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Unencrypted | What is two-factor authentication?

Writing by John Nicholas

One of the best options available to protect your personally identifiable information is to use two-factor authentication, also known as 2FA. Many companies offer this as a security option. But what is it and how does it protect you?

Using secure passwords and passphrases is essential to your security, but that alone isn’t enough to protect you against attempts to access your accounts. Once a cybercriminal has acquired your username and password, they own that account. One way to mitigate those situations is to make use of 2FA.

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Two-factor authentication is a process by which two distinct forms of identification are used in order to access something. It used to strengthen the security of your accounts, your smartphone, or other devices. Two-factor authentication does this by requiring two types of information from you: Your normal log-in credentials, meaning your username and password, plus a code sent to your smartphone or an app on your phone. Some methods of two-factor authentication include biometrics, like your fingerprint, rather than a code on your smartphone. And a common use of 2FA is when you are asked to enter your ZIP code after swiping your credit card. 

Regardless of the method, 2FA helps to insure that it is really you attempting to log into that account. Even if a cybercriminal has gotten ahold of your username and password, they cannot log in to the account they are attempting to hack unless they have possession of the device receiving the 2FA code, 

Two-factor authentication is becoming commonplace and it is an important part of reducing your susceptibility to hacking. There are several ways in which 2FA can occur.

The most common is having a code sent you your phone via text message. That is being slowly phased out, as SMS messages are hackable. An increasingly popular method is using an authenticator app. These apps allow you to set up 2FA for many different accounts in one convenient place. In addition, they offer a higher level of security because the code is encrypted and updated more frequently.

Finally, there is the biometric 2FA that requires a fingerprint or facial recognition. In this case, after entering your username and password, you will be required to use your fingerprint or face ID to complete the process.

I use a combination of all three strategies that is largely driven by the device or app I am using.

Regardless of the method, adding a second factor of authentication can help secure access to your accounts. This is the raison d’être for 2FA. All cybersecurity-conscious companies offer 2FA as an option. Yes, it will slow down the log-in process, but it will increase your personal cybersecurity significantly. The cost of a few more seconds to log in to an account is far less than the cost of having your accounts compromised.  

You will likely have to dig down into the security settings in the software, browser or app to find 2FA. Once you do, turn it on and leave it on. It is worth taking some time to explore the security levels for all of our browsers and apps to determine if there is a 2FA option available.

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Dr. John B. Nicholas is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Co-Founder of the Cybersecurity Degree Track at The University of Akron. Dr. Nicholas has over 30 years experience in the technology field in both the private sector and in higher education.