The Basics of SMS-Based Two-Factor Authentication

October 13, 2017 | Back to the Blog

SMS two-factor authentication (2FA) is rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of verifying login credentials and preventing attempts at compromising social media, financial, and email accounts online.

So what exactly is two-factor authentication for web security?

Put simply, it is a means of directly confirming that you are the person attempting to log in to an online account by sending your mobile device an SMS message with a verification code. This prevents anyone from accessing your account even if they have somehow gained access to your username and password through indirect means.

How does this system work?

Let’s take a look at the basics of two-factor authentication and how it keeps accounts more secure than traditional means of username and password verification and password reset questions.

Two-Factor Authentication Process for Beginners

The purpose of a two-factor authentication system is to add an additional layer of security, commonly referred to in the industry as “multi-factor authentication” that requires additional information to access an online account. When users are required to enter a piece of additional personal information that only they would have knowledge about makes it much harder for a hacker to gain unauthorized access to their account even via social engineering.

Originally, the process required the distribution of digital keys or devices that generated random numbers on an algorithm known only by the securing entity for the account. However, these devices tended to be expensive and easily lost, making it difficult to ascertain if a user had actually lost their device or if a security key device was being replaced by someone attempting to compromise security.

This all changed with the proliferation of the smartphone and SMS.

Two-Factor Authentication via SMS

Instead of issuing every user a secure digital key for two-factor authentication, their mobile number was kept on record in a secure messaging service operated by the entity that managed their secure account. Whenever users accessed their account with their username and password, a text message with a confirmation code was sent to their mobile phone number in order to verify that they were indeed the party attempting to access the secure account.

This change to the two-factor authentication system was a game changer in every sense of the word.

Given the widespread proliferation of smartphones and mobile devices worldwide, two-factor authentication became an inexpensive and viable option for securing every type of account, from Facebook to financial accounts. Using SMS ensures that the communication of confirmation codes via mobile phone keeps the verification secure, preventing unauthorized access provided the hostile entity in question does not have access to the end-user’s mobile phone.

While SMS two-factor authentication is by no means foolproof, it has added a significantly easier means of securing online accounts with minimal time and effort expenditure on the part of users.

Two-Factor Authentication’s Evolution

Two-Factor Authentication’s Evolution

Since the advent of SMS two-factor authentication, many companies have started to secure their two-factor authentication systems even further by integrating two-factor authentication code generators in apps themselves. The addition of biometric locks to many smartphones, tablets, and laptops has also provided additional levels of security for users who may occasionally leave their device unattended in public. Not only does your device now have the ability to be locked using your fingerprint or facial recognition, but it also can send you secure verification codes outside of the SMS phone system to prevent compromise via IMSI scanning and SIM-card spoofing using Stingray devices (a means of circumventing SMS two-factor authentication that has recently found moderate success in black-hat hacking circles).

Mobile phone theft countermeasures are also evolving as well, and not just with biometric locking (which is incredibly difficult to spoof), but also with remote GPS location, remote locking, and remote data-wiping that is both fast and easy on even the most basic of Android or iOS smartphones. two-factor authentication is rapidly becoming the security layer of choice for many social media, email and financial institutions around the world, and having a clear understanding of how two-factor authentication systems work is fundamental to protecting your private data online.

Final Thoughts on Two-Factor Authentication

Overall, two-factor authentication has come a long way. In-app, two-factor authentication and biometrically secured two-factor authentication is fast becoming a normal part of banking online and accessing social media, making it harder and harder for data thieves to access your private information or steal your identity. It is also making it far more difficult for hackers to install or compromise accounts for the purpose of loading ransomware onto secure servers through email or social media messaging.

As two-factor authentication continues to evolve, so will the sophistication of attacks, but the implementation of even basic SMS two-factor authentication for your accounts adds a much needed security layer to your digital presence, making you and your secure data a harder target that discourages hacking attempts and leaves data thieves looking for easier marks elsewhere online.


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