The never-ending story of security gaps and hacks in recent years shows that it is high time to question the security of our online presence. The normal way to secure your digital accounts is through passwords. The problem is, most have dozens, if not hundreds, of accounts that they need to secure. How is it done? Do you have a unique password for each service you use?
Many people would probably answer no now. At least that wouldn’t be surprising, because far too often people tend to keep their passwords simple so that they can be easily remembered. Nothing underlines this more than the fact that “123456” was classified as the most frequently used password in few years. Even if we stick to the established (although now recognized as flawed) practice of creating strong passwords using upper and lower case letters, numbers, special characters, etc., we will end up recycling or using slight variations of our passwords. However, passwords have their limits. They are just a barrier between your account and a hacker.
What is two-factor authentication?
Two-factor authentication (2FA), also known as multifactor authentication (MFA), is an easy way to add an extra layer of security to your accounts. What do we mean by two factors? To understand this, you need to know the three classic authentication factors, which are often paraphrased as: Something you know, something you have and something you are.
You can know things like passwords, PINs, and lock screen patterns. They can have things like physical keys (made of brass or with RFID), electronic tokens and SMS codes, and they include biometric data like fingerprints, their retina and their face.
As you have probably guessed, a 2FA system has authentication requirements based on two different factors. This could be a PIN code (something you know) and a fingerprint scan (something you are) or a retina scan (something you are) followed by entering a code from a security token (something that you have). Since passwords are traditionally used for online services, they are usually one of the factors that are still required for such services in 2FA systems. Hence, a 2FA system that requires a password and possession of another factor makes it difficult for hackers to access your account because they are missing one of the pieces of the puzzle.
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There are a variety of 2FA systems. Most of them have in common that they generate a unique code on an authentication device or this is sent to it. Entering it with your password will give you access to your account. One of the most common 2FA methods used by many online services is a text message with an authentication code that is sent to your phone. It’s not the best or safest method, but it’s still better than not having one at all.
Then there are authentication apps that you can use that can be paired with your accounts. These apps continuously generate authentication codes that are only valid for a limited period of time. For example, each code is only valid for one minute. For example, Google has been experimenting with a new form of 2FA that eliminates the need to enter keys manually and turns your phone into a security key itself. Alternatively, some companies offer their own hardware solutions that you can use for 2FA purposes. The choices are diverse; Just choose the one that best suits your needs.
Most popular websites offer two-factor authentication options, but few require 2FA to sign in by default. In general, you need to find and activate a website’s 2FA options first. You can usually find this in the settings or privacy sections of the website. The websites walk you through setting up a 2FA method, sometimes there is more than one method. If you’re not sure if a website or service offers 2FA, you can check here.
In case you’re wondering whether 2FA is completely safe, it has rarely been bypassed. In most cases, it provides a great additional layer of security against various attacks designed to steal your credentials.
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