Two-Step Authentication

There can be no doubt that data has value and like anything of value, it needs to be protected. At one time, it was considered the responsibility of users to secure their accounts with strong passwords, unique passwords that they did not share with others. Unfortunately, people are creatures of habit and convenience, which are generally considered the enemies of good security. After a number of high-profile hacks and security breaches that were engineered via stolen login credentials, it became clear that businesses were going to have to take the responsibility for security out of the hands of users. Today, there are a growing number of security protocols helping to secure data in spite of the laxity of most users. One of those protocols is two-step authentication. Here is an overview of two-step authentication, what it is, how it works and how it is different from two-factor authentication.

What is Two-Step Authentication?

Two-step authentication is a two-step process that helps to ensure that the individual attempting to access an account is actually authorized to do so. Authentication is different from authorization and is generally used for accounts that contain more valuable or high-level data. Entering a login ID and password authorizes a user to gain access to the account but it does not actually verify or authenticate their identity. For accounts that contain more sensitive data such as financial, medical or proprietary data, it is important to ensure that the person attempting to access an account is actually authorized to do so and not just using stolen credentials. Two-factor and two-step authentication are ways in which the actual digital identity of the user can be determined in order to validate their legitimate authorization to access an account.

What is the Difference Between Two-Factor and Two-Step Authentication?

Two-factor authentication uses two or three different factors to verify the digital identity of a user. These include something you know, something you have and something you are. Something you know could be your login ID and password, but it can also be personal information like the last 4-digits of your social security number or your home address. Something you have can be something like a credit or debit card, a key card or a specific device. Something you are is generally determined by some type of biometric scanning such as a fingerprint scanner, facial recognition software or a smartwatch that monitors and recognizes your unique heart signature.

While many users may not even be aware of it, almost any time they log in to a secure website these days, two-factor authentication is taking place but our devices simply make it a smooth, seamless process. When a user places their finger on a home button or holds their phone up to their face to use facial recognition software, their device performs a scan and compares it to data stored in the device. If the scan matches (something they are), the device automatically enters their login ID and password (something they know). The system they are attempting to log in to compares the login and password entered with those stored in the system as well as the unique identifier of the device they are using (something they have). If they match, the system grants them access.

Two-step authentication generally occurs when some element of two-factor authentication is not recognized. For instance, if a user tries to log in from a new device that is not recognized or they do not know their password, then the security system will initiate secondary protocols or two-step authentication.

How Does Two-Step Authentication Work?

Two-step authentication generally involves sending a code to a pre-entered cellular or email account, which the user then has to enter back into the system. Two-step authentication actually serves several purposes. First, it allows an authorized user to grant access to another user remotely. Secondly, however, is also notifies the primary user if an unauthorized user is attempting to gain access to their account. Lastly, it can protect the primary account holder if they use a device that is not theirs or that they are only using temporarily.

Many security systems will only save the identifier of one device. When a user logs in from a new device, it triggers the two-step authentication process. If the user then logs in again from their main device, it triggers the two-step authentication process all over again and only the new device information is stored. That essentially eradicates the old device so even if the login ID and password were somehow stored on the old device, it is still insufficient to grant someone access.

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