What is Two-Step Verification? (2FA, TFA, 2SV, MFA)

Introduction

Protecting your online services and identity on the internet is becoming increasingly important in our modern world. In many ways, the various services and devices we use are simply extensions of ourselves.

Keeping your accounts safe is tricky, though. Computers aren't all that smart, and require you tell them who you are. Then, they challenge you to prove it.

When it comes to your digital accounts, adding an extra layer of security, in the form of extra challenges that are more difficult or specific to you, makes it easier for the various services to know, with confidence, that you and only you could be accessing your account.

This guide will give you the basics on what multi-factor authentication is, what two-step verification is, and generally how to set it up for common services you may use.

Multi-Factor Authentication.

1 Understanding Single-Factor Authentication

To understand Two-Factor Authentication, it's best to understand how a computer handles authentication in the first place, using just your password.

Single-Factor Authentication

Remember, for the most part, your computer is blind and deaf when it comes to passwords; it can't see you (and even if it could, it doesn't understand faces like people do), and it can't hear your voice (nor really recognize it as yours like humans do).

Apple ID Username Prompt.

The first thing your computer or online account does is ask who you are. This is your Username, or Email address. This is usually considered, by the computer, 'common knowledge'. In other words, it is shown to you directly, and the computer assumes other people will know your username. In many cases, this is your Email address anyway, and that's how other people reach you!

Google User and Password Prompt.

Now, the computer knows what account to look under. So it asks you to prove that you are that person. It asks for your password.

macOS Password Prompt.

Think of it a bit like a lock and key. Your account has a lock on it, when you put in your password, it's just like putting in the key and unlocking everything that's in your account.

But, there's the problem: Keys. Keys can be easily copied if they're digital; and in the case of your password, it's just text. Plus, people can eavesdrop over your shoulder to see your password, they can guess it from knowing a little bit about you, or they can get your password from another compromised account.

Just like in the real world; a lock and key system will keep honest people out. Dishonest people, though, have little-to-no qualms about bypassing a lock entirely, or stealing a key. Given that your online accounts are, by their very nature, exposed and made available to billions of people online, it's safe to assume a few of them are dishonest.

When it comes to your most important online accounts, a lock and key may not be enough. This is where Multi-Factor Authentication comes in.

2 Understanding Two-Factor Authentication

For your most important digital accounts, you want more than lock and key security. You'd rather have a security guard, or bouncer, checking everyone's ID as they come in and making sure they're who they say they are.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-Factor Authentication provides an extra layer of security. Instead of a simple password, your computer or online service knows about a couple different things and can verify that the person who signs in is, in fact, you.

In Single-Factor Authentication, there's only the username and password. Everyone knows what your username is, so the only piece of 'secret' information is the password. In two-factor authentication, there's a second step, usually verification through another type of communication, to make sure you are the one using that password.

Example

  1. When logging into a Google account, the first thing asked for is your username. This is so the computer knows who is trying to sign in.
    Google User and Password Prompt.
  2. Next, it will ask for your password.
    Google Password Prompt.
  3. When Two-Factor Authentication is turned on, it double-checks that attempt to log on.

    On Your Computer

    Your computer displays a notice, telling you an extra verification is on your phone.
    Google 2-Step Verification example.

    On Your Smartphone

    Your phone asks if you recognize and allow the login to continue.
    Phone prompt for Two-Step Verification.

  4. Finally, you are allowed to sign on and use your Google Account.

Multi-Factor Authentication, in this case Two-Step Verification, provides an extra check at the door. In this case, anyone who wanted access to your account would need to know your username (easy), your password (hard), and have possession of your unlocked smartphone (very, very difficult).

Keep in mind that this is just one example of how Two-Factor Authentication works with one service. Many different online accounts offer Two-Factor authentication, and their process for authentication may vary. Most services will make it very clear what the login requirements will be upon enabling Two-Factor authentication to prepare you for future login attempts.

3 Password management best practices

Before continuing, it's best to mention immediately that Multi-Factor Authentication does not make a weak password strong. The best practice is still using complex and hard-to-guess passwords.

Always keep the following password management best practices in mind:

  • Longer is better.
  • More complex is better.
  • Do not only use readily available or easily guessable information, such as your phone number, address or birthday.
  • Include numbers, uppercase letters and special characters.
  • Change your passwords frequently. This is why most companies and some services will prompt you to change your password after a certain amount of time.
  • Do not use the same password on multiple accounts.
  • Never enter your password when someone is within viewing distance or viewable angle of your screen. This is especially important to keep in mind when on planes, trains, buses or anything else with rows of seats.
  • Never check the box to show the password when logging into a site or service. You are better off missing a potential typo than exposing your password.
  • Never give anyone else your password.

? Would you like an overview of enabling Two-Factor Authentication?

  1. Yes, for my Apple ID
  2. Yes, on my Google Account
  3. No, not at this time

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Protecting your online services and identity on the internet is becoming increasingly important in our modern world. In many ways, the various services and devices we use are simply extensions of ourselves.

Keeping your accounts safe is tricky, though. Computers aren't all that smart, and require you tell them who you are. Then, they challenge you to prove it.

When it comes to your digital accounts, adding an extra layer of security, in the form of extra challenges that are more difficult or specific to you, makes it easier for the various services to know, with confidence, that you and only you could be accessing your account.

