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Two-Step Authentication vs Multi-Factor Authentication: What’s the difference

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  • May 16 2024

Two-Step Authentication vs Multi-Factor Authentication: What’s the difference

Ever worried someone might be lurking in the shadows of your online accounts? Data breaches are all too common these days, and a simple password might not be enough to keep prying eyes out.

This is where two-step verification (2SV) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) come in as your digital knights in shining armour. They add an extra layer of security to your online accounts, making it much harder for unauthorized access.

But how exactly do they work? And what's the difference between 2SV and MFA? This article will be your guide to understanding these powerful security tools and how to implement them for maximum online protection.

What is Two-Step Verification

Two-step verification (also known as 2SV or two-factor authentication or 2FA) is an additional layer of security that is used to ensure someone trying to gain access to an online account is genuinely who they say they are. How does this work? Firstly, a user will enter their username and password. Then, instead of immediately being granted access, they will be required to provide another piece of information that is usually of a personal nature and therefore, known or in possession of only the genuine user. This second question could be from any one of the following categories:

  1. Something you know: This could be an additional password an answer to a secret question or a PIN.
  2. Something you have: This usually involves a physical device like a smartphone. The most common implementation is sending a code via SMS, email, or using an authenticator app (such as Google Authenticator or Authy) that generates time-based one-time passwords (OTPs).
  3. Something that you are: This pertains to biometrics or unique features of the user as fingerprints, facial recognition, or voice recognition.

How Two-Step Verification Works

  • Setting Up Two-Step Verification

    1. Select a method: Depending on the service, you might choose SMS, an authenticator app, or a hardware token.
    2. Register your device: If you are using an authenticator app, scan the QR code provided by the service to link it to your account.
    3. Verify: Enter the code sent to your device or generated by the authenticator app to confirm it's set up correctly.
  • Using Two-Step Verification

    1. Login: Enter your username and password.
    2. Second verification: When you are prompted, enter the code sent to your phone, email, or generated by the authenticator app. If using biometrics, provide the necessary fingerprint or facial recognition.
  • Benefits of Two-Step Verification

    1. User gets Enhanced Security: It significantly reduces the risk of unauthorised access. Even if someone else knows your password, they would still need the second factor to be successful in logging in.
    2. Protection against Phishing: Say a phishing attack successfully captures your password, the attacker would still be unable to access your account without the second factor. The second layer of security successfully blocks out the attack.

Two-step Verification works well for these common Issues and Solutions

  1. Lost or Stolen Phone: Most services offer backup options such as recovery codes, backup email addresses, or secondary phone numbers.
  2. Authenticator App Not Working: Ensure the time on your device is synchronised. If you have backup codes, you can use one of them to access your account and reconfigure the app.
  3. Service Downtime: Some services provide bypass options during outages, such as backup codes or the ability to temporarily disable 2FA.

Implementing two-step verification is a straightforward but highly effective way to add an extra layer of security to your online accounts that makes it much harder for unauthorised users to gain access.

Also read: 
How to Identify and Guard Yourself From Email Phishing

What is Multi-Factor Authentication

A security system that requires multiple methods of verification, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) uses several independent categories of credentials to verify a user's identity for a login or any other transaction. As a result, this ensures a far higher level of security than single-factor authentication, which typically depends on just a password for verification and approval for entry. The primary objective of Multi-Factor Authentication is to add additional layers of defence and make it harder for unauthorised individuals to gain access to sensitive information.

How Multi-Factor Authentication Works

There are different components required for this. Multi-factor authentication typically involves a combination of at least two of the following factors:

  1. Something You Know: This is the traditional password or PIN that the user knows well.
  2. Something You Have: This could be a smartphone, a security token, a smart card, or a hardware key.
  3. Something You Are: This includes biometric verification of the user’s unique features such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or voice recognition.

Examples of Multi-Factor Authentication

  1. SMS-based Verification: After entering the password, a code is sent to the user’s phone via SMS which they must enter to gain access.
  2. Authenticator Apps: Apps like Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, or Authy generate time-based one-time passwords (TOTPs) that the user must enter.
  3. Hardware Tokens: Physical devices like YubiKeys generate or receive codes that the user must use.
  4. Biometric Factors: Systems may require a fingerprint scan, facial recognition, or iris scan in addition to a password.

