During the past few years the passwords used to be considered the only credential factor needed to confirm the identity of a person accessing an account. But nowadays the situation is quite different. As cybercriminals get more sophisticated, so do people that want to highly protect their data. And single-factor authentication may not be enough to confirm a person’s identity.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) are indispensable components of the cybersecurity ecosystem. Although one might come to think that the two are synonyms, 2FA and MFA are not entirely the same. Let’s clear up the difference between two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication, as well as questions such as is MFA better than 2FA.

What are the different types of authentication?

Correct login credentials are only one factor in protecting your data. There needs to be another layer of credentials to keep your information secure, that’s why there are three different types of authentication:

  • Knowledge: The person confirms their identity by answering questions only they know. This can include passwords or answers to security questions. It is the most common factor within single-factor authentication, but is also present within 2FA and MFA. Due to being one of the first forms of authentication, a password in today’s cybersecurity environment presents one of the weakest security links.
  • Possession: This type of authentication factor refers to something a user has in his possession, a device or an object that will provide additional information needed for verification. We mostly see this factor in action with one-time passwords sent as an SMS to your mobile device, security token, software token, card verification value on a credit card (CVV), etc.
  • Inherence: The inherence authentication factor relies on biometric authentication based on the user’s unique traits. Biometric authentication typically includes either fingerprint or face recognition, as well as location behavior. Since biometrics are hard to spoof, inherence is considered to be the most secure authentication factor of the three. Biometrics are among the favorites in terms of two-factor and multi-factor authentication.

For a fully secure account, it’s best practice to have two or more types of credentials to ensure only authorized access is maintained. This can fall into two categories: two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA).

What is the main difference between two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication?

The main difference between two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) lies in the number of required authentication factors. Two-factor authentication demands exactly two authentication factors to be presented during the authentication process. Multi-factor authentication requires the user to submit two or more authentication factors. Based on the definitions mentioned earlier, we can now say that 2FA is a subset of MFA.

Is MFA more secure than 2FA?

The most correct answer is – it depends. Some would say that the answer is obvious, but for the sake of providing you with the full information, let’s elaborate on this one. Every MFA, which includes 2FA as well, is only as secure as the authentication methods used in a particular scenario. Let’s put it this way; if you combine three authentication methods such as a PIN (knowledge), OTP (possession), and fingerprint (inherence), you are better off than with a single password. The mentioned MFA approach also beats 2FA which includes, let’s say, OTP and Face ID. However, in some cases, two-factor authentication beats multi-factor authentication.

Both 2FA and MFA add enhanced security measures beyond username and password credentials, and they each provide different levels of assurance that the person accessing the account is legitimate. So, is MFA more secure than 2FA? In general, any 2FA or MFA is more secure than single-factor authentication. However, the security added by any MFA strategy is as strong as the authentication methods chosen by risk professionals.

  • Security

Even though it can be easy for an attacker to perform a brute force attack for less complex passwords, having to deal with SMS message authentication makes it that much more complicated  for the attacker to gain access to your account. Still, as we’ve seen already, phone authentication and phone numbers as identifiers are not that secure.

This is why adding a third authentication factor, such as biometrics (which are much more difficult to hack), will add an additional level of protection to your sensitive information. Following this line of reasoning, we would deduce that MFA is superior to 2FA, but there’s one more aspect we must consider when talking about their differences.

  • The Advantages of Multi-Factor Authentication

Because of how connected applications and devices are to an organization’s network, implementing MFA is a best practice, whether that means two or more steps of verification or two or more distinct authentication factors.

Below are some of the top benefits that MFA provides to protect access to your systems:

  • Protects Against Negligence: It can be tricky to remember passwords, especially if they are complex. Many users create passwords that are short and easy to remember, giving cybercriminals a clear route to stealing credentials through brute force attacks or harvesting techniques. MFA provides another layer of security if employee passwords are compromised.
  • Prevents Unauthorized Access: Since it requires an additional step or factor to gain access to your network system or software application, MFA helps keep criminals out. More often than not, cybercriminals don’t have the knowledge or possessions needed to satisfy the additional requirements, even if they have the primary credentials.
  • Allows Geographic Flexibility: Many MFA solutions – such as knowledge-based factors or possessions like a phone, a hardware token, or an authentication app – do not require users to be on-site to complete their login. So, MFA is manageable from any location.
  • Ensures Industry Compliance: MFA is one of the most frequent regulatory compliance requirements for customers and employees. These include PCI Data Security Standards, GDPR and other industry regulations.

Multi-factor authentication is definitely the more secure authentication method, providing that it has two or more authentication factors, making it harder for attackers to bypass the additional layers of security. But while MFA is the more secure option, 2FA is easier to use for a larger number of users, as well as more cost-effective to implement for both users and organizations.

Above all, choosing an authentication method is completely up to you. Having that in mind, we strongly emphasize the importance of using any type of MFA on your email, your domain contact email to avoid domain theft, your domain name registrar, and all your online accounts.