This guide will give you the basics on what multi-factor authentication is, what two-step verification is, and generally how to set it up for common services you may use.

Multi-Factor Authentication.

To understand Two-Factor Authentication, it's best to understand how a computer handles authentication in the first place, using just your password.

Single-Factor Authentication

Remember, for the most part, your computer is blind and deaf when it comes to passwords; it can't see you (and even if it could, it doesn't understand faces like people do), and it can't hear your voice (nor really recognize it as yours like humans do).

Apple ID Username Prompt.

The first thing your computer or online account does is ask who you are. This is your Username, or Email address. This is usually considered, by the computer, 'common knowledge'. In other words, it is shown to you directly, and the computer assumes other people will know your username. In many cases, this is your Email address anyway, and that's how other people reach you!

Google User and Password Prompt.

Now, the computer knows what account to look under. So it asks you to prove that you are that person. It asks for your password.

macOS Password Prompt.

Think of it a bit like a lock and key. Your account has a lock on it, when you put in your password, it's just like putting in the key and unlocking everything that's in your account.

But, there's the problem: Keys. Keys can be easily copied if they're digital; and in the case of your password, it's just text. Plus, people can eavesdrop over your shoulder to see your password, they can guess it from knowing a little bit about you, or they can get your password from another compromised account.

Just like in the real world; a lock and key system will keep honest people out. Dishonest people, though, have little-to-no qualms about bypassing a lock entirely, or stealing a key. Given that your online accounts are, by their very nature, exposed and made available to billions of people online, it's safe to assume a few of them are dishonest.

When it comes to your most important online accounts, a lock and key may not be enough. This is where Multi-Factor Authentication comes in.

For your most important digital accounts, you want more than lock and key security. You'd rather have a security guard, or bouncer, checking everyone's ID as they come in and making sure they're who they say they are.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-Factor Authentication provides an extra layer of security. Instead of a simple password, your computer or online service knows about a couple different things and can verify that the person who signs in is, in fact, you.

In Single-Factor Authentication, there's only the username and password. Everyone knows what your username is, so the only piece of 'secret' information is the password. In two-factor authentication, there's a second step, usually verification through another type of communication, to make sure you are the one using that password.

Example

  1. When logging into a Google account, the first thing asked for is your username. This is so the computer knows who is trying to sign in.
    Google User and Password Prompt.
  2. Next, it will ask for your password.
    Google Password Prompt.
  3. When Two-Factor Authentication is turned on, it double-checks that attempt to log on.

    On Your Computer

    Your computer displays a notice, telling you an extra verification is on your phone.
    Google 2-Step Verification example.

    On Your Smartphone

    Your phone asks if you recognize and allow the login to continue.
    Phone prompt for Two-Step Verification.

  4. Finally, you are allowed to sign on and use your Google Account.

Multi-Factor Authentication, in this case Two-Step Verification, provides an extra check at the door. In this case, anyone who wanted access to your account would need to know your username (easy), your password (hard), and have possession of your unlocked smartphone (very, very difficult).

Keep in mind that this is just one example of how Two-Factor Authentication works with one service. Many different online accounts offer Two-Factor authentication, and their process for authentication may vary. Most services will make it very clear what the login requirements will be upon enabling Two-Factor authentication to prepare you for future login attempts.

Before continuing, it's best to mention immediately that Multi-Factor Authentication does not make a weak password strong. The best practice is still using complex and hard-to-guess passwords.

Always keep the following password management best practices in mind:

  • Longer is better.
  • More complex is better.
  • Do not only use readily available or easily guessable information, such as your phone number, address or birthday.
  • Include numbers, uppercase letters and special characters.
  • Change your passwords frequently. This is why most companies and some services will prompt you to change your password after a certain amount of time.
  • Do not use the same password on multiple accounts.
  • Never enter your password when someone is within viewing distance or viewable angle of your screen. This is especially important to keep in mind when on planes, trains, buses or anything else with rows of seats.
  • Never check the box to show the password when logging into a site or service. You are better off missing a potential typo than exposing your password.
  • Never give anyone else your password.

Two-factor authentication is an extra layer of security for your Apple ID. The first layer is your password, this second layer is a special code or prompt displayed on your iPhone. Enabling Two-Factor Authentication for your Apple ID helps prevent unauthorized use of your account.

Turn on two-factor authentication in Settings

  1. Go to Settings.
    Settings
  2. Tap on Your Name.
    iOS Settings highlighting iCloud account name.
  3. Tap Password & Security.
    iCloud settings. Password and security highlighted.
  4. To turn on, tap Two-Factor Authentication.
    Password and security settings. Two factor authentication highlighted.
  5. Then, tap Turn On Two-Factor Authentication.
    Password and security settings. Turn on two factor authentication highlighted.

    You may be asked to verify your Apple account with security questions or device passcode.

  6. On the following screen, enter the phone number where you would like to receive verification codes. Tap Next to proceed.
    Two factor authentication phone number prompt.
  7. Apple will send a verification code to the phone number you provided for verification.
  8. Enter the verification code received to verify your phone number and turn on two-factor authentication.

We have a detailed, step-by-step guide to help you setup 2-Step Verification on your Google account.

Show Me How

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