The Role of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) in Zero Trust

Illustration by Shreyansh Zazz via Dribbble

Based on the current environment companies worldwide are dealing with, passwords are no longer enough to be considered a viable security policy. This is largely due to advancements in technology and the digital transformation leading to a transition to cloud computing.

There’s also the ever-growing remote workforce and subsequent bring-your-own-device policies.

All of these elements of transformation mean that access control systems are needed for the accurate identification of individuals. That has led to calls for an increased emphasis on a Zero Trust security model.

Multi-factor authentication or MFA plays a key role in Zero Trust security. We’ll cover these intersections below.

What is Zero Trust?

Zero Trust underlies conditional access policies. A conditional access policy is put in place to prevent access until a user can meet one or more conditions.

Conditional access policies are meant to improve security, reduce user friction and minimize disruptions.

The philosophy of Zero Trust is that nothing is trusted, and everything is verified. All users, networks, and devices are inherently untrusted. Any sign-in attempt has to meet particular conditions before access is granted. The default-deny posture creates an access control system that’s incredibly secure.

There’s also protection beyond a network perimeter. Zero Trust models use micro-segmentation so that perimeters are defined in an asset-based way, eliminating the potential for lateral movement.

The castle-and-moat approach to cybersecurity is now obsolete. Under that concept, there was an assumption that everything within a perimeter wasn’t a threat and had clear access. The castle-and-moat approach defended only a perimeter that no longer exists because of the multi-cloud environment and remote and hybrid work.

Some of the most powerful attacks have occurred because once a hacker gets inside a corporate firewall, they can move around laterally with minimal resistance in the castle and moat model.

The number one goal of Zero Trust is understanding who the user is and where the user is coming from. Conditional policies help in the building of the framework because these policies specify under what conditions someone can have access to a resource.

Zero Trust isn’t a tool or technology because it’s a philosophy. It relies on integrating many types of technology, such as indent and access management and analytics, and multi-factor authentication.

Illustration by Joselyn Carvajal via Dribbble

The Basics of Multi-Factor Authentication

MFA is a method of authentication using two or more mechanisms for user identity validation instead of just relying on a combination of a username and password.

With MFA, whether part of a larger Zero Trust strategy or not, it can prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data and applications. The use of MFA helps safeguard and protect against cyberattacks, identity theft, and data breaches.

A business can use MFA to control who accesses their internal IT systems, and it can be used for customer-facing applications.

Basic authentication methodology only relies on usernames, and passwords are highly vulnerable. Cybercriminals can use different techniques to gain access to sensitive data.

For example, they can use brute force, programs generating random username or password combinations, or attacks exploiting common and weak passwords.

Credential stuffing is when an attacker uses leaked or stolen credentials from one account to access another, which is made possible by password reuse.

In phishing attacks, criminals use fake emails, text messages, or spoofed websites to trick someone into giving them their login credentials. Keylogging is a password attack where a bad actor installs malware on a computer and then captures the keystrokes for usernames and passwords.

In a man-in-the-middle attack, a cybercriminal can intercept communication over public Wi-Fi and get credentials.

MFA can serve as a protection against these attacks because it requires two or more forms of authentication, known as authentication factors.

An authentication factor can include knowledge, something a user knows, like a password, or perhaps the answer to a security question. A possession factor is something a user has, like a smartphone. Inherence factors are biologically unique features like a fingerprint. A location factor can also be used.

Even if a cybercriminal can get a username and password, they still wouldn’t be able to gain access without another factor when MFA is in place.

MFA is often a critical component of Zero Trust because it adds another layer of security needed to access a network, database, or application.

The Benefits of MFA

Along with being a component of Zero Trust, other specific benefits of MFA include:

  • As we touched on, the biggest benefit of MFA is the additional security it creates. There are multiple credentials needed before someone can access an account, so stealing credentials alone won’t be enough for an attacker. Many IT professionals feel that multi-factor authentication is the most effective security solution for protecting both on-premises and public cloud data.
  • Every authentication factor will provide multiple options, so organizations can customize the user experience and ensure it’s meeting their needs. For example, a user could access a fingerprint scanner on their phone, but not voice recognition. Two factors may be adequate in some situations, but others can require all three.
  • MFA works along with single sign-on. Users don’t have to choose between making many unique passwords or reusing the same passwords. When MFA is paired with SSO, users have reduced friction but added security. This promotes efficiency and productivity.
  • The use of MFA is easily scalable to meet the changing needs of a business.
  • In some cases, an industry may have regulatory requirements meaning that they have to use MFA.
  • The use of multi-factor authentication enables the ability to facilitate remote and hybrid work. Employees can use mobile devices to securely and easily access the resources they need to do their jobs effectively, no matter where they’re working.

Finally, some situations require more security, like accessing sensitive data from a network that’s not known, so adaptive MFA includes behavioral and contextual data.

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