Before You Turn On Two-Factor Authentication

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Many online accounts allow you to supplement your password with a second form of identification, which can prevent some prevalent attacks. The second factors you can use to identify yourself include authenticator apps on your phone, which generate codes that change every 30 seconds, and security keys, small pieces of hardware similar in size and shape to USB drives. Since innovations that can actually improve the security of your online accounts are rare, there has been a great deal of well-deserved enthusiasm for two-factor authentication (as well as for password managers, which make it easy to use a different random password for every one of your online accounts.) These are technologies more people should be using.

However, in trying to persuade users to adopt second factors, advocates sometimes forget to disclose that all security measures have trade-offs . As second factors reduce the risk of some attacks, they also introduce new risks. One risk is that you could be locked out of your account when you lose your second factor, which may be when you need it the most. Another is that if you expect second factors to protect you from those attacks that they can not prevent, you may become more vulnerable to the those attacks.

Before you require a second factor to login to your accounts, you should understand the risks, have a recovery plan for when you lose your second factor(s), and know the tricks attackers may use to defeat two-factor authentication.

A well-examined exploration of some of the risks of employing two-factor authentication in your everyday life. I maintain that it’s still highly-worthwhile and everybody should do so, but it’s important that you know what you need to do in the event that you can’t access your two-factor device (and, ideally, have a backup solution in place): personally, I prefer TOTP (i.e. app-based) 2FA and I share my generation keys between my mobile device, my password safe (I’ll write a blog post about why this is controversial but why I think it’s a good idea anyway!), and in a console application I wrote (because selfdogfooding etc.).

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