5 things you should know about two-factor authentication

Here are the basics to help you stay secure online

One of the best pieces of security advice any computer expert can give you is to enable two-factor authentication for websites that support it. With password breaches so common nowadays, it could be the one thing that keeps hackers from stealing your identity online. Here are five points to help you understand this technology.

Two-factor authentication or two-step verification?

A lot of people think they're the same thing, but that's not really accurate.

There are three types of authentication factors: something you know, such as a password or PIN; something you have, such as a mobile phone or a special USB key; and something you are, such as your fingerprint or other biometric identifier.

While two-factor authentication combines two different factors, two-step verification uses the same factor twice, for example a password and a one-time-code sent via email or SMS.

You might think a code sent to a phone qualifies as a second factor, since the phone is something you physically have, but SMS is insecure and the code can be intercepted. From a security risk perspective, that makes it similar to a password.

While two-factor authentication is more secure than two-step verification, both are better than relying on a single password. So regardless of which one is on offer, take advantage of it.

One account that rules them all

If there's one online account that's worth protecting above all others, it's your email. That's not just because it contains your private conversations, but because it serves as a gateway to your other accounts.

Most online services ask users to sign up with email, and rely on that to reset passwords and send important communications. An attacker with access to your email can search for old registration emails and find out where you have accounts online. He can then reset passwords and communicate with technical support staff at those websites.

Start your adoption of two-factor or two-step authentication by turning it on for your email. All the large email providers including Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook offer this.

I did that, now what?

If you're using a password manager, make that your next priority. The most popular password managers have a two-factor authentication option.

Then enable it at other sites. Many popular services support two-factor authentication, including Facebook, Twitter, Apple ID, iCloud, Amazon, PayPal, LinkedIn, Snapchat and WordPress.com. Mobile identity provider TeleSign has set up a website at www.turnon2fa.com with detailed tutorials for enabling two-factor authentication at many of those services.

To trust or not to trust

Most websites that support two-factor authentication allow users to mark devices as trusted when they authenticate for the first time using both factors. This essentially disables two-factor authentication for those trusted devices, and allows the user to authenticate with only their password in future.

This is good for usability, but it's not great for security. If you turn off two-factor authentication for a trusted device, you can make it easier for hackers to access your accounts, so you should be aware there is a trade-off.

Read more: 'Businesses must work harder to be seen as digitally trustworthy in the eyes of their customers'

There's also the fact that if you lose your phone or computer, you can't be certain that the thief won't find some way to unlock it.

Fortunately, most websites give users the option to remove any of their previously trusted devices in case they are lost or compromised, so keep that in mind.

Do I risk locking myself out?

In most cases, your phone will be central to your two-factor authentication experience. It will be used either to receive codes by SMS or to generate them using special apps like Google Authenticator. But phones are easily lost, stolen or broken.

The good news is that most online services have contingency plans for those scenarios. Some companies allow users to specify a backup phone number that can be used for account recovery. Others provide backup codes when turning on two-factor authentication that can be printed on paper and kept in a safe place.

If these options fail, you will most likely have to call or email the company's technical support department and prove the account is yours, for example by providing information about the account that only you would know. Either way, getting completely locked out of an account is extremely rare.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags securitytwo factor authentication

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?