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What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Are you concerned about your security online? Worried that your email or other accounts could be hacked? If so, it’s time to talk about two-factor authentication – if you’re not using this method already. While two-factor authentication doesn’t guarantee protection against a data breach, it provides a valuable line of defense. 

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Two-Factor Authentication Basics

If you use a password when you log into your email account or bank account, that’s one authentication factor. You’re using what security experts call a “knowledge” factor. Your access to your account depends on something you know – in this case, the username and password you set. You may be wondering whether a username and a password together constitute two-factor authentication. The answer is no, because both usernames and passwords are “knowledge” factors.

Two-factor authentication adds another layer of protection to the username and password system, usually through a code texted to your phone or via a physical object in your possession. In the former case, when you log in to an account the account will text you a code which you will then enter along with your password. So in order to access your account, a hacker would have to both know your password and have access to your cell phone to get the authentication code.

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Why Use Two-Factor Authentication

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

Two-factor authentication is a form of “multi-factor authentication.” It’s a much more secure way to access your accounts than single-factor authentication, such as the traditional password method. So if you access your bank accounts online – or if you’re concerned about email security – consider jumping on the two-factor authentication bandwagon.

If someone asks you whether you’re using two-factor authentication, they’re probably asking whether you use it on your phone and get a code texted to you each time you log in to your email or your password manager. But there’s another form of two-factor authentication that’s already in use across the country – the pin you use with the debit card linked to your checking account. When you go to an ATM, you use two factors to identify yourself and access cash. The two factors are the card itself and the pin code you must have to use the ATM. So if setting up two-factor authentication sounds intimidating to you, keep in mind that you’re already using it.

To set up two-factor authentication, you’ll almost certainly want to go to the “Settings” feature of your account. In the section devoted to “privacy,” “account” or “security” you’ll generally see an option to enable two-factor authentication, if available. There, you can enter your cell phone number to receive codes upon log-in. Of course, this process will vary slightly from site to site and app to app, but the general principle is the same: you can enable two-factor authentication in the security settings.

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The Downside of Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication is not a perfect system. For one thing, it’s dependent on you having access to your phone, or whichever secondary authentication system you have in place. If you loose your phone, gaining access to your account can be tricky. However, you can always add a back-up plan, such as the email address of a trusted friend who will be sent log-in instructions in the event that you lose your phone.

Two-factor authentication can also be slightly clunky and inconvenient for the user, though of course it’s less inconvenient than having your email or bank account hacked. In addition to using secure passwords (or a password manager) and not saving your passwords to your browser, two-factor authentication is a reliable way to keep your accounts safe. Like passwords and biometrics, however, two-factor authentication has its downsides.

Bottom Line

What is Two-Factor Authentication?

There are other ways to protect yourself online. Two-factor authentication isn’t a silver bullet that will eliminate the need for other safety measures and good practices. However, many experts consider two-factor authentication to be a necessary – and relatively easy – way to keep important accounts secure.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Daviles, ©iStock.com/peterhowell, ©iStock.com/baona

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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