Why Multi-Factor Authentication (2FA/MFA) Usage Numbers Will Not Improve Any Time Soon?
If you have missed the news lately, cybersecurity is one of the most discussed topics nowadays. From supply chain exploits to data leaks to business email compromise (BEC) there is no break – especially during the pandemic. Many (if not all) start with an account compromise. And if you ask any cybersecurity expert, they will tell you that the best way to protect your account is to use two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication. Well, let me tell you a secret – MFA sucks! Ask the Okta guys! Even they think MFA sucks. And they are a mobile security company. Though, Randall and I have different motives to make that claim.
By the way: 2FA stands for “two-factor authentication” while MFA stands for “multi-factor authentication”. I will use those two acronyms to save on some typing. And one more, TLA means a “three-letter acronym”.
Randall goes on and on in his post about why MFA sucks. Most of his points are valid! It is an annoying, and frustrating experience. I don’t know about slow, but I would argue against being pointless – it serves a purpose, a very good purpose. Where he is mainly wrong is thinking that the solution is yet another technology (Well, the whole point of his post is to market Okta’s new technology, so, he will get a pass for that 😉 ). This new technology will not address the source of the issue – that people are scared to use MFA. Take a look at the Twitter Account Security survey – why do you think only 2.3% (at the time of this writing) of all Twitter users have MFA enabled? Here are what I think the reasons are:
- Complexity and lack of understanding of the technology
- Fear of losing access to the accounts
I believe people are smart enough to grasp the benefits without too many explanations. What they are not clear is how to set it up and how to make sure they don’t lose access to their accounts. In general, my frustration is with how the technology vendors have implemented MFA – without any thought about the user experience. Let me illustrate what I mean with my own experience.
The Problem With Too Many MFAs
I have set up MFA on all my important accounts. The list is long: bank accounts, credit card accounts, stock brokerage accounts, government accounts (like taxes, DMV, etc), email accounts (like Office 365 and GMail), GitHub, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. Have been doing this for years already and the list continues to grow. I am also required by former and current employers to use MFA for my work accounts – also a long list. Here is a list of MFA methods I use (and I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive list):
- email (several different emails)
- authenticators apps (here the things are getting crazy)
- Microsoft Authenticator
- Google Authenticator (I started with this one)
- VIP Access
- Lastpass Authenticator
- other vendor-specific implementations (I really don’t know how to call those, but they have their own way to do it)
- Yubikey (I have three of those and I will ignore those in this post because the hardware key experience has been the same since the … 90s or so)
You’ll think I am crazy, right? Why do I use so many authenticators and MFA methods? I don’t want to, but the problem is that I have to!
First of all, this all evolved over the last 7-8 years since I started using MFA. It started with Google Authenticator; then Microsoft Authenticator and the Lastpass one; then a few banks added email and SMS (not very secure but interestingly some very big financial institutions still don’t offer other options!!!) while others struck deals with specific vendors to use their own authenticators – hence, I had to install one-off apps for those accounts. A couple of years ago I bought Yubukeys to secure my password managers and some important work and bank accounts.
At some point in time, I decided to unify on a single method! Or a single authenticator app and the Yubikey. That turns out to be impossible! Despite the fact that there is a standard, the authenticator vendors do not give you an easy way to transfer the seeds from one app to another. The only way to do that is to go over tens of accounts and register the new authenticator. Who wants to do that! Also, a few of my financial institutions do not offer a way to use a different MFA method than the one they approved. So, I am stuck with the one-offs. Unless I want to change to different financial institutions. But… who wants to do that!
There is one more problem with the use of so many tools. Very often the systems that are set up with MFA ask you to “enter the code from your MFA app”. The question is: which MFA app have I registered for that system? There is an argument whether having details about the app used to generate the code will compromise the security. Some companies provide that information, while others don’t. If I am allowed to use a single authenticator app for all my accounts, I don’t mind not having information on what tool have I registered. But in the current situation, giving me a hint is a requirement for usability. Anyway, if my authenticator app is compromised, not telling me what app to use will make absolutely no difference.
Another problem with the authenticator apps is that (and this is prevalent in technology) the app thinks it knows best how to name things. If I for example have two accounts for GitHub and want to use MFA, the authenticators will show them both as GitHub. What if I have ten? Which code should I use for which account is really hard to figure out.
