In the first part of our series, A Guide to Protecting and Monitoring Your Personal Cyber Security, we review the latest thinking and guidelines around using two-factor authentication (2FA) and passwords to protect your online identity.

Criminals want your identity credentials so they can steal from you or mask their identity when committing a crime. With the increasing scale and sophistication of attacks today, using just a password to access a service or website is not a good idea. Coupling 2FA with a password manager is a much better way to ensure identity safety.

What Is 2FA?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a method of identity confirmation that relies on a combination of two different factors. Examples of factors include 1) something you know, 2) something you have, or 3) something you are. Some examples of 2FA: using a debit card in combination with a PIN, or combining a password with a code sent to your phone.

2FA is one type of multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA can have two or more factors and, it stands to reason, if you are using all three factors from the list above, you have better online security. An example of MFA would be using a debit card, a PIN, and a retina scan.

Security Questions: A Bad MFA Method

Security questions are not a good example of multi-factor authentication. Yes, the answer counts as a second piece of data (it’s something that you know) but, increasingly, it’s something that is very easy to discover. The ‘sharing economy’ means your favorite color, the name of your high school, or your favorite sports team isn’t exactly secret any longer.

In addition, the sheer number of data breaches means that harvesting data from a social network may not even be necessary. A breach trends research report by F5 Labs concludes that “there have been so many breaches that attacker databases are enriched to the point where they can impersonate an individual and answer secret questions to get direct access to accounts without ever having to work through the impacted party.”

The report found that 3,360,563,907 secret question and answer records were compromised in the 338 analyzed cases that included breach counts.

Which 2FA Method Should I Use?

So, given that security questions aren’t a good approach, how should you implement 2FA? There are basically three widely-implemented 2FA methods: hardware token, app, and SMS text message.

Today, pairing something you know (like a password) with a hardware token (something you have) offers the most security. At login, you insert the hardware token and it emits a one-time password or generates a secure public/private key pair to give you access. YubiKey is one such token that works with Google, Facebook, Windows, Dropbox, and many more services.

Authenticator apps such as Authy, Google Authenticator, and Microsoft Authenticator are dedicated apps typically installed on your phone. You then use your name and password combination, and the app provides an additional one-time password. As with hardware tokens, these options typically work with a huge selection of popular services.

The least-secure 2FA method today is one that pairs your login credentials with a code sent via SMS as the second factor. This method is much less secure than the other two because text messages can be hijacked.

Where – and How – Do I Use 2FA?

Once you’ve researched the various hardware token and authenticator app vendors and selected a few finalists, visit the vendor websites to see the list of services their product supports. This will likely help you narrow down your list of finalists.

Once you’ve selected your vendor, chances are that the vendor’s website will provide detailed tutorials on enabling 2FA using their product and your favorite service. Alternately, Turn It On provides many tutorials as well.

Finally, if your favorite service isn’t yet 2FA-ready, twofactorauth.org provides a robust list of services and the types of 2FA each supports. They even make it easy to reach out via Twitter or Facebook to services that don’t support 2FA so you can urge them to support 2FA.

Passwords and Password Managers

In a recent post, we talked about the latest thinking on how to create strong passwords. The important highlights:

  • The length of the password is important.
  • Regularly changing passwords or creating complex passwords is not recommended.

Also not recommended: documenting your password on a sticky note attached to your monitor.

However, you can do away with much of the worry about passwords simply by investing in a password manager. Password managers do the work of generating and storing strong passwords for the sites you use – across mobile devices and desktop systems. These apps use advanced encryption to keep your information safe.

PC Magazine, Lifehacker, and The Wire Cutter have recent reviews and ratings on password managers.

Combining 2FA and a Password Manager

To strengthen your online protection, pair 2FA with a password manager. By using 2FA to log into your password manager, you get additional security to protect your password list. So, for example, you would use your authenticator app to log into your password manager, and then use the authenticator app again to complete the login to your online service.

Recent articles have cautioned against using 2FA built into the password manager itself. In one case, an implementation flaw was identified. Another article warns of putting many eggs into one basket. Instead, considering implementing both a 2FA method and a password manager.

There’s no such as perfect security. But using 2FA and a password manager will go a long way to protecting your online identity.

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