The practice of logging into services, also known as authenticating to them, has been around since the 1960’s and in many ways not much has changed in the last half-century which, given the pace of development within IT, is quite staggering. 

Even today for most purposes you will simply be asked for a email address and a password. Is it right for that to still be the case?

The problem is that email addresses are relatively easy to find or guess, and people are not very good at generating strong, random passwords. Indeed, all too often a password is little more than a word – perhaps your cat or dog’s name. When lists of passwords actually in use are revealed they all too often have entries like “123456”, “qwerty” & “password” filling the top slots.

Back in the 1960’s the volume and value of data protected by these passwords was relatively low, where it is now quite possible (albeit bad practice) to use the same password across multiple sites. Many of these sites are not administered to the same security standards that we expect from our banks and government bodies, so logins stolen from an insecure website can be used on more secure systems.


So, how are companies increasing security on logins to their sites? There is a computer science theory that a “factor” for authentication must be one of the below:

  • Knowledge – something you know e.g. a password
  • Inherent – something you are e.g. a fingerprint
  • Location – somewhere you are e.g. in the office
  • Possession – something you have e.g. your phone

With a standard login, only knowledge is required, but by adding additional ‘factors’ security is increased. One of the first forms of 2-factor authentication (2FA) was when, in the early 2000’s, credit cards went from a simple swipe to “chip & pin” – thus they changed from a single factor of card possession to 2-factor – possession of the card & knowledge of the PIN.

You may have noticed that more recently a similar change was made when purchasing online via a card as you are now sent a text message to add Possession to the existing Knowledge of the card number.

This is a perfect example of where 2 Factor Authentication (2FA) becomes Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) as there are scenarios today where all 5 factors are actively being utilised.

In the background the card providers are also doing location checks, i.e. if you purchase an in-store item in London and Manchester within a half an hour, the latter will generally be declined as banks know that it is highly unlikely you could have travelled that distance. This has been refined to the extent that I personally had an online banking transaction blocked a few weeks ago because I used a different broadband connection/device combination that had not been seen on my account before despite using 2 other valid factors to log in.

Text Messages

Using text messages is a very simple and ubiquitous way to provide a 2nd factor, however, security weaknesses in the text message system have reduced the security industry’s recommendation of this.
With the prevalence of smartphones you may now find yourself being asked to use an app to generate the multi-digit one time code, that when combined with the date and time generates a series of numbers that changes every minute as a Time based One Time Passcode (TOTP) as a way of proving Possession of your phone. 

Google Authenticator was the first popular app to embody this very simple yet elegant technology that doesn’t even require the phone to be connected to the web (aside from downloading the app initially).

There are other competitors such as Microsoft Authenticator, LastPass Authenticator and some banking apps which work the opposite way in that the website instead sends a challenge to the app on your phone asking for confirmation that you are logging in and requiring your fingerprint to complete the login. This sends a confirmation back to the website, and you are effectively using 3 factors to complete the login: the username/password combination as Knowledge; phone as Possession and the fingerprint as Inherent.

How Effective Is It?

The question that I’m sure many will still ask is whether all this extra effort is really justified?
In 2019 Microsoft research
concluded that 2-factor authentication would prevent 99.9% of the over 300 million daily automated login attacks on their platform.
Google similarly 
concluded that their use of phone-based authentication prevented “100% of automated bots, 96% of bulk phishing attacks, and 76% of targeted attacks”

In the case of systems like Microsoft Authenticator and Google 2-step verification, having your phone popping up asking you to verify your login unexpectedly also provides early warning that someone has just breached your password and that you need to reset it – suffice to say if it pops up unexpectedly never, ever, approve it!

2-factor and multifactor logins are good techniques to improve security which you should be employing wherever practical (for some certifications such as Cyber Essentials it can even be a requirement) but this should not replace the need for your actual password to be strong (i.e. containing upper & lower case letters, numbers and punctuation) and unique as it still remains your first form of defence. You also need to ensure that you keep these additional factors current so when you upgrade your phone ensure to migrate any authenticator apps, if you are going overseas consider whether any services you will need have been locked to your country.

Most website administration areas don’t yet require 2-factor or multifactor logins, but this is gradually changing. WordPress has plugins that can add this capability, so if you would like it added to your site for additional peace of mind please speak with us.

So when you next log in to a site ask yourself whether you can add 2FA to your existing account. You might be surprised, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter all offer 2-factor login free of charge.

Author: John Harman

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