Lock Down Your Login

As October’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month continues, I thought I would refer once again to the federal Stop.Think.Connect information campaign and focus briefly on one particular topic currently being emphasized there.

Be careful and turn your speakers down before clicking on this link, as the page automatically plays a cutesy animated YouTube video, but the Lock Down Your Login page is a good introduction to what is known as Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).   This site calls it “strong authentication.”

Once you as a user have been authorized to use a particular technology system, such as a banking website or your work computing network, authentication is the process of verifying your identity to that system so it can provide you the access needed.

Commonly, this is done by prompting a user to provide a login name and password, which in computing terms is considered “single-factor” authentication.

Multi-Factor Authentication is a mechanism through which a user is granted access only after more than one form of authentication is presented.  MFA may sometimes be referred to in the media or on websites as two-step authentication or two-factor authentication (2FA) , but technically 2FA is a subset of MFA.

One very common example of two-factor authentication is the use of a debit card (factor one-something you HAVE) and a PIN (factor two-something you KNOW) to withdraw money from an ATM.

Another example of MFA you may already experienced is the use of your thumb or finger print to unlock your cell phone.  In this case, the first factor (something you HAVE) is the phone, the second factor (something you KNOW) is the password you have previously saved on the phone, and a third factor (something you ARE) is the ability of the phone to read your thumbprint (also called biometrics).  If any of these factors are not available, you cannot access the information on the phone.

Most information security experts now recommend the use of MFA in all cases of authentication, particularly as more and more of our login information is being stored on servers all over the world and more and more of those servers are compromised.

For instance, commerce websites such as Amazon.com asks that you create a username and password (single-factor) to be able to use their service.  A compromise of that information on their servers by hackers or even company insiders could allow malicious users to pretend to be you and make purchases on your account without your knowledge.

The problem multiplies if you happen to employ the same password for different accounts on different systems.  Once one is compromised, all your accounts secured with a single-factor using the same password are potentially compromised.

If, however, if you have set up MFA with your Amazon account,  which allows you to receive a one-time random code via text message, automated phone call or third-party app (such as Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator),  the malicious user cannot get into your account without using that code which only you have on your phone.  Even if they have somehow obtained both your username and password, they cannot login to the MFA protected account.

Other websites or networks now also use phone-based MFA, but there are also methods that are not phone-based, such as the use of security token generators or smart cards.

A few people think the extra step of obtaining and using a random code is too onerous to do every time you log into a particular account.  But this simple extra step increases the security of that account so significantly that most major online companies are preparing or already offering some sort of MFA for use with their accounts.  If that extra step prevents the use of your personal credentials even after a security breach, it is obviously worth it.

As someone who pays close attention to information security and the scary trending online threats and growing malicious practices, I choose to use MFA for my personal accounts whenever it is available, and use both phone text-based codes and app-based code generators.

The use of MFA is also growing quickly in the work place as institutions and business work to protect their internal technology resources, and is currently being tested here at Bellevue College for possible use with Office 365.

If you are worried about this, remember that a couple of decades ago our typewriters didn’t require a login at all, but after computers became ubiquitous, we learned how to function with usernames and passwords. Now it seems natural.

MFA will be the same kind of cultural revolution.   I think it is safe to predict that one day we will be using MFA for all of our accounts as another line of defense against malicious users, and won’t think twice about it.

Safe Computing!

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