Online Security Part 10 – Is a Strong, Unique Password Enough?

Once you start down the rabbit hole of online security, it can seem endless. For example, as previously explained, strong passwords require a password manager to store them and then the password manager requires an even stronger password to keep those strong passwords secure. No less than three parts of this series of articles have been dedicated to passwords, but believe it or not, there is a growing movement toward something called “two factor authentication” that makes strong, unique passwords only one of the two things needed to login to critical accounts. It is so important that Apple even briefly considered making it mandatory for iCloud accounts so it is definitely worth understanding before deciding to use it.

Unfortunately, it is a bit of a complex topic so let’s break it down into smaller parts.

  • What is it called? – The most common names are: Two-factor authentication (2FA), Multi-factor authentication (MFA), and Two-step verification.
  • Why is it used? – Email is central to other security features of accounts and can be used to reset passwords for other accounts such as banking, shopping, etc. Cloud storage accounts contain valuable resources that are synchronized across devices. Deleting something “in the cloud” can delete it everywhere. 2FA makes these and other accounts like banking more secure.
  • What is it? – 2FA requires a second step (factor) to login. These factors typically include knowledge (of a password), possession (of a smartphone), and inherence (of a fingerprint). 95% of the time a 2FA login requires entering the password and the code from a text message sent to a cellphone, but backup methods include a voice call, a code from a smart phone app tied to the account, a text message to a backup cellphone, or responding to a prompt after unlocking a cellphone with a fingerprint.
  • How it protects? – Simply put 2FA increases safety by combining something you know, the password, with something you have, the smartphone.
  • What are some dangers associated with 2FA? – A lost, stolen, broken, or hacked phone can make getting the code impossible so all 2FA systems have backup methods such as specifying a backup phone, printing a list of backup codes (recovery keys) and storing them in a physically safe place (not in a file on your computer!), or answering detailed security questions.

As an additional step, it might be a good idea to keep an encoded list of passwords on a sheet of paper in a safe place. For example:

  • Power Company – jdoe@gmail.com – *bhr18$
  • Cellphone – jdoe@gmail.com – #dcd22@

Where “*bhr18$” would stand for the real password “*beach-horse-ride18$” and “#dcd22@” would stand for “#desert-cat-drive22@” Creating strong passwords with a pattern like “place,” “animal,” and “action” can reduce confusion.

It may sound crazy to add yet another layer to the security of critical accounts, but once it is setup 2FA doesn’t add much effort to use. Both Google¬†and Apple have excellent tutorials on setting up 2FA for their services.