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Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): What is MFA and How It Works?

By eMudhra Editorial on March 12, 2023
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): What is MFA and How It Works?

What is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a multi-step account login process that requires users to provide more information than just a password. Users can be asked to scan their fingers, enter a code that was sent to their email address, or answer a hidden question. Using a second form of authentication can help avoid fraud if a system password has been hacked.

MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication) is primarily a security mechanism that is deployed to ensure security in the digital ecosystem while accessing a system or identification of authorized personnel. The process of identifying the authorized personnel to grant access is known as “authentication”.

Traditionally, authentication was only limited to the use of passwords and usernames, while the process is still used, MFA provides additional functionalities. The sole dependency on username and password as an authentication factor is inefficient. As usernames are easily discoverable and the passwords used can be weak, thus decryptable, leading to potential cyber threats. Hence, Multi-Factor Authentication provides an additional level of security for your IT ecosystem. 

The most common forms of authentication used in MFA include:

  • Knowledge factors, such as a password or PIN
  • Possession factors, such as a physical token
  • Inherence factors, such as biometric information

By combining two or more of these factors, MFA provides an additional layer of security to protect user accounts and data. For example, in addition to entering a password, a user might be required to enter a one-time code generated by a mobile app or sent via SMS to their phone.

How Does Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Work?

MFA is a crucial part of Identity and Access Management (IDAM). MFA verifies the identities by mandating users to provide different information (also known as factors) to gain access to an account or application. This is done to ensure that only authorized users can gain access to sensitive information. MFA typically involves the use of at least two of the following factors:

  • Knowledge factor: This could be a password, PIN, or answer to a security question. Since it depends on manual intervention, users often use a weak password, or a single password is used on multiple platforms, thus exposing them to potential threats of phishing and social engineering attacks.
  • Possession factor: This could be a physical token, such as a smart card or a security key and mobile phone. For example, SMS authentication sends a code or one-time password (OTP) to a user’s mobile device for verification. This method of MFA provides a medium level of security.
  • Inherence factor: This could be a biometric factor, such as a fingerprint or facial recognition. One of the key benefits of this mode of authentication is that users do not have to memorize or store these factors, thus providing optimal ease of use. Additionally, it provides the highest level of security.

Let us briefly look at the steps involved in multi-factor authentication.

As an initial step in the authentication process, a user is asked to provide the username and password as the first factor of authentication while attempting to log in to an application or a system. In the following step depending on the security settings, users might be asked to provide a second factor. It can be an OTP or biometric information like fingerprint or facial recognition. Once the identity is verified the user is authenticated to access the system or application. Adding a second layer of security minimizes the threat of man-in-middle attacks, as it is much harder for an attacker to impersonate the user and gain access to their account.

Why is MFA Used?: Need and Importance of Multi-Factor Authentication

It is well established that the world is moving towards man-machine workload, while the end-to-end digitization of processes has offered tremendous ease of use, it has also exposed critical data to potential cyber threats thus generating the need for strong security solutions.

This challenge can be tackled through the identity-first approach, which is what MFA essentially provides. Multi-factor authentication is a critical security requirement of every organization, irrespective of size and industry. The specific use cases of MFA in Identity and Access Management (IAM) include:

  1. Increased security: MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring additional authentication factors beyond just a password.
  2. Compliance: Many industries and regulatory bodies require the use of MFA as part of their compliance standards. For example, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) requires the use of MFA for certain types of transactions.
  3. Protection against password-based attacks: Passwords are often the weakest link in security, and MFA helps to protect against attacks like phishing, where a user is tricked into giving away their password.
  4. Remote access: MFA can be especially important for remote access, where users are not on a company's secure network. This can help protect against unauthorized access attempts from outside of the network.
  5. User experience: While MFA may add an extra step to the authentication process, it can also provide a better user experience in the long run. For example, if a user forgets their password, they can use another factor to verify their identity and reset their password, instead of going through a lengthy process of resetting their account.

Overall, the use of MFA can help organizations increase security, meet compliance requirements, and provide a better user experience.

Adaptive Multi-factor Authentication: What Is It & What Sets It Apart?

Adaptive multi-factor authentication also known as Risk-Based Authentication is a security process that assesses the probability of account compromise with each login. What sets adaptive MFA apart from traditional MFA is that it uses machine learning algorithms and risk assessment to determine the level of security required for each user login attempt. The system can analyze various factors such as location, device type, IP address, time of day, and user behavior patterns, to assign a risk score to the login attempt.

If the risk score is low, the user may be granted access with only one factor of authentication, such as a password. However, if the risk score is high, the system may require additional factors of authentication, such as a fingerprint or facial recognition scan, to ensure the identity of the user. It takes the following contextual user considerations into account for dynamically regulating the authentication steps:

  • Number of failed login attempts
  • Geographical location of the user
  • Geo-velocity or the physical distance between consecutive login attempts
  • Device being used for login
  • Day and time of login attempt
  • Operating system
  • Source IP address
  • User role

This authentication method provides stronger security and improves the user experience by reducing the number of times users are asked to authenticate themselves, while still ensuring that high-risk access attempts are properly secured.

What to Look for in an MFA Solutions Provider?

The need for strong security which ensures the safety of your identity and data cannot be denied. But with a plethora of MFA service providers in the marketplace, how do you choose the best MFA service provider based on your use case? There are various requirements to be taken into consideration while choosing your solution provider but the most crucial criterion to choose a service provider is its ability to meet the current business requirements of your organization while providing room for future growth prospects. The following are the key considerations that are to be taken into account while choosing your MFA solutions provider:

  • End-user experience
  • Admin experience
  • Extensive Access
  • Comprehensive implementation

emAS Multi-Factor Authentication Solutions - Minimizing Risk, Increasing Assurance: How to Use emAS for MFA Security Solutions?

Why Choose eMudhra for the Best Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Solutions?

With regards to the future of multi-factor authentication, we're expecting MFA methods to constantly evolve, and our goal is to make identity verification easier for users and more secure for organizations. We at eMudhra provide you with a one-stop solution for all your MFA security solutions

eMudhra is a global trust provider with expertise in Identity and Access Management solution deployment. We provide FIDO-compliant strong Identity and access management solutions deployed widely across the private and public sectors with more than 15 modes of authentication, adaptive authentication as well as single sign-on, Lifecycle Management, Universal Directory, API Access Management services, and more! 

We understand your need for a hassle-free security solution. Our platform can be extended to allow single sign-on with centralized access management capabilities. If you have a large application stack that cuts across cloud and on-prem, our IAM solution can help reduce the complexity around user access and authentication through a centralized low-cost access management solution. We offer efficient deployment across all aspects of your environment, including your on-premises systems and applications, third-party hosted platforms, cloud services, and mobile apps, allowing you to turn on additional identity management capabilities with ease whenever needed.

Our trust services help build secure applications with reliable identities while ensuring the privacy of user data. Our trust service solutions include SSL certificates, IoT certificates, digital signature certificates, and PKI solutions.

To learn more about eMudhra's MFA Solutions, Contact us now!

Also Read:

  1. The Need for Adaptive Authentication Solution
  2. emAS MFA - Addressing the Need for Strong Authentication
  3. emAS: Using Analytics Driven Intelligence to Power Adaptive or Risk-Based Authentication
  4. Moving beyond OTP and 2FA - eMAS MFA

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