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What Is Two-Factor Authentication?

learn to use two-factor authentication

October 16, 2020

This may be a rare occasion, but let’s say you need cash. So, you visit an ATM. Before you can start your transaction, you need to stick your card into the machine and press the big rectangle keys on the number pad to enter your PIN. Both of these things are required before a transaction can be carried out. Without one or both, you (or someone else) cannot access your account. 

Similarly, it can be pretty complicated to get into your online accounts without a password or username, and there are even more options you can use to add an extra layer of security to protect your account from unauthorized users. 

Over the last few years, the topics of internet safety, security, and privacy have been at the forefront of our mental list of “Things to Worry About.” We assumed the best way to stay safe was to create a secure password. So, creating strong passwords became a more complicated process, requiring more complex passwords that were harder for others to guess. But these days, a strong password is not always enough to protect your online information.  

two-factor 2 - password proof access-web.png
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

Two-factor authentication is an extra layer of security for your accounts that requires not only the password and username credentials, but also a secondary piece of information that falls into at least two of three categories: 

  • Knowledge (something you know) 
  • Possession (something you have) 
  • Inherence (something you are—like your fingerprint, voice, or retina scan) 

Two-factor authentication is like a gatekeeper for your account. The more ways that you can prove that you are you, the more complicated it is for another user to access your account. There’s a perfect scene in The Incredibles where superhero fashion designer Edna Mode utilizes a PIN, handprint scanner, retina scanner, and voice recognition to access her top-secret work room. Although it seems a bit overboard to those of us without a superhero workshop, it is an example of multi-factor authentication. These layers of security make it almost impossible for someone to access the lab (even though we see Jack-Jack use her security system with her help in Incredibles 2).

two-factor 3 - woman-web.png

So, your two-factor authentication options depend on the service you’re using. For example, your identity can be verified by your bank by sending a verification code to your cell phone (possession) before you can complete logging into your online banking account. Or, if you’re downloading an app from your phone’s app store, your Touch ID fingerprint or Face ID feature (inherence) protect you from someone else downloading apps you don’t want. Lastly, those security questions you have to set up for your email account confirm your identity because only you should know the answers (knowledge). 

Here are some ways to turn on two-factor authentication for certain popular sites:

If you’d like to see if two-factor authentication is available for another type of account you have, a quick internet search should give you the answer. For example, “two-factor authentication Gmail” should bring up results that detail step by step how to set up this feature for your Gmail account. Some advice: make sure the article is as current as possible because sites and apps update often! 

For more information about two-factor authentication, be sure to explore the Library’s available resources on this topic. If there is a tech subject that you’d like to have me demystify in a future blog, leave your suggestion in the comments below!

Brityni S.
Consumer Tech Specialist

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