MFA: Your Best Cybersecurity Defense Against Attacks

Multi-factor authentication (MFA), also known as two-factor authentication, adds an extra layer of security beyond just relying on a username and password to access an account. At its core, MFA requires the user to present two or more authentication factors before being granted access. 

The three factors of authentication are:

  1. Something you know – This is typically a password or PIN code.
  2. Something you have – This could be a physical token, such as a USB device or hardware token generator. It could also be a user’s mobile device that can receive push notifications or generate one-time passcodes.
  3. Something you are – This uses biometrics to verify the user’s identity. Examples include fingerprint scans, facial recognition, or iris scans. 

MFA requires the user to present a combination of at least two of these factors. The most common implementations combine a password (something you know) with a one-time passcode generated by a separate device (something you have). This significantly increases security, as an attacker would need to compromise both factors to gain access, making unauthorized access much more difficult.

Why Use MFA?

Passwords have become an increasing security challenge. People often create easy-to-remember passwords that utilize simple words, names, dates, or patterns that are easy for attackers to guess. Even more concerning, individuals frequently reuse the same passwords across multiple accounts and websites. When a password is compromised in a breach or hacking attempt, attackers can then leverage that same password to access the victim’s other online accounts. 

Security

Multi-factor authentication provides critical protection against compromised passwords by requiring an additional form of identity verification beyond just the password. Even if an attacker learns a victim’s password through phishing, password spraying, or a breach, they will be unable to access the account without also having possession of the additional authentication factor tied to the user, whether a physical token, biometric like a fingerprint, or a one-time code tied to the user’s phone or email. MFA acts as a safeguard in case the password is obtained by malicious actors. Enabling MFA significantly reduces the risk and impact of compromised passwords.

Where is MFA Used?

Email systems are a major target for attackers due to widespread cloud adoption. As organizations move their email systems like Office 365 and G Suite to the cloud, they become more exposed to attacks from the internet. Attackers frequently target cloud email logins because they can easily guess usernames based on email address formats, and then only need to obtain the password. 

Other internet-facing services like VPNs are also prime targets for multi-factor authentication. VPNs allow remote access into an organization’s network, so compromising a VPN password provides a pathway for malicious actors to gain internal access. Implementing MFA on VPN services can effectively stop these types of intrusions.

MFA Adoption Statistics

Despite the proven effectiveness of MFA, adoption rates remain surprisingly low. According to recent surveys, only around 55% of organizations have implemented MFA, often in a limited capacity. 

This leaves a high percentage of companies vulnerable to cyber attacks that could be easily mitigated with Multi-Factor Authentication. According a survey, 80 to 90% of all cyber attacks could be prevented simply by utilizing MFA.

The reason for not implementing Multi-Factor Authentication usually comes down to misplaced concerns over inconvenience and implementation costs. However, the minor friction MFA adds is far outweighed by the risks of leaving systems unsecured. And solutions like Office 365 and G-Suite offer free built-in Multi-Factor Authentication for email security. 

IT budget

With the costs of cyber attacks rising every year, the ROI on MFA solutions is clear. They provide an inexpensive way to dramatically reduce the chances of a major breach occurring. More organizations need to take the plunge and accept MFA as a standard security protocol.

Overcoming Implementation Barriers

Implementing MFA across an organization can face resistance due to barriers like cost, training, and user friction. However, there are strategies to drive adoption successfully. 

One common barrier is cost. While Multi-Factor Authentication capabilities may be included for free with email platforms like Office 365 or G Suite, third-party MFA services can carry licensing fees, especially when extending MFA to multiple applications. Starting with free email MFA can demonstrate value before expanding Multi-Factor Authentication more broadly.

Another barrier is user training. Employees may be unsure how MFA works or resist perceived inconveniences. Training users on MFA’s security benefits and simplicity can smooth adoption. Gradual rollout focusing on early adopters first allows time for users to adjust before organization-wide implementation. 

User friction fear is another barrier, but often unfounded. Starting small again is key – pilot groups can validate ease of use. If friction surfaces during rollout, options like providing company phones for Multi-Factor Authentication tokens can reduce pushback. Building goodwill for MFA pays off when users realize it’s a minor obstacle compared to security gained.

With the right strategy, organizations can overcome barriers to Multi-Factor Authentication adoption. A phased approach with pilot groups, training resources, and responsive mitigation of friction can turn employees into Multi-Factor Authentication advocates. The result is a large security payoff from a relatively small culture shift.

