One-Time Passwords vs Two Factor Authentication

Introduction

In the modern world with the constant growth of online services, online financial services, social media, gaming platforms, and online banking, it is crucial to prevent hackers and scammers from gaining access to your accounts and personal information. This is where two-factor authentication (2FA) comes in. So let’s discuss which 2FA approach is the best for you. 

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Types of Two-Factor Authentication

So what is two-factor authentication? To provide an additional layer of security, one can request one or more factors for user authentication to prove identity. These factors include:

  • Something you know (password, pin, security question, etc)
  • Something that you have (smartphone, USB dongle, smartcard, etc)
  • Biometrics (fingerprints, voice, retina scan, etc)

OTP via SMS or email - the most popular and common 2FA method is when a service sends an SMS text message or email with a one-time password (OTP) to a smartphone or other device. 

One-time codes on paper or in a file - prepared in advance and generated by service codes, these codes can be stored on printed paper, in files, or even in a password manager (like TeamPassword) in encrypted mode.

Software Authenticators - This is a 2FA method that has become more popular recently. Users scan QR codes provided by a vendor (generated by authenticator software) and based on this code, the application generates a temporary password that the user enters along with the main password to complete the authentication process.

Push Notification - This is an easy to use, fast, and secure authentication method. Encrypted communication channels eliminate "middle-men" attacks. The user just needs to approve or decline a request from the service on their smartphone to get access to an account.

FIDO U2F Hardware Authenticators - This is one of the most reliable and solid methods based on the open-source universal 2nd-factor standard (U2F). Users just need to plug in a USB dongle or bump NFC device to authenticate.  

Biometrics - This includes the like of face recognition, fingerprints, and voice recognition. Innovations like Apple’s Face ID or Microsoft’s Hello are often used to access devices and online services.

OTP Vulnerabilities

All 2FA methods have pros and cons and none of these methods provide 100% protection against hacking. Theft, poor software design, vulnerable connection channels, and criminal use of social engineering can lead to unwanted account access. But the most insecure methods are OTPs via SMS and OTPs via email. 

OTP via SMS 

Intruders can just peek at a message with a password on the smartphone screen if lock-screen notifications are enabled.

SIM cards can be stolen or criminals can clone your phone number if they have your social security number so they can receive text messages with one-time passwords directly and then gain access to your accounts.

Hackers also can intercept messages, so-called Signalling System Number 7 (SS7) attacks, by using the main flaw mobile routine SS7 protocol. 

Using OTPs via SMS, hackers can reset passwords to, for example, Gmail accounts and gain full access to an email account.

OTP via email 

Due to credentials leakage, phishing attacks, or some of the other actions described above, hackers can get total access to user email accounts. That leads to the possibility that in cases users use two-factor authentication via email or an email account bound to services to restore passwords, hackers can gain access to dozens of sites and services at once.

Best Authentication Approaches

Using biometrics can be the most secure method when it comes to two-factor authentication. But let’s consider fingerprint theft for a moment. If something like that happens, biometric security approaches will be compromised for life. It’s impossible to change your fingerprint like a phone number. 

Using U2F (universal 2nd-factor standard) keys exclude digital interception, is phishing-proof and is considered the most secure 2FA approach. But the U2F method is not so widely applied due to some disadvantages. 

USB-A dongles are not compatible with different devices including smartphones or new Macbooks without adapters (most modern devices use USB-C). Also, U2F tokens can be pricey. It's recommended to use U2F keys for authentication for only the most significant accounts like online banking or main email accounts. 

The other reliable authentication approach is using software authenticators. They are easy to apply, offer a wide range of choice for developers, boast cross-platform compatibility, and additional features expand two-factor authenticator usage. Take into consideration that you need to choose a trustworthy software developer like TeamPassword.

Push notifications can also be a good choice for authentication. But there are some drawbacks you need to keep in mind with regards to this 2FA option, the most significant being that you’ll need smartphones and an internet connection to use Push Notifications. Also, fraudulent requests can be approved accidentally due to the user's carelessness.

Conclusion

Different user scenarios require different two-factor authentication methods. But just using the 2FA OTPs via SMS approach is more secure than one-step verification (only need to enter the password). It's worth spending time developing your authenticator application and spending money on a U2F key so you can take complete control of your accounts. TeamPassword provides the best software to generate and manage your passwords correctly. To learn more about it, please sign up for the free 14-day trial today.