Multifactor authentication (MFA) is a security system that requires more than one method of authentication from independent categories of credentials to verify the user’s identity for a login or other transaction.
Multifactor authentication combines two or more independent credentials: what the user knows (password), what the user has (security token) and what the user is (biometric verification). The goal of MFA is to create a layered defense and make it more difficult for an unauthorized person to access a target such as a physical location, computing device, network or database. If one factor is compromised or broken, the attacker still has at least one more barrier to breach before successfully breaking into the target.
Typical MFA scenarios include:
- Swiping a card and entering a PIN.
- Logging into a website and being requested to enter an additional one-time password (OTP) that the website’s authentication server sends to the requester’s phone or email address.
- Downloading a VPN client with a valid digital certificate and logging into the VPN before being granted access to a network.
- Swiping a card, scanning a fingerprint and answering a security question.
- Attaching a USB hardware token to a desktop that generates a one-time passcode and using the one-time passcode to log into a VPN client.
One of the largest problems with traditional user ID and password login is the need to maintain a password database. Whether encrypted or not, if the database is captured it provides an attacker with a source to verify his guesses at speeds limited only by his hardware resources. Given enough time, a captured password database will fall.
As processing speeds of CPUs have increased, brute force attacks have become a real threat. Further developments like GPGPU password cracking and rainbow tables have provided similar advantages for attackers. GPGPU cracking, for example, can produce more than 500,000,000 passwords per second, even on lower end gaming hardware. Depending on the particular software, rainbow tables can be used to crack 14-character alphanumeric passwords in about 160 seconds. Now purpose-built FPGA cards, like those used by security agencies, offer ten times that performance at a minuscule fraction of GPU power draw. A password database alone doesn’t stand a chance against such methods when it is a real target of interest.
In the past, MFA systems typically relied upon two-factor authentication. Increasingly, vendors are using the label “multifactor” to describe any authentication scheme that requires more than one identity credential.
An authentication factor is a category of credential used for identity verification. For MFA, each additional factor is intended to increase the assurance that an entity involved in some kind of communication or requesting access to some system is who, or what, they are declared to be. The three most common categories are often described as something you know (the knowledge factor), something you have (the possession factor) and something you are (the inherence factor).
Multifactor authentication technologies:
Security tokens: Small hardware devices that the owner carries to authorize access to a network service. The device may be in the form of a smart card or may be embedded in an easily-carried object such as a key fob or USB drive. Hardware tokens provide the possession factor for multifactor authentication. Software-based tokens are becoming more common than hardware devices.
Soft tokens: Software-based security token applications that generate a single-use login PIN. Soft tokens are often used for multifactor mobile authentication, in which the device itself – such as a smartphone – provides the possession factor.
GPS smartphones can also provide location as an authentication factor with this on board hardware.
Employee ID and customer cards, including magnetic strip and smartcards.
The past, present and future of multifactor authentication
In India, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) mandated the use of multi-factor authentication for all payment networks. It required them to send an OTP or use a 3D PIN as the second part of the authentication process for any payment, which the customer would receive via SMS. The customer would receive an SMS of a generated PIN which they had to enter on the portal. However, following demonetization in November 2016, RBI received requests from various stakeholders to relax the two-step authentication process so that people could carry out digital transactions with more ease. In response to this, on 6 December 2016, RBI issued a notice relaxing the norms and saying that transactions below ₹2,000 would not require an OTP.