HomeContributionsWhat Are the Pros and Cons of Multi-Factor Authentication?

What Are the Pros and Cons of Multi-Factor Authentication?


Multi-factor authentication or MFA is becoming no longer optional. It's now a standard as more businesses adopt Zero Trust security protocols. Zero Trust and MFA are becoming predominant because of remote and hybrid work environments, which are largely cloud-driven.

There were some indications early in the summer of 2021 that businesses might be able to move back into a standard way of doing things following the COVID-19 pandemic.

They were making moves to bring employees back to the office with the availability of vaccines.

The Delta variant has changed those plans in many places. Many businesses will have to continue having employees work remotely or follow a hybrid work plan because of the number of breakthrough infections and other issues that have recently arisen in COVID, showing us it's far from over.

and cloud-based infrastructures will have to be top priorities going into the fall and for the foreseeable future. Even after the pandemic is better under control, it may be challenging to bring workers back into the office full-time.

Many companies weren't prepared for all of this last year. They didn't have an infrastructure to support remote employees.

There weren't security measures in place, nor were there policies and procedures. IT departments were struggling to keep up.

Now, there are certainly more plans in place, and businesses can hone in on top priorities and refine their work-from-home procedures.

A big part of this is multi-factor authentication or MFA. While there are a lot of upsides to MFA and it is critical in a zero-trust security model, it's not perfect, and it's not the only solution you should have in place.

The following are key things to know about MFAand also its pros and cons.

The Importance of MFA

Multi-factor authentication is a type of security requiring multiple credentials to verify the identity of users on a network. Rather than relying only on the standard credentials—username and password, MFA requires credentials from a minimum of two of three categories.

These three categories include user-generated data, which might be a password or can also be a pin, user-owned property, like a smartphone, and a user-identifiable characteristic such as a fingerprint.

If you require two of these categories, it's two-factor authentication or 2FA. If you need three, it's three-factor authentication or 3FA.

You can implement MFA in a way that's similar to single sign-on authentication, which is going to be easiest for your employees. That way, users have access to all their needed applications without multiple passwords.

If a hacker were to steal usernames and passwords from your employees, then they could gain access to your network. With MFA, it wouldn't be enough to steal the usernames and passwords—they'd need something else to access your system, making it much less likely they'd be successful.

This is especially relevant to remote workers who might be using their home or public networks, which aren't secured. MFA is a way to protect the credentials of remote workers.

Sometimes, the factors are broken down differently, although it's all the same thing. Sometimes it's described as knowledge, possession, and inherent. Knowledge is something you know, aka a password. Possession is something you have, and inherent is something you are, meaning a behavioral or physical characteristic.

The Pros of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

There are more upsides of using MFA in a business than possible downsides, including:

  • Improved Security: The apparent benefit of multi-factor authentication is that it improves your company's security. Any time you're adding another layer of protection, you're strengthening your overall cybersecurity strategy. For example, if a cybercriminal were to gain access to an employee password through what's called a brute-force attack, having another factor is just going to serve to block them.
  • Protects Against Common Attacks: MFA is effective at preventing common attacks such as brute force, keylogging, or credential stuffing. Since these attacks rely on obtaining a single piece of information (like a password), the added layers of security in MFA can thwart these types of attacks.

  • Versatility of Authentication Factors: MFA provides a variety of methods for user authentication, including something the user knows (like a password), something the user has (like a security token or smartphone), and something the user is (like a fingerprint or other biometric data).

  • Regulatory Compliance: Some industries require MFA for compliance with certain regulations. For example, MFA is often a requirement for businesses that handle sensitive financial data or personal health information.

  • Reduces the Impact of Password Weakness: With MFA, the user's account security doesn't rely solely on the strength of their password. Even if a user has a weak or compromised password, an attacker would still need to overcome the other factors of authentication.

  • Increases Trust and Confidence: Implementing MFA can increase the trust and confidence of both employees and customers, as it demonstrates a serious commitment to protecting sensitive data.

  • Flexible Security: Depending on the level of security needed, different types of MFA methods can be implemented. For example, less sensitive information might require two-factor authentication, while highly sensitive data might require more layers.

  • Alerts to Attempted Breaches: MFA can provide a warning system for attempted breaches. If a user receives an unexpected authentication request, they know that someone is trying to access their account and can take immediate action.

  • Can Be Automated and User-Friendly: Some forms of MFA, like biometrics or device-based recognition, can be very user-friendly and require minimal effort from the user, which can help to balance security with usability.

  • Protects Various Access Points: MFA can be used to secure a wide range of access points, from online accounts and software applications to physical spaces.

Possible Cons of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?

While the pros are greater than the cons when it comes to MFA, before you make any cybersecurity decision or investment for your business, you have to weigh both.

Potential cons of MFA can include:

  • User Inconvenience: MFA can be perceived as burdensome or time-consuming, especially if it involves multiple steps or is used frequently. It can lead to user frustration, particularly if the process isn't intuitive.

  • Increased Complexity: Implementing MFA may increase complexity for the IT department. It often requires technical expertise to set up and manage, and can complicate the login process.

  • Cost: MFA systems can be expensive to implement and maintain, especially for large organizations. Costs can include software, hardware (like tokens or biometric scanners), and ongoing support.

  • Dependence on User Devices: Many MFA methods rely on user-owned devices, such as smartphones or security tokens. If a user loses the device or it runs out of battery, they may be unable to authenticate.

  • Potential for False Security: While MFA does enhance security, it is not foolproof. Users and organizations may overestimate the level of security it provides, potentially neglecting other essential security practices. MFA isn't completely free of security risks.

Workarounds to Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) You Should Be Aware Of

There are several known types of attacks that are meant as workarounds to MFA.

  • Phishing Attacks: In a phishing attack, a hacker might trick a user into revealing their MFA credentials on a fake login page. This could include not only a password but also a temporary code sent via SMS or generated by an app.

  • Man-in-the-Middle Attacks: In these attacks, a hacker intercepts communication between a user and a legitimate service. The attacker can capture MFA codes as they're transmitted, then use them in real time to gain access.

  • SIM Swapping: In SIM swapping, the attacker convinces a mobile provider to switch the victim's phone number to a new SIM card, which the attacker controls. This allows the attacker to intercept SMS-based MFA codes.

  • Social Engineering: Attackers might use social engineering to trick users or customer service representatives into bypassing MFA. For example, they might impersonate a user and claim to have lost their MFA device, convincing a service representative to reset the account without MFA.

  • Malware: Certain types of malware can bypass MFA. For instance, a Trojan could infect a user's device and steal login credentials along with real-time MFA codes.

  • Device Theft: If a user's MFA device (like a phone or security token) is stolen, the thief could potentially access all accounts protected by that device.

  • Exploiting Insecure Backup Methods: Some services offer less secure ways to recover an account for users who lose access to their MFA device. If these methods are insecure, an attacker could exploit them to bypass MFA.

The big takeaway is that MFA is a good security solution and an important one in the continuing era of remote work, but it's not the only thing you should have in place. Right now, the focus needs to be on robust, comprehensive cybersecurity strategies. Zero trust is one of the best options because it treats every individual and device trying to access a network as a potential threat. MFA can be one piece of zero trust, but certainly not the only one.