Two-Factor Authentication Considerations

There was a recent article talking about how a very small percentage of google users actually use 2-factor authentication. You can read the full article at

Why 2-Factor

Two-factor authentication, or multi-factor authentication, is a valuable step in the process to protect accounts from unauthorized users. Traditionally, we have relied just on a username/password combination. That process had its own weaknesses that many applications have moved to improve. For example, many sites now require “complex” passwords. Of course, complex is up for debate. But we have seen the minimum password length go up and limitations on using known weak passwords go up. Each year we see lists of the most common passwords to not use, some being 123456 or Password. I hope no one is using these types of passwords. To be honest, I don’t know of any sites I use that would allow this type of password. So many these days require a mix of characters or special characters.

The above controls are meant to help reduce the risk of someone just guessing your password, there are other controls to help try to limit brute forcing techniques. Many accounts offer account lockout after X number of invalid attempts. There are other controls that we also see implemented around protecting the username/password logic. None of these controls help protect against a user reusing passwords on another site that may be compromised. They also do not protect against a user falling for a social engineering attack to trick them into sharing their passwords. To help combat this, many sites will implement a second factor beyond username/password.

The idea of the second factor is that even if you have the username and password, you will not have this other piece of information. In most cases, it is a value that changes every 60 seconds or so, and is delivered over a protected channel. For example, the token used may be sent via SMS, a voice call, or created through a phone application like the Google Authenticator application. So even if the attacker is able to get your password, via a breach, brute force, or just lucky guessing, in theory they would not have access to that second factor.

Why Are People Not Using It?

So why do people not enable the second factor on their Google accounts? Unfortunately, the presentation didn’t appear to explain that, which makes sense since it is difficult to know why people do or do not do certain things. I think there may be a few reasons for it that we will briefly touch on.

First, I think many people just are not aware of enabling the second factor. To be fair, it is sort of buried down in settings that may be difficult to find if you are not really looking for it. If it is not front and center, then there is a much smaller chance people will go seeking it out. To add to the issue, many people really don’t understand what 2-factor authentication means or how it really helps them. Sure, in security we get it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. How do we make it more prominent that this is a positive security feature? Many users will already be aware of 2-factor if they use online banking as most of those have started enforcing it.

Many people think that two factor authentication is a burden or it will slow their access down. This is usually not the case unless the application has implemented it poorly. Many sites will allow you to save your computer so you don’t need to enter the 2nd factor every time you access the site. However, it will require it if you access from a different computer.

To complicate things, other applications may not support signing in with 2 factors, like your email client. In these cases, you have to generate an app password which can be very confusing to many users, especially those that are not technically savvy.

There may be a chance that users don’t think they need to protect their email accounts, that it is not sensitive. If you just use email to communicate with friends and receive junk mail, what could be so bad, right? Most people forget that things like password resets are performed using an email account. Having control of an email account provides a lot of control over a lot of things. While it may seem small, email is an important function to protect.

If you are using Gmail, I recommend configuring 2-factor authentication. The following video walks through setting it up using SMS (Although there are other options as well):

Demo- Google 2 factor

If you are developing applications, I recommend looking into providing the option of 2-factor authentication. When you do this, make sure that you are promoting its use in a positive way. If you already have 2-factor with your application, can you run a report to determine what percentage of users are actually using it? If that number is low, what steps can you take to increase them?

Don’t assume that any application is not worthy of the extra security. Many applications are already providing 2-factor and that number will just increase. While we still have the password, we will always be looking for ways to add more protection. When implemented properly, it is simple for the end user, but effective in increasing security. If your user base is not taking advantage of the option, take the time to assess why that is and how it can be improved.

As I was writing this up, I ran into an interesting situation with 2-factor that sparked some more thoughts. When looking to support 2-factor authentication and not using SMS, take careful consideration to the applications you may choose to support. On the Apple App Store alone there are over 200 different authenticator apps available. Some are interchangeable while others are not. This can be another barrier in users choosing to enable 2-factor authentication.

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