The Problem With Switching Phones
Wait! Should I say: “The Problem With Losing Phones?” No, the problem with losing phones is next!
This is where the complexity of the MFA approach starts to show up! I don’t think any of the above-mentioned vendors really thought the whole user experience thoroughly through. I will add Duo to that list because I used it and it also sucks. Also, I will make a note here that colleagues recommended me Twillio’s Authy but I am already so deep in my current (diverse) ecosystem that I have no desire to try one more of those.
My wife (who is not in technology) has an iPhone 7 and she strongly refuses to change it because of all the trouble she needs to go through to set up her apps on a new phone. I spent a lot of time convincing her to set up at least SMS-based MFA for her bank and credit card accounts. And I think that will be the extend that she will go to. After I switched from iPhone 7 to the latest (and greatest) iPhone 13, I completely understand her fear. (As a side note: changing your phone every year is really, really, really bad for the environment. Be environmentally friendly and use your gadgets for a longer time! I have set a goal to use my phones and other gadgets for at least 5 years.) It has been a few months already and I continue to use some of the authenticators on my old phone because it is such a pain to migrate them to the new one.
Let me quickly go over the experience one by one.
Moving MFA Apps From Phone to Phone
Moving Apple MFA to my new phone was fluent. At the end of the day they are the kings of the experiences and this was expected. Moving WordPress and Facebook was also relatively simple – as long as you manage to sign in to your WordPress and Facebook accounts on your new phone, you will start getting the prompts there.
Moving the Lastpass Authenticator should have been easy but they really screwed up the flow between the actual Lastpass app and the authenticator app. I was clicking like crazy back and forth, going in circles for quite some time until something magical happened and it started working on my new phone. For the accounts where I used Entrust I had to go and register the new phone. Inconvenient, but at least I had a self-service. The problems started appearing when I got to VIP Access – I have to call my financial institution because they are the only ones that can register it. This will mean at least one hour on the phone.
Now, let’s get to the big ones!
Google Authenticator apparently has export functionality that allows you to export the seeds and import them in your new phone. If you know about that, it works like a charm too but… I just recently learned about it from Dave Bittner and Joe Carrigan from The Cyberwire.
Microsoft Authenticator should have been the easiest one (they claim). As long as you are signed in with your Microsoft Account, you should be able to get all the codes on your new phone. Well, king of! This works for other MFA accounts except for Microsoft work and school accounts. With all due respect to my colleagues from Azure Active Directory – the work and school account move sucks! You just need to go and register the new phone with those. Really disappointing!
“Insecure” MFA Methods When Switching Phones
Let me write about the non-secure ways to use MFA!
As I mentioned above, I also use email and SMS for certain accounts. The email experience also sucks! OK, I will be honest – this is certainly my own problem and few people may have this one but this is my rant so I will go with it. I have created many email accounts collected over time (about the reasons for that in some other post). One or another email account is used for MFA depending on what email address I’ve used for registration on a particular website. Those emails are synchronized to a single email account but… the synchronization is on schedule – about 30 mins or so. Now, every MFA code normally expires within 10 mins. Either, I miss the time window to enter the code or I need to login into that particular email account to get the code or I need to force the sync manually (yeah, I can do that but it is annoying. Right, Randall?!). Switching my phone has nothing to do with my emails so – there is no impact.
And the last one – SMS! Well, SMS doesn’t suck! You heard me! SMS doesn’t suck! … most of the time. Sometimes you will not get the text message on time due to networking issues but it works perfectly 99.999% of the time. Oh, and if I switch my phone, it continues to work without any additional configurations, QR codes, or calling my telco – like magic 😉
The Problem With Losing Your Phone
Now, here is where things get serious! Or serious if you use mobile apps for MFA. If you lose your phone, you are screwed. You will be locked out of all your accounts or most of them.
Apple is fine if you are in the Apple ecosystem. I have a few MacBooks, iPad, and AppleWatch – at least one of them will get me the MFA code.
With Facebook, I am screwed unless I am signed in to one of my browsers. For a person like me who uses Facebook once in a blue moon, the probability is low, so if I lose my phone, I am screwed. (Maybe that will push me over the edge to finally stop using them 🙂 ). I assume the WordPress story will be the same as with Facebook. Oh, and have you ever tried to get Facebook support on the phone to help you unlock your account? 🙂
About the other ones…
Backup Codes (or The Problem With Backup Codes)
Well, most of the systems allow you to print a bunch of backup codes that you can store “safely” so if you get locked out you can “easily” sign back in. I emphasize the words “safely” and “easily”. Here is why!
