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Keep Your Accounts Safe with Two-Step Verification

If you've spent any significant amount of time online, you know how frequently websites ask you to create an original username and secure password if you want to use their online services. However, an increasing number of sites are also asking for two-step verification.

Whether you run a business and want to implement additional cybersecurity procedures or are merely curious about this new form of identity protection, we have answers for all your biggest questions down below.

What is Two-Step Verification?

Two-step verification, also referred to as 2-step verification, multifactor authentication, or two-factor authentication (or "2FA" for short), is a relatively straightforward security concept that provides an extra layer of protection for digital accounts.

In short, two-step verification requires you to provide more information than just your password and email address/username or the answer to a security question when logging onto a website or other service.

Two-step verification comes in a few commonly used forms:

  • Code sent via text message
  • Verification through an authenticator app
  • Use of a physical security key
  • Biometric log-in information

We'll go into more detail about each of these particular methods later, but for now, you just need to know that the purpose of these secondary login steps is to make it harder for hackers and other cybercriminals to access any of your accounts.

A sophisticated hacker may be able to obtain your primary login data (i.e. your username and password) through various means, such as gaining access to your password manager. Having two-step authentication in place means that hackers won't be able to crack your account without access to whatever means you use for that second step of authentication (e.g. your smartphone or a tangible security key).

Rather than requiring you to go through 2FA procedures every single time you log into an account, two-step verification most frequently comes into play when you log into your account on a different device. This could include opening an app on an unrecognized laptop or a new smartphone.

While no security protocol is foolproof, two-step verification is a relatively easy way to beef up your personal or professional cybersecurity in no time flat.

Text Message Code Authentication

The form of 2FA you'll typically see in use is authenticating a user's identity by sending a code to a phone number on file via SMS/text message. Users then enter the code they've just received in their text messages, which verifies that they are legitimate.

Some apps or sites may send the access code to an email address rather than a phone number, but otherwise, the principle is the same.

Either way, the code in question is usually about six digits or characters in length and can only be used for a single login. The code expires after a set amount of time, meaning that a user who fails to input the code will need to request another one.

Text message code authentication is a mixed bag from a cybersecurity standpoint. On the one hand, it's quite user-friendly because it's quick and easy both to set up and to use. On the other hand, text messages aren't encrypted, meaning that cybercriminals can either hack into phone networks to access your text messages or perform a SIM card swap attack to steal your phone number.

On a less sophisticated note, someone could also simply steal your physical phone and use it to receive any two-factor authentication codes sent to the device. Fraudsters who use social engineering may also try to contact you directly and scam you into giving them your two-step verification code.

While using a text message code is better than not using 2FA at all, there are certainly safer and more reliable options available.

Dedicated Authenticator App

A more secure two-step verification method is the use of an authentication application such as Microsoft Authenticator, Google Authenticator or Duo. The principle behind dedicated authenticator apps is the same as that of text message verification codes, except that your access code is sent directly to your app instead of via SMS. The app then sends a push notification to confirm or deny the log-in request.

The added protection comes from the fact that dedicated authentication apps use an encrypted connection, making it much more difficult for a hacker to steal your one-time access code before you have the chance to use it.

In addition, since it isn't connected to a phone number or email address, your code can't be stolen by a cyber-attacker who breaks into your email account or attempts a SIM card swap.

Other than the slightly increased complexity compared to text message code authentication, dedicated authenticator apps are a vastly superior way to enable two-step verification for your business or personal devices.

Using a Security Key

One of the strongest ways to bring two-step verification into your cyber-life is through the use of a physical security key. These devices look similar to USB sticks and can usually fit on a keyring.

The beauty of a security key is that it's easy to use (simply plug the key into your device or hold it nearby after inputting your password) yet contains a nearly unbreakable code that verifies your identity to the site or app you're trying to log into. Even if a hacker manages to crack your password, your online account will still be inaccessible without the security key’s credentials.

Some of the most popular security keys on the market include Google's Titan Security Key and Yubico's full line of Yubikeys.

The biggest drawback to a security key is that your key could get stolen or you could lose it, which would leave you locked out of your accounts. The other disadvantage is that not every site currently supports login through security keys, although major websites such as Microsoft and Facebook do.

Using Biometric Log-ins

Lastly, if you use your fingerprint, eye, or face to log into your smartphone or other devices, then you're already familiar with biometric security.

Enabling this type of two-step verification requires you to scan your face, fingerprint, or eye as the second part of the 2FA process, which is done through your phone or computer. There are relatively few drawbacks to this method from a security perspective.

However, from a usability standpoint, biometrics can sometimes be frustrating when seemingly minor issues prevent a device from recognizing its user. For example, a smartphone may not recognize a woman's face due to the amount of makeup she is wearing, or a man may struggle to use his fingerprint to authenticate his identity due to a recent burn on his fingertip.

As a warning, remember\ that your device does not keep a photo of your fingerprint or your face. It converts this into data; strings of 1’s and 0’s.  And any bit of data can be stolen!

How to Implement Two-Step Verification

If you own a business or want to start using 2FA for your private devices, we'd steer you away from using text message code verification for the reasons stated above. The other two-step verification tactics we've discussed are far more secure for preventing unauthorized access.

An authenticator app is a good way to get started. Many organizations have their employees download a dedicated app and use that whenever logging in, which is great when employees are working from home or on the road, as well as other circumstances where they may be using unfamiliar devices or unsecured cellular networks.

Security keys are also relatively inexpensive and could be issued to each employee for two-step verification. Finally, many devices already come with biometric log-in capabilities. If you need to add biometric log-in capability to a work computer, you might need to enlist some technical help.

Contact a Leading Cybersecurity Provider to Schedule a Consultation

Are you ready to roll out two-step verification to keep your business accounts and devices secure from hackers? Contact the cybersecurity experts at TechBldrs to learn about their full range of security assessment and prevention tools!

If you enjoyed this article, check out these other articles about Cybersecurity:
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