The Meaning of Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): How to Turn On and Turn Off

  • By Steven
  • Published: May 20, 2024
  • Last Updated: Jun 07, 2024


Cyber attacks are a growing threat to all industries, nations, and people. They occur with increasing frequency, with the last year reporting 3,205 data compromises and over $12.5 billion in projected losses, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The more often data breaches occur, the more at-risk individuals and organizations become. There are many ways to help prevent and defend against data compromises, but some of the most effective methods also hinder consumers.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA), are significant barriers to any malicious actor, as they cannot access or alter accounts without verifying who they are first. For consumers, this means a loss of a minute or two and a necessary connection to the linked accounts; otherwise, access is impossible. By learning about 2FA, how to implement it, how to manage it, and how to use it with other cybersecurity defenses, consumers can become better prepared for the day their data is compromised.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

What is Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)? 

For years, cybersecurity has touted the benefits of MFA and 2FA, meaning most users have seen or experienced the process, even if they didn’t know the name of it at the time (like CAPTCHA puzzles). Two-factor authentication allows users and organizations to implement another layer of defense behind an account’s secure password.

Moreover, 2FA is quickly becoming the base level for account security (when used with a strong password); this is due to 2FA processes requiring an account owner to “verify” their identity through the system, sending a message to a device presumably owned by the account holder. Criminals cannot typically access accounts with 2FA because of the secondary communication requirement.

How Does 2FA Work? 

Users can complete two-factor authentication in many ways, and organizations usually implement them across access gates. There are various methods for consumers, but most organizations offer only one or two. These methods might include:

  • SMS or text messages, usually time-limited or one-time tokens
  • Voice-based messages, usually an automated call to the user’s mobile phone
  • Authenticator apps, usually a third-party verifying through a mobile phone app
  • Hardware tokens, which consider a device’s history with the platform
  • Biometric requests, usually a face scan or a fingerprint reader

Authentication processes are predictable, with the request starting upon successfully submitting an account password. The system then prompts the user to “pick a way to receive a code,” like those methods above. The system immediately sends a one-time code to their device, email, mobile phone, or other tool, and the user submits that code to the system that requested it. Generally, account holders can finish the 2FA process in less than a minute; however, cybercriminals may have a more challenging time.

The Importance of Two-Factor Authentication 

Enabling two-factor authentication prevents unauthorized access countless times daily, encouraging its adoption across industries. Technology is the most significant sector using the authorization methods, with over 87% of companies relying on the verification process. Insurance and professional services are also moving towards MFA at greater rates, with 77% and 75% (respectively) of companies adopting the methods.

Despite the increasing normality of 2FA and MFA, there remains resistance to its use because of the “time waste” associated with having a second step in the log-in process. However, similar to the transition from simple passwords like “password1234” to complex passwords like “hIfjusR8@mpsRW,” the move to 2FA will become increasingly necessary as cybercriminals develop new technology.

A significant worry about criminals developing better technology is their increased chances of success. Some actors can manipulate tools to read a password despite a strong password entropy, but if the password is strong, they may give up the assault.

Types of 2FA

SMS Text-Message and Voice-based 2FA

The most common examples of two-factor authentication are those conducted over SMS or text messages and those made over voice calls. In these methods, the system sends a code to a predetermined device owned by the account holder, either by text message or automated voice call. The user then submits this code back into the system, proving their identity by accessing both the system and the approved device.

Scammers have a challenging time breaching these verifications, but there are rare cases when it has happened. Social engineering and AI voice cloning are significant risks to MFA authentication because once the scammer obtains the access code, they have free reign of an account; these risks are possible through events like SIM card swapping or manipulating a phone call servicer into sending an old number to a new phone.

Hardware Tokens for 2FA 

Other 2FA methods include physical tokens to pass authorization, although these are usually reserved for high-security environments. These physical hard tokens can be a key, a USB device, a scannable card, or a physical ID indicator. These may be most readily exemplified by the access cards of doctors, bankers, and security members; they are also the key fobs that unlock garages, gated communities, and gyms. Scammers cannot typically manipulate these keys without obtaining the physical device most people carry on themselves when needed or locked away when not.

