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Unlocking the Security Benefits of MFA

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Multi-factor authentication (MFA) has become one of the most widely used mechanisms to strengthen traditional, password-based authentication due to the many benefits stemming from proper MFA implementation

Chief among these benefits is enhanced security. Rather than relying solely on passwords to safeguard sensitive information, MFA utilizes at least two unique knowledge, possession, or inherence factors—something users know, have, or are—to authenticate identity and access.

MFA example
Fig: An example of a multi-factor authentication process

MFA has seen increases in adoption in recent years. In fact, some reports estimate a doubling in MFA use since 2020, despite some highly regulated industries and large organizations lagging behind. Nevertheless, given the benefits of MFA, it’s expected that these outliers will follow suit sooner rather than later if developers are given straightforward implementation options. 

Beyond the bolstered security, those who adopt MFA can tap into other benefits including enhanced accessibility, regulatory compliance, scalability, and user convenience. Let’s take a closer look at each of these advantages.

Enhanced security

First and foremost, MFA offers greater security assurance than traditional auth methods. This is because it provides an additional layer of security beyond passwords. 

Many MFA deployments use a password along with a secondary possession or inherence factor. This extra step of checking a second device or account, or providing a biometric fingerprint scan, reduces the risk of unauthorized access. Even if a user’s password has been guessed, cracked, or stolen, a would-be attacker will not be able to access their account and the sensitive data therein.

Fig: Common MFA factors
Fig: MFA factors

With enhanced security, MFA can prevent and mitigate harm from several kinds of cyber attacks, many of which target user credentials specifically. However, it is not itself completely immune to attacks. Many baseline MFA deployments remain susceptible to social engineering schemes. Utilizing a more targeted, phishing-resistant approach to MFA is the best way to maximize this benefit.

Streamlined compliance

MFA also helps organizations meet the security and privacy needs of regulatory frameworks.  Depending on the user base for your software project, there are many kinds of regulations you should be aware of throughout the development process. Some of the most common include:

  • Industry standards: These apply to organizations in and adjacent to industries with a prevalence of highly sensitive data like protected health information (PHI) under HIPAA.

  • Government regulations: These data privacy frameworks, like the European Union’s GDPR, protect residents of given areas and apply to software that collects their data.

  • Operations-based frameworks: Some frameworks apply on the basis of basic operational necessities; for example, if your app processes credit card data, the PCI DSS may apply.

In many cases, multiple overlapping frameworks will apply simultaneously.

And MFA is an explicit or de facto requirement in many regulatory frameworks. Failure to meet a given regulation’s requirements for MFA or access control more broadly can lead to direct financial and other penalties. For example, HIPAA non-compliance fines for 2023 range from $127 to $1,919,173 per violation, and criminal charges may be applied in the worst cases.

MFA is one of the best authentication methods for strengthening compliance enforcement for your software, its adopters, its end users, and all other stakeholders.

Remote accessibility

One benefit of MFA that came into sharp distinction in recent years is its aptitude to enable remote work. Organizations’ on-premise cybersecurity measures often cannot extend to employees’ home (or other) environments beyond the reach of firewalls and content filters. Access control, particularly MFA, is one of a few ways remote or cloud-based work can happen securely.

That means MFA is future-proof. Despite the uptick in organizations returning to hybrid or on-site work, many experts believe that some form of remote work is here to stay—or at least continue to play a much larger role than it had before the onset of COVID-19 in 2020. 

In fact, according to the Washington Post, about a third of Americans (34%) are working from home in 2023. This is down 8% from the peak of 42% in 2020 but still up 10% over the pre-pandemic baseline of 24% in 2018 and 2019.

Simply put, MFA allows workers and other end-users to access information securely from anywhere.

Scalability and adaptability

One under-appreciated aspect of MFA is that it is almost infinitely customizable. It can be tailored to fit specific organizational needs and risk profiles, with features such as step-up authentication added to account for differing sensitivity and risk profiles for different users.

Fig: An example of step-up authentication
Fig: An example of step-up authentication

MFA has the capacity to scale with organizational growth and evolving security requirements, including expanding regulatory needs or exposure to greater and more diverse cyber threats.

The flexibility of robust MFA protocols allows for greater security measures to be added over time to prevent such attacks without major changes to the login process or other elements of UX.

User convenience

Last but not least, one of the most easily recognizable benefits of MFA is the convenience it provides for the users of your app or website. Depending on the deployment you use, it can eliminate the need to remember another set of credentials to access accounts.

And this doesn’t just benefit users; if you opt for passwordless MFA, it also reduces the burden of password management for IT staff.

Of course, convenience does sometimes come at a cost. MFA deployments that are either too simple or too complicated can run the risk of MFA fatigue, which is both a condition and an attack that can lead to broken authentication. 

That’s why it’s important to balance user-friendly features against robust security measures. One way to do this is through risk-based authentication or adaptive authentication measures that take the user behavior into account before presenting an MFA flow. This means that returning legitimate users do not have to go through the MFA process every time, improving their experience. At the same time, risky or suspicious logins are always put through an MFA flow.

Drag-and-drop MFA with Descope

Throughout this article, we've explored the diverse merits of MFA, including heightened security, compliance adherence, remote work facilitation, scalability, and user convenience. When implemented thoughtfully, MFA can be the cornerstone of data protection and enhanced user experience.

Descope helps developers and IT teams easily add MFA to their apps using no-code workflows. Admins can pick from a wide variety of methods – both passwords and passwordless – and create risk-based MFA flows in a visual editor to ensure that MFA is only enforced for risky sessions.

Fig: Adding TOTP-based MFA with Descope Flows

Descope also integrates with specialized risk services such as Google reCAPTCHA Enterprise, Traceable, and Have I Been Pwned to ingest granular risk scores and create branching user journey paths based on the risk of the login attempt.

Sign up for a Descope Free Forever account to implement MFA for your project in minutes. Have questions about our platform? Book time with our auth experts to learn more.