Which Type of MFA Is Most Secure?

When implementing multi-factor authentication, we face many options: social media login, email code confirmation, text SMS confirmation, authentication apps, and biometric authentication. While each method has advantages and drawbacks, the most secure type of MFA to implement is often authentication apps.

More and more people are adopting multi-factor authentication today to protect themselves from increasing rates of hacking and data theft. Several popular options are available for MFA, but which is the most secure and effective?

1. Social Media Login

One of the most common types of MFA is social media login. This method avoids using a password by having the user log in using a verified social media account. Most of today’s leading social media sites have their own two-factor authentication methods, such as one-time SMS codes. By logging in to other sites using a secure social media account, users can minimize the number of unique passwords they have to create and store.

The main benefit of social media login is user convenience. Websites and apps that support this login method simply have a button on the account creation page where users can connect their preferred social media account. They simply log in to their account and confirm linking it to the website or app.

The main drawback of social media login is vulnerable data privacy and weak social media login credentials. Big social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have high-level security on their end, but they can’t force users to create highly secure passwords or use MFA. If a user has weak protection on their accounts, it could leave every connected website or app account vulnerable. Plus, social media sites may collect data about users from linked sites and apps, potentially posing privacy concerns.

2. Email Code Confirmation

One-time email codes are one of the easiest types of MFA to implement. Websites and apps are typically already collecting users’ email addresses to set up their accounts, so it’s convenient to use an email to verify login attempts. In many cases, users don’t even need to open their email account to get the code. They can simply glance at the notification on their phone.

Unfortunately, email-based MFA is one of the least secure authentication methods. Emails can be highly vulnerable to hacking and are frequently targeted since they serve as many users’ hubs for many different accounts. In fact, there are several ways a Gmail account can be hacked, including simple password guessing and phishing attacks.

Email-based MFA might be simple to execute, but it does not significantly boost security. This is especially true if the user has a weak or reused password on their email account.

3. Text SMS Confirmation

Another commonly used type of MFA is text-based confirmation. This method works similarly to emailed-based MFA, except the one-time code is texted to the user’s verified phone number instead of their email.

Text-based MFA has a couple of key advantages over emailed-based MFA. For instance, it is generally easier for users since they don’t have to log in to another website or account. Additionally, a user’s phone is somewhat more secure than their email account and often protected by biometric authentication. Since text-based MFA is so easy to execute, it is widely used in several industries, including finance, health care, and education.

The main drawback of text-based MFA is the potential for physical attacks on a user’s phone. SIM spoofing or swapping is a serious concern here. In a SIM swapping attack, a hacker redirects a victim’s phone number from their legitimate SIM card to a fake SIM. This forces the victim’s messages to go to a phone the hacker has instead, including MFA codes.

4. Authentication Apps

Authentication apps are one of the most secure types of MFA. This method involves a few layers of security, including account login credentials, device security, and a physical authentication method. The user initiates a login attempt with their account credentials, then uses a secondary authentication app to verify the login attempt using a PIN, a device-based key, or biometric authentication.

One popular authentication app today is the Microsoft Authenticator. This app has a few key features that demonstrate the strengths of this MFA method. It is protected by a user’s biometrics — such as a fingerprint — which eliminates the possibility of successful SIM spoofing. Additionally, the app can show the location where a login attempt originates. Users can easily block unauthorized login attempts straight from the app.

Similar authenticator apps include LastPass and Google Authenticator. Apps like this will likely become more popular over the next few years due to their security and versatility. Authentication apps utilize all three types of MFA data — something users are, have, and know. The main drawback is a dispersed user experience. It is more time-consuming for the user to log in with an authentication app, which could hinder adoption.

5. Biometric Authentication

Biometric authentication is more common with MFA on mobile devices, but it can be used on any device with the necessary hardware. The advantage of this MFA method is its strength against remote hacking attempts. Since the user’s fingerprint can’t easily or remotely be stolen, it becomes significantly more challenging for hackers to break through biometric MFA.

The main advantage of biometric MFA is its ease of use. There’s no need to remember a PIN or password. Users may not even need to open a different app. Scanning biometrics usually takes a matter of seconds.

However, while it is difficult to hack or fake biometrics, it is not impossible. Fingerprints can be easily replicated, for instance. Additionally, biometric data stored in an organization, website or app’s servers may be vulnerable to theft through data leaks. Some forms of biometric data are more difficult to hack, though. For instance, Face ID is typically more secure than fingerprint scanning.

What Is the Best Type of MFA?

The most secure type of MFA is usually authentication apps, although biometric and SMS code authentication are also good options. Email and social sign on have much weaker protections around them, making them poor technologies for effective MFA. Not all websites or apps are compatible with authentication apps, although this could improve in the years ahead. Where authentication apps are not an option, go for SMS or biometric authentication.

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