Single-factor authentication (SFA) was the norm for many years before multi-factor authentication started gradually replacing it. In today’s era of highly developed information systems, most security experts agree that single-factor authentication simply isn’t enough to keep you safe.
There are many reasons that back up this widespread opinion. If you want to learn everything you need to know about single-factor authentication, make sure to read all of the information we’ll share with you on this page.
We’ll discuss the most significant pros and cons of single-factor authentication, compare it to multi-factor authentication and analyze many other important aspects. Let’s jump right in.
What is Single-Factor Authentication?
Single-factor authentication or simply, SFA, is a logging method that uses only one way of verifying user identity when attempting access. It’s the simplest and most widespread form of authentication. In common terms, the way single-factor authentication works is to use a password and username to confirm you’re the account holder.
Speaking of single-factor authentication examples, the most common ones include a password-based authentication system. The user who sets his account needs to create a unique and robust password to ensure no one can access the data behind it.
In contrast to this, authentication methods that include two or more steps often require the user to confirm his identity after verifying his username and password combination. More specifically, multi-factor authentication (MFA) uses a combination of at least two of these three factors:
- Something you Know - A username and password combination, security question, or unique PIN.
- Something you Have - A smart card, one-time authentication passcode, or simply a smartphone that can authenticate your identity.
- Something you Are - A biometrical proof of authenticity, most commonly in the form of a fingerprint. It also could be in the form of a voice recognition scan or a retina scan.
Single-factor Authentication Pros and Cons
With the understanding of single-factor authentication and how it works, let’s take a deeper look into the characteristics of single-factor authentication through the most significant advantages and drawbacks of SFA. We’ll start with the most notable pros of single-factor authentication.
What are the Benefits of Single-factor Authentication?
Single-factor authentication comes with a set of unique advantages over other authentication methods. Here are the two most notable benefits of single-factor authentication:
Ease of Use
SFA’s convenience and simplicity are among the significant reasons this authentication method became so prevalent in nearly every field, from the banking industry to social media sites. Single-factor authentication simply works, and you don’t have to put in any effort to make it work consistently.
Just type in the name and password, and you’re in. It’s an incredibly fast way of authenticating the user’s identity and doesn’t require any other input or cooperation from the user’s side beyond that point.
Cost of Implementation
This factor pertains more to businesses than individual users. For companies, especially those employing a large number of workers, implementing sophisticated multi-factor authentication measures can be a very costly investment.
Oppositely, single-factor authentication is simple and relatively straightforward to set into place. Plus, the employees don’t need any advanced technical skills to use it on an everyday basis.
What are the Disadvantages of Single-factor Authentication?
Of course, besides the advantages of this authentication method, it’s also crucial to consider single-factor authentication risks. Here are the best significant disadvantages of single-factor authentication:
Low Protection Levels
The most apparent and most problematic aspect of single-factor authentication is that it doesn’t offer solid and reliable security. Regardless of what specific single-factor is used, the main issue with the system is that there’s only one authentication factor.
If an intruder manages to break through it, nothing is stopping him after that. Like most convenient and user-friendly solutions, this is an innate issue of SFA that can’t be prevented in any discernible way other than switching to MFA.
The Security is On the User
With SFA, the user is the primary factor determining how secure his account will be, based on the strength of his password. The simpler the password, the easier the hackers can get in. This may seem like an easily avoidable problem, but users often avoid using strong passwords because they are difficult to remember.
Single-factor vs. Multi-factor Authentication
With both the pros and cons of single-factor authentication in mind, we can draw a parallel between SFA and MFA to determine which is better from the user’s standpoint. In truth, there’s not much competition between the two, as any form of MFA will always be better than simple SFA security.
The heart of the matter is that, in SFA, only one single thing needs to go wrong for an intruder to gain access to your valuable data. To make matters worse, most users still employ fairly basic passwords. Coupled up with SFA, this means that the attacker can use a simple password cracking tool to breach the password without much effort.
Compared to MFA, this is a big disadvantage for SFA. In single-factor authentication, you, as the user, are responsible for creating a solid and unbreakable password. No one else, including the IT administrator, cannot guarantee your data’s safety if you use a weak password.
Opposite to this, multi-factor systems often have a notification system in place that prevents such situations. The most common example is an email system that notifies the user of a suspicious login attempt or an incorrect password attempt.
Another standard for MFA that many businesses employ is SMS authentication. Although there’s nothing wrong with SMS authentication on its own, the problem behind this is that most companies that rely on it only use it and nothing else. This is a bad practice that only makes the user experience more tedious while providing nothing more than a false sense of security.
For this reason, it’s also good to back up the SMS authentication with an authenticator app or other tool that will provide you with a relatively effortless way of confirming your identity. Alternatively, data security-conscious users and businesses can use hardware and software tokens to authorize their devices.
Lastly, one thing we’ve highlighted above that’s worth mentioning is the ease of use. Single-factor authentication brings a much more streamlined and convenient user experience. With MFA’s strong security also comes the less enjoyable user experience, but the security tradeoff you get in return is worth it or at least needs to be, as we’ve discussed above.
Not every user has the skills or patience to deal with 2FA or MFA regularly. However, it’s important to remember that security should always be a priority. If you can, it’s best to find a middle ground and use a secure 2FA system that won’t limit your user experience too much.
The Bottom Line
There’s no going about the topic of data security without including single-factor authentication as the pillar on which most modern security standards are built on. That said, we should also keep in mind that SFA is rapidly becoming an obsolete and outdated security method.
Like most technological inventions, single-factor authentication simply got old and out of date. Like floppy drives, CDs, and dial-up Internet, it’s a part of older tech culture, and as such, it needs to be replaced going into the future. Nowadays, most services and websites have already introduced some form of multi-factor authentication. And, whether this includes two, three, or more authentication factors, MFA is undoubtedly the future of data security.
If you're a business that interacts with other companies online regularly, MFA can massively reduce the chance of any information leaking into unwanted hands. Hideez offers a single security solution that includes MFA for both businesses and individuals. Just use a Hideez Key, and forget you ever had passwords.