be used in the same system, an organization’s IT landscape can significantly impact the budgets and resources that need to be allocated in one approach versus the other. Determining which is best for a particular business requires careful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of each security approach. 

A Look at SSO

The concept behind SSO is simple. Online users enter master sign-on credentials to verify their identity when they first log-in. Any time they need to log into another application, the SSO solution logs in on their behalf. The SSO does this by internally storing the different credentials for each software and application a user needs to access. It then validates the user’s identity for different applications based on the success of the initial sign-on. 

Advantages of SSO

A key advantage of SSO is that a user only has to remember one password. Credentials may be required for some systems, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.  SSO authentication is convenient and fast. It saves time because users don’t need to spend unnecessary amounts of time logging into multiple systems or applications.

In some cases, SSO also eliminates access risk. For instance, credentials for third-party systems may be stored internally instead of external applications. Additional security features, such as facial recognition or fingerprint authentication, can be added to the initial SSO. And because it is easy to use, there are few calls to service desks for password resets, which reduces the workload for the IT support team.

Disadvantages of SSO

If a malicious actor or hacker gets SSO credentials, it compromises all systems and applications accessed by SSO. Therefore, SSO must be used with strong authentication and encryption methods to prevent this from occurring. If SSO applications become unavailable for any reason, users won’t be able to access any other systems. 

A Look at MFA

MFA deploys several factors to verify a user’s identity and gives them access to multiple systems, software, applications, and data. MFA systems usually leverage two or more of the following protocols to verify users:

  • Something you know, such as a personal identification number, password, or the answer to a recovery question. These are confidential login credentials that are difficult for other people to guess, especially if these credentials are memorized and not stored in an external system.
  • Something you have, including a one-time password, smart card, Bluetooth device, Apple Watch, or other authenticator. For instance, after successfully entering a password, the user is prompted to enter a passcode they receive as a text message on their smartphone to verify their identity.
  • Something you are could include a location-based authentication via IP address, GPS, or Integrated Windows Authentication. In addition, biometrics, such as voice recognition, facial recognition, and fingerprints are common forms of this type of authentication. 

The primary advantage of MFA over SSO is that it is usually more secure. Combining a password with biometrics and physical tokens significantly reduces the risk of software and data breaches. There are also plenty of different types of multi-factor authentication to choose from as well. 

While MFA provides some additional benefits in securing user logins, it has also earned a reputation of being challenging to manage because users need to be provisioned with a second factor in addition to the first one they’ve already memorized. For some users, even setting up a mobile phone to receive a one-time passcode through text messages is a daunting task. However, MFA is still the safest solution for most organizations to lockdown their applications and systems against unauthorized access.

Final Thoughts

SSO is more convenient and easy to use for end users, but it has more inherent security risks. MFA is less convenient, but more secure. You can combine the two to get a security solution that’s both secure and convenient because SSO and MFA are not mutually exclusive. Your organization can benefit significantly from implementing both solutions simultaneously to improve security and the user experience as well as making it easier to survey network activity.

These security protections together can stop cyber attackers in their tracks. Even if a malicious actor or hacker somehow compromises your password, this won’t be enough for them to access your system. Odds are, they won’t know the answers to a user’s security questions and it’s less likely that hackers will be able to access text messages and steal the verification code. This keeps malicious parties and hackers away from all applications, and authorised users can enjoy a streamlined experience.

For further reading, check out our other articles like 2 Factor Authentication vs. Multi-Factor Authentication.