What exactly is multi-factor authentication (MFA) and how does it work?

Multi-factor authentication (often known as MFA for short), refers to the process of confirming the identity of a user who is attempting to log in to a website, application, or another type of resource using more than one piece of information. Indeed, multi-factor authentication is the difference between entering a password to gain access to a resource and entering a password plus a one-time password (OTP), or a password plus the answer to a security question. Another example of multi-factor authentication is entering a password plus the answer to a security question.

Multi-factor authentication provides greater assurance that individuals are who they claim to be by requiring them to confirm their identity in more than one way. This, in turn, reduces the risk of unauthorised access to sensitive data. Multi-factor authentication requires individuals to confirm their identity in more than one way. After all, entering a stolen password to get access is one thing; it is quite another to enter a stolen password and then be needed to additionally input an OTP that was sent to the smartphone of the real user.

Multi-factor authentication can be achieved through the use of any combination of two or more factors. Two-factor authentication is another name for the practice of using only two factors to verify a user's identity.

How Does MFA work?

MFA is effective because it necessitates the collection of extra verification information (factors). One-time passwords are one of the multi-factor authentication mechanisms that consumers encounter most frequently (OTP). OTPs are the four-digit to eight-digit codes that you frequently receive through email, SMS, or a mobile application of some kind. When using OTPs, a fresh code will be created at predetermined intervals or whenever an authentication request is sent in. The code is created based on a seed value that is assigned to the user when they first register and some other component, which might simply be a counter that is incremented or a time value. This seed value is used in conjunction with some other factor to generate the code.

The three categories of multi-factor authentication methods

Generally speaking, a technique of multi-factor authentication will fall into one of these three categories:

•  Something you are familiar with: a PIN, password, or the solution to a security question

•  Something you own: an OTP, a token, a trusted device, a smart card, or a badge

•  Something you are, such as your face, fingerprint, retinal scan, or other biometric information

Methods of multi-factor authentication

In order to accomplish multi-factor authentication, you will need to utilise at least one of the following methods in addition to a password.


A method of verification that depends on a piece of hardware or software being able to recognize biometric data, such as a person's fingerprint, facial characteristics, or the retina or iris of their eye.

Push to approve

A notice is shown on someone's smartphone that prompts the user to tap their screen in order to accept or deny a request for access to their device.

One-time password (OTP)

A collection of characters that are created automatically and are used to authenticate a user for a single login session or transaction only.


A method for sending a One-Time Password (OTP) to the user's smartphone or other devices.

Hardware token

A compact, portable OTP-generating device that is sometimes referred to as a key fob.

Software token

A token that does not exist in the form of a physical token but rather as a software program that can be downloaded onto a smartphone or other device.

The advantages of multi-factor authentication

Enhancing the level of safety

Authentication that takes into account many factors is more secure. After all, when there is only one mechanism defending a point of access, such as a password, all a malicious actor needs to do to get admission is figure out a means to guess or steal that password. This is the only thing that needs to be done in order to acquire access. However, if admittance additionally needs a second (or perhaps a second and a third) element of authentication, then it becomes far more difficult to obtain access, particularly if the requirement is for something that is more difficult to guess or steal, such as a biometric characteristic.

Providing support for various digital initiatives

Multi-factor authentication is a key enabler in today's business world, where more companies are keen to deploy remote workforces, more customers want to purchase online rather than in shops, and more companies are migrating apps and other resources to the cloud. In this day and age, it can be difficult to ensure the safety of organisational and e-commerce resources. Multi-factor authentication can be an extremely useful tool for assisting in the protection of online interactions and financial transactions.

Are there any disadvantages to multi-factor authentication?

It is feasible to establish a less easy-to-access environment while building a more secure one — and this might be a disadvantage (this is especially true as zero trust, which sees everything as a possible threat, including the network and any apps or services running on it, gains acceptance as a safe access basis). No employee wants to spend additional time each day dealing with several impediments to getting on and accessing resources, and no consumer wants to be slowed down by multiple authentication procedures. The objective is to strike a balance between security and convenience so that access is secure but not so onerous that it causes excessive hardship for those who legitimately require it.

The role of risk-based authentication in multi-factor authentication

One technique to achieve a balance between security and convenience is to increase or decrease authentication requirements based on the risk associated with an access request. This is what risk-based authentication entails. The risk might be associated with either what is being accessed or who is requesting access.

The risk presented by what is accessed

For example, if someone seeks digital access to a bank account, is it to initiate a money transfer or simply to verify the status of an existing transfer? Or, if someone interacts with an online shopping website or app, is it to place an order or to monitor the progress of an existing purchase? For the latter, a username and password may be sufficient, but multi-factor authentication makes sense when a high-value item is at stake.

The risk is presented by the person requesting access

When a remote employee or contractor seeks access to the corporate network from the same city, on the same laptop, day after day, there's little reason to assume it's not that person. But what happens when a request from Mary in Minneapolis arrives from Moscow unexpectedly one morning? A request for extra authentication is warranted due to the possible danger – is it really her?

The future of Multi-Factor Authentication: AI, Machine Learning and more

Multi-factor authentication is always improving to provide enterprises with access that is both more secure and less unpleasant for individuals. Biometrics is an excellent example of this concept. It's more secure, since stealing a fingerprint or a face is difficult, and it's more convenient because the user doesn't have to remember anything (such as a password) or make any other substantial effort. The following are some of the current advancements in multi-factor authentication.

Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI)

AI and ML may be used to identify characteristics that indicate if a particular access request is "normal" and as such, does not require extra authentication (or, conversely, to recognize anomalous behaviour that does warrant it).

Online Quick Identity (FIDO)

The FIDO Alliance's free and open standards serve as the foundation for FIDO authentication. It facilitates the replacement of password logins with safe and quick login experiences across websites and applications.

Authentication without a password

Rather than utilising a password as the primary means of identity verification and complementing it with alternative non-password methods, passwordless authentication does away with passwords entirely.

Be certain that multi-factor authentication will continue to evolve and develop in the pursuit of methods for individuals to show they are who they say they are — reliably and without having to jump through an endless number of hoops.