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What is Two Factor Authentication?

Two factor authentication, or the snappy acronym 2FA, is something that you’re going to be hearing a lot about over the next year or so, both for use by ESP employees (in an attempt to reduce the risks of data theft) and by ESP customers (attempting to reduce the chance of an account being misused to send spam). What is Authentication?
In computer security terms authentication is proving who you are – when you enter a username and a password to access your email account you’re authenticating yourself to the system using a password that only you know.
Authentication (“who you are”) is the most visible part of computer access control, but it’s usually combined with two other A’s – authorization (“what you are allowed to do”) and accounting (“who did what”) to form an access control system.
And what are the two factors?
Two factor authentication means using two independent sources of evidence to demonstrate who you are. The idea behind it is that it means an attacker need to steal two quite different bits of information, with different weaknesses and attack vectors, in order to gain access. This makes the attack scenario much more complex and difficult for an attacker to carry out.
It’s important that the different factors are independent – requiring two passwords doesn’t count as 2FA, as an attack that can get the first password can just as easily get the second password. Generally 2FA requires the user to demonstrate their identity via two out of three broad ways:

  1. Something the user knows – a password or a PIN
  2. Something the user has – a key, an ID card, a phone number, a digital certificate or a physical token
  3. Something the user is – such as a fingerprint

An everyday example of 2FA is using a cash machine or ATM. You insert your ATM card (something you have) and enter your PIN (something you know) to get access to your bank account. An attacker would have to both steal or copy your card and know your PIN to access your account. While a crooked waiter might be able to copy your card and someone could look over your shoulder to see your PIN, it’s much more difficult for an attacker to get both.
Most deployed 2FA systems work in much the same way. They require you to enter a password you know, and then to demonstrate that you have something in your possession – by having your computer present a digital certificate, or having you enter a number from a security token like those pictured above, or respond to an SMS message.
Security problems solved, then?
I’ll look at that tomorrow.
(Spoiler: No)

1 comment

  1. E-mail in the Wake of the “Epsilon Valdez” « The E-mail Skinny says

    […] of what the industry needs to do to protect itself. And Laura Atkins at Word to the Wise has a very useful rundown on two factor authentication means – and doesn’t mean – in a broader security implementation […]

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