Storing Backup Codes Safely
Define “safely”! The experts recommend that you print your backup codes on paper and store them “safely” offline. I assume that they mean putting it in my safe deposit box at home, right? Because I will need to have easy access to those when I get locked out. It is questionable how safe is that because robberies are not uncommon. I had a colleague who got robbed and he found his safe deposit box in the bushes behind his house – of course, empty! Also, most of those safe deposit boxes are not fire- and waterproof. So, you need to buy a fireproof safe deposit box and cement it in your basement so no grown person (I mean teenager or older) can take it out with a crowbar.
Or, they mean to put it in the safe deposit box in the bank. Where there is security and the probability of robbery is minuscule. But then, I need to run to the bank every time I get locked out.
In both cases, this is not easy. From both a logistics point of view and a usability point of view. At the end of the day, what if I am on a trip and lose my phone (which is a quite realistic scenario).
To avoid all this hassle, most of us find some workarounds. Here are a few for you (and be honest and admit that you do those too):
- Saving the backup codes as files and putting them in a folder on your laptop.
- Copying the backup codes and storing them in your password manager (together with your password – how secure is that? 🙂 )
- Saving the backup codes as files and keeping them on a thumb drive in your drawer.
- Saving them as files on your Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or another cloud drive.
- You see where I am going with those…
To be honest, I even didn’t bother printing/saving the backup codes for some of my accounts (and not all of the systems offer that option), which I assume many of us do.
Even if I print them and store them in my safe, I need to print details of what account they belong to and if they get stolen, all my accounts will be compromised.
Storing the Seeds in the Cloud
Some of the authenticators like Microsoft Authenticator keep your seeds in the cloud. Authe was recommended to me for the same reason. The idea is that if you lose your phone, you can sign in to your authenticator on your new phone and it will sync your seeds on the new phone. Magical, right? Yes, if you are able to sign in to the authenticator on your new phone… without your MFA code. So, you are caught in this vicious circle that if you lose your phone, you will need an MFA code to sign in to your authenticator but you have no way to get the MFA code.
The Solution (Backed by the Numbers)
What are you left with if you lose your phone? The only two MFA methods that work for a lost phone are email and SMS (because even if I lose my phone, I can easily keep my number). They are the most insecure ones but have the lowest risk to get you locked out from your accounts.
I am not promoting the use of SMS and email as the second factor for authentication. But the numbers show that majority of the users who use MFA use SMS instead of an app or a hardware key (see the Twitter report). Let’s run this simple math:
- Twitter has about 396.5M users.
- 2.3% (at the time of this writing) use MFA for their Twitter account. This is ~9.12M MFA users.
- 0.5% of those 9.12M use a hardware key. This is just 456K hardware key users.
- 30.9% of those 9.12M use an auth app. This is 2.82M auth app users.
- 79.6% of those 9.12M use SMS. This is 7.26M SMS users.
It would be nice if Twitter had a way to break those numbers down by occupation (although it will be a violation of privacy). Pretty sure they will show that the majority of people who use an auth app or a hardware key work in technology. The normal users who deem their account important protect them with SMS because SMS offers the easiest user experience.
One more thing about SMS. Because everybody is scared to lock themselves out from their accounts, people set up their authenticator app as the primary MFA tool but then they have SMS as the backup. This way, if they lose their phone, they can still gain access to their account using SMS. But as we know, security is as strong as the weakest link – in this case the SMS. The setup of an authenticator app just gives the false illusion of security.
Using more than one factor for authentication is a MUST. Using stronger authenticators would be nice but with the current experience will be hard to achieve. To convince more people to do that, companies need to offer a much friendlier experience to their users:
- Freedom to choose authenticator app
- Easy recovery
Without those, the usage will be at the current Twitter numbers.
MFA is yet another technology developed without the user in mind. But unfortunately, a technology that is at the core of cybersecurity. It is a shame that the security vendors continue to produce all kinds of new technologies (with fancy names like SOAR, SIEM, EDR, XDR, ML, AI) without fixing the basic user experience.