Software Tokens for 2FA 

Organizations commonly use software tokens through a third-party app or send users a timed-based one-time password to their phone or email. The code usually has a timer of up to a week, with more secure options having 60-second lifespans. Moreover, they’re only usable once, which is an issue for scammers attempting to break into an account multiple times.

Nevertheless, some scammers may impersonate officials, friends, or someone who entered “the wrong” number into a verification form and now “needs” the access code. These are always scams, and the code is used to access the user’s account; when the authentic user gives it to the criminal, the system never notices something is wrong, and they are free to scour the environment for further vulnerabilities.

Push Notification for 2FA

Many organizations have turned to utilizing users’ phones to pass authentication inquiries. Push notifications, in particular, are becoming standard for mobile applications and payment platforms. Similar to SMS messages, these notifications are usually a one-time code to be entered into the requesting platform or device. Notifications differ from SMS messages in that text messages and their destinations are manipulatable by cyber criminals with the proper access.

How to Turn On Two-factor Authentication 

Users can turn on two-factor authentication in the most up-to-date user and commercial accounts. It is a vital aspect of most medical and financial applications and can generally be turned on using the same process:

  • Sign in to the account you want to protect; if this is a high-security platform, they may immediately ask you to “continue setting up your account, add a recovery address, or verify your identity with a 2FA.” Continue with these prompts to add a device for later 2FA sign-ins. If this option does not appear, however:
  • Access the account’s profile, then the Settings page. Some platforms may use a gear icon or three-dot menu to get users to the Settings, while others may need to access their account through a computer.
  • Within the Settings page, locate the “Privacy” or “Sign In” options. Depending on the platform, users can toggle the 2FA option to activate it. Social media websites, banking platforms, e-commerce shops, document-sharing sites, and all other significant accounts should have 2FA enabled.

How to Turn Off Two-Factor Authentication 

Some consumers may reject the practice despite the clear benefits of enabling 2FA on accounts. They can remove 2FA on accounts (although this practice is becoming more taboo as cyberattacks appear more frequently) with essentially the same process as described above:

  • Enter the account you want to remove the protections from.
  • Access the Settings or Privacy page of the profile.
  • Toggle the 2FA or MFA tool to disengage it (and pass a test to confirm).

Removing a 2FA process from a profile allows other users to access it more readily—when sharing a media streaming account, for example. However, the risks of turning off the authenticator are significant, mainly when users duplicate their credentials across multiple platforms on the Internet.

2FA Best Practices 

Technology is always advancing, and one day, 2FA may become obsolete, replaced with MFA and essential biometric signatures. However, until that day comes, 2FA is a necessary, effective defense against online threats and opportunistic criminals. Moreover, consumers and organizations can implement the practice, with more authentications equating to more security.

2FA Best Practices 

Consumers should utilize 2FA whenever available for their personal and business accounts. They can also enable the settings on their devices and personal networks, like a secure wi-fi connection or adding a face-ID lock to a smart device. Additionally, cybersecurity training can be an effective learning tool to recognize and defend against online threats we all face.

Organizations should always strive to enable 2FA and MFA whenever possible. Role-based and access-specific authentications are particularly valuable to corporate environments, as they restrict a bad actor’s movement. Companies also benefit when they secure the storage of backup codes, decommissioning them as necessary. The storage of these codes ensures they cannot be reused or manipulated by a threat actor while keeping a record of those using them (and where a breach may stem from).

Two-factor authentication is vital in protecting online accounts and personal information. It is a standard security practice that assists in defending user accounts and network access points despite the extra minute. 2FA and MFA are already a determining factor in the success of a cyberattack, and those who don’t enable it risk their information and the data of everyone within the organization.

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