Compliance Mandates

The need for multi-factor authentication is slowly becoming a mandate for organizations in various industries due to rising compliance requirements. Healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and other regulated sectors are increasing security protocols to protect sensitive data.

Compliance frameworks like CMMC mandate MFA to achieve higher levels of certification. CMMC, which stands for Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, is becoming a requirement for defense contractors to achieve contracts. 

Zero Trust

In addition to formal compliance mandates, cyber insurance providers are also requiring MFA more frequently. Organizations seeking cyber insurance coverage often have to go through rigorous IT audits reviewing security controls like MFA during the application process. Insurance providers recognize MFA as an effective control for reducing risk. Organizations who fail to implement adequate controls like MFA may see increased premiums or inability to get coverage.

The tide is turning as compliance frameworks and insurance providers recognize MFA as a critical security control. Organizations that resist implementing MFA today may find themselves required to do so in the near future. It’s better to evaluate MFA proactively instead of waiting for a mandate.

How MFA Prevents Attacks

Multi-factor authentication is highly effective at thwarting most types of cyber attacks because it requires the attacker to have access to multiple authentication factors for a user’s account, which is very difficult to obtain.

MFA attack types

The most common types of attacks that MFA protects against are:

  • Password theft or brute force attacks – If an attacker steals a user’s password through phishing, keylogging, or brute force guessing, they still cannot access the account without also obtaining possession of the user’s second authentication factor, such as their phone or hardware token. As long as the user keeps their secondary factor secure, the account remains protected.
  • Password reuse attacks – If a user’s password is compromised on one website and then reused on other accounts, the attacker still cannot access those other accounts protected by MFA. The secondary authentication factor creates an additional barrier even if the password is known.
  • Automated bot attacks – Automated bots that attempt to access accounts through mass password guessing cannot get past MFA since they do not have the ability to access the user’s secondary authentication factor.

However, MFA is not foolproof. Threat actors can sometimes circumvent it through targeted phishing attacks aimed at tricking the user into giving up both their password and MFA token. This highlights the need for ongoing user education on proper cyber hygiene practices. Overall though, when implemented correctly, MFA blocks the vast majority of cyber attacks that rely on stolen credentials.

Cost Impact of Attacks

While compliance mandates and preventing attacks are important motivators for implementing MFA, the ultimate reason is to avoid the potential costs of a successful breach. These costs can add up quickly from a variety of factors.

According to recent statistics, the average ransomware demand has climbed to around $500,000 for small and mid-sized businesses. Even if an organization is able to negotiate down the initial demand, the costs paid out in ransom can still easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Beyond just the ransom payment, a breach also incurs costs related to business disruption and remediation. The average downtime from a ransomware attack is approximately two weeks. For many businesses, this level of disruption can be catastrophic, resulting in significant lost revenues. Remediation costs can also be substantial, including paying external consultants to investigate the breach, restore systems from backups, and improve security controls.

When factoring in all of these potential costs from a successful cyber attack, the investment in implementing MFA is minor in comparison. MFA provides an extremely cost-effective way to reduce an organization’s risk, avoiding the potentially massive costs of a breach. Its ability to prevent the vast majority of attacks makes it one of the most vital cybersecurity controls an organization can put in place.

Key Takeaways

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an essential security tool that every organization should implement. By requiring an additional factor beyond just a password to log in, MFA can prevent over 99% of attacks like phishing and credential stuffing that try to gain access through compromised passwords alone. 

The benefits of implementing MFA far outweigh any minor inconvenience to users. MFA protects your data, systems, and employees from costly cyber attacks that average around $500,000 in damages per incident for small businesses. Compliance mandates are also increasingly requiring MFA, with standards like NIST and CMMC identifying it as a basic security necessity.

Any barriers to adoption like user friction or deployment costs can be overcome with the right strategy and partners. For most organizations, starting with Multi-Factor Authentication on internet-facing services like email is quick and easy through solutions already included with Office 365 or GSuite.

We highly recommend all organizations begin implementing Multi-Factor Authentication today wherever possible. Reach out to your IT service providers for assistance tailoring an MFA solution that works for your unique needs and environment. The time and effort to roll out Multi-Factor Authentication is minor compared to the major risk reduction and protection you gain for your business long term. Don’t wait until it’s too late – adopt multi-factor authentication now.

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