Implementation of Multi-Factor Authentication

This involves the following steps:


  1. Choose Multi-Factor Authentication Method: Users select from available MFA methods such as receiving codes via SMS, using an authenticator app, or registering biometric data.
  2. Setup Device: If using an app or hardware token, the user sets it up by linking it to their account. For biometrics, the user’s fingerprints or facial data are recorded.
  3. Verification: The system will typically require initial verification by entering a code sent to their phone or generated by the app.

Authentication Process

  1. First Factor: The user logs in with their username and password.
  2. Second Factor: The system prompts for the second factor, which could be a code from an authenticator app, a biometric scan, or a hardware token verification.

Benefits of Multi-Factor Authentication

  1. Users get Increased Security: It significantly reduces the risk of unauthorised access because even if one factor (like a password) is compromised, an attacker would still need the other factors.
  2. Protection Against Common Attacks: Multi-factor authentication helps protect against phishing, keylogging, and brute-force attacks.
  3. Compliance: Many regulations and standards (such as GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI-DSS) require or recommend the use of Multi-Factor Authentication for accessing sensitive data.

Challenges and Considerations of Multi-Factor Authentication

  1. Cost: Implementing and maintaining Multi-Factor Authentication solutions can incur additional costs.
  2. Backup Options: Providing secure backup options for when users lose access to their second factor (e.g., losing a phone) is essential.
  3. User Convenience: Multi-factor authentication can be seen as inconvenient or cumbersome, potentially leading to resistance from users.
  4. Integration: Integrating Multi-Factor Authentication into existing systems and workflows can be complex and may require significant changes.

Best Practices for Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication

  1. User Education: It is essential to educate users on the importance of MFA and methods of using it effectively.
  2. Provide Multiple Options: Offer various MFA methods that take into account user preferences and potential accessibility issues.
  3. Regular Updates: Ensure that MFA methods and devices are regularly updated and maintained.
  4. Monitor and Adjust: Continuously monitor the authentication process and make adjustments according to user feedback and evolving security threats.

Multi-factor authentication as a crucial element of modern cybersecurity strategies offers robust protection against unauthorised access and significantly enhances overall security.

Key Differences between Two-Step Verification and Multi-Factor Authentication

Two-step verification and Multi-Factor authentication (MFA) are often used interchangeably. However, they are distinct concepts in the realm of cybersecurity. Here are the key differences -

Two-Step Verification:

  • Is a subset of MFA, and requires exactly two steps to verify a user’s identity.

  • Usually involves two instances of the same type of factor, most commonly "something you know" (password) and "something you have" (a code sent to your phone).

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA):

  • Is a broader term that encompasses Two-Step Verification.

  • Requires two or more verification factors from different categories. These categories include "something you know" (password), "something you have" (a security token), and "something you are" (biometrics).

They differ distinctly in the following aspects -

Scope and Flexibility

  • Two-Step Verification: Specifically involves exactly two steps for verification. These steps often use different types of information but can also include two instances from the same category.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication: Includes any authentication process requiring two or more factors, potentially more than two. These factors must come from at least two different categories.

Types of Factors

  • Two-Step Verification: Typically uses two factors. Both are knowledge-based (e.g., password and a code sent via email or SMS).
  • Multi-Factor Authentication: Must include factors from at least two different categories out of knowledge (something you know), possession (something you have), and inherence (something you are).

Security Levels

  • Two-Step Verification: Provides a basic level of enhanced security compared to single-factor authentication. The use of SMS or email codes is common here and it can be less secure than other methods.
  •  Multi-Factor Authentication: Generally considered more secure due to the use of varied and more robust factors. Biometrics or hardware tokens in addition to passwords.

In a nutshell, Two-Step Verification is a simpler form of Multi-factor Authentication involving two steps, often used for consumer services to provide basic enhanced security. On the other hand, Multi-Factor Authentication is a comprehensive security approach using multiple factors from different categories, offering higher security for sensitive and high-stakes environments.

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