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Key Differences Between Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication are often used interchangeably; however, that’s not the case. Both authentication methods aim to strengthen security protocols and fortify security, but they differ. With this blog, let’s understand more about MFA security and 2FA vs MFA debate.


All types of businesses, whether well-established enterprises or budding start-ups aiming to set their foundation in the industry, all are at risk of cybercrime or threat. As per Trends, hackers attack around 40% of small businesses, and the average cost of a global data breach is around USD 4.45 million, which marks a 15% rise over three years.

As per IBM’s Cost of Data Breach Report 2023, around 51% of businesses are planning to invest heavily in strengthening the security of their IT infrastructure. Secure authentication is one of the crucial aspects of protecting your assets and data by preventing unauthorized access. Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) are pivotal tools to fortify access tools; however, which one is the best?

Let’s understand the difference between two-factor and multi-factor authentication and find out which is a safer and more secure option.

Introduction to Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Long gone are the times when businesses used only traditional passwords to grant access to their users to their services and applications. The modern world requires robust and more resilient data security solutions to reduce the risk of cyber crimes and data breaches. That’s why businesses are focusing on implementing multiple layers of authentication to verify the identity of an individual.

Implementing multiple layers of authentication or a multi-step login process is multi-factor authentication. In MFA security, the users have to complete more than two types of digital verification rounds to gain access to the accounts or information.

However, on the other hand, two-factor authentication is a specified type of MFA where there will be only rounds of digital identity verification. In 2FA, there will be an additional layer of security checks above the same old traditional password-based authentication method.

MFA and 2FA methods protect against phishing, social engineering, and password brute-force attacks, and avoid hacking the account due to poor or weak passwords. Two-factor authentication is a subset of multi-factor authentication, but while discussing 2FA vs MFA, it becomes essential to understand how MFA strengthens security.

Exploring Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication comprises different methods or factors to verify the identities and authenticate the access. The MFA security methods are broadly classified into four categories:

  1. Knowledge-based - Knowledge-based authentication is when the user knows about something. For example, asking a secret security question whose answer only the user knows.
  2. Possession-based - Possession-based authentication is when the system verifies the identity of the user's device. For example, asking the user to enter a time-based code sent to their respective email or phone number.
  3. Inherence-based - Inherence-based authentication is the process of verifying a person's identity through unique biological qualities or characteristics they possess, like fingerprints or facial features.
  4. Location-based - Location-based authentication is a crucial part of ensuring safety in a zero-trust environment. The user’s physical location is taken into consideration to grant access, as some apps and services will require the users to be in a particular location to access the information.

Based on the combination of the above methods, it is easy to implement two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication.

However, when it comes to two-step verification vs two-factor authentication, there is a fine line between these two methods. Any two factors can be used in two-factor authentication to verify identities. In two-step verification (2SV) authentication, there should be two sequential steps using authentication factors. For example, Google uses 2SV, where the users have to enter the credentials and then enter an additional time-based code.


Considerations for Choosing Between 2FA and MFA

Both two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication approaches aim to provide advanced security. So, 2FA and MFA are both better than single-factor authentication. However, when it comes specifically choosing between 2FA and MFA security, then here are three considerations to consider:

1. MFA is only secure as the authentication factors are chosen.

The multi-layered approach adds security; however, if businesses combine weak authentication methods, then overall, the strategy’s security remains low. For example, authentication relying on passwords, OTPs, and biometrics is more secure than using passwords, but both passwords and OTPs are weak in security.

2. 2FA can be more secure than implementing three authentication factors.

On the other hand, if businesses utilize only two powerful authentication methods, like biometrics or push notification, then a 2FA is deemed to be more secure than an MFA security with three different authentication factors.

3. Sometimes, more authentication steps can frustrate users.

More authentication steps highlight more security, but sometimes, it creates friction in the user journey. Complex authentication methods will stop the bad attackers from infiltrating; however, if the users have to face high friction to access their accounts, they might switch over to other platforms.

Users hate friction, but safety is also necessary. In such cases, recognition signals on mobile are one of the authentication methods that offer high security with the lowest friction. Businesses can prevent mishaps from happening by detecting anomalies in user and device behavior, like location behavior, which is unusual for the user.

Wrapping up,

To simplify the two-factor authentication vs multi-factor authentication debate, 2FA requires two types of authentication factors; however, MFA requires at least two authentication factors, if not more types of authentication. All 2FA are types of MFA, but not all types of MFA will be 2FA.

So, when it comes to choosing which one is better, well, it depends upon the use case. 2FA is a better option if businesses want to ensure a frictionless and secure user journey and experience. However, MFA is a secure solution, and it can be implemented for a seamless user journey, but it should rely on the highest security standards and lowest friction methods possible.


Navanita Devi

Written by Navanita Devi

A content creator both by choice and profession with 7+ years of experience. A copy editor, SaaS-enthusiast, quick learner, adaptable, and a good researcher. When not at work, you will probably find her curled up in literature with happy endings!

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