Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Some thoughts on two-factor authentication

As defined by Wikipedia:
Two-factor authentication is an approach to authentication which requires the presentation of two or more of the three authentication factors: a knowledge factor ("something the user knows"), a possession factor ("something the user has"), and an inherence factor ("something the user is").
An example of two-factor authentication is the option in Google to require a key delivered via SMS to the user's phone, in addition to the account password, in order to log in to your Google account. In this case the password is "something the user knows" and the phone is "something the user has".

The security industry considers two-factor authentication to be much more secure than a single factor authentication. But when you think about it you've got to ask: why? If the effort required by a hacker to break one authentication method is X and the effort required to break the second is Y, then the effort required to break both will be X+Y, which is at most double the effort required to break the stronger of the two authentication methods. In the world of security a system is considered significantly more secure only if it adds an order of magnitude to the required effort to break - double effort isn't really significant  So why is two-factor authentication considered much stronger than single factor authentication?

The answer lies in the fact that most hacking is opportunistic and not specific. In most cases the hackers don't develop an attack vector to break a specific system - they utilize existing, previously developed, attack vectors and adapt them to the specific system.

Therefore when asking how secure a system is the question isn't how much effort would it take to develop attack vectors to break a system, but what are the chances that such vectors have been developed. In the case of two-factor authentication, if the chances that an attack vector exists against the first factor is 1 in X and for the second factor it's 1 in Y then (assuming the chances are unrelated) the chances that vectors exist to break both are 1 in X*Y. The security of a system protected via two-factor authentication is thus the product of each of the security provided by each of the two factors and not the sum.

But this is not always the case.

If there is a relation between the chance of an attack vector breaking one authentication factor and the chance of a vector breaking the other then two factor authentication no longer multiplies the level of security. Sometimes a single attack vector will cover both authentication factors, in which case for that specific vector having two authentication factors don't really add anything. For example, if the two factors are a password and the device you're using then someone running malware on your device can overcome both factors.

Due to the above for two-factor authentication to be efficient the two factors must be as technologically distinct as possible. The hacking techniques used to overcome each of the factors must not coincide and should be from distinct realms of expertise.

Likewise two-factor authentication isn't really strong against well funded Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attacks. Such attacks aren't opportunistic - they are targeted against a specific system and will do whatever it takes to compromise that system. For such attacks two-factor authentication does increase the effort required for the attacker to break the system, but at most by a factor of two.


  1. I use Two-Factor Authentication across a lot of my accounts. I feel a lot more secure when I can telesign into my account with an OTP. I am glad that is offered as an option for many sites, but not enough. It is worth the time and effort to have the confidence that your account won't get hacked and your personal information isn't up for grabs. It would be nice to see more of the leading companies in their respective verticals start giving their users the perfect balance between security and user experience. I know some will claim that 2FA makes things more complicated, but the slight inconvenience each time you log in is worth the confidence of knowing your info is secure. I'm hoping that more companies start to offer this awesome functionality. To me this should be a prerequisite to any system that wants to promote itself as being secure.

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