Single Sign-On vs. MFA: Do You Know The Difference?

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Usernames and passwords are the foundation of user authentication, but these factors are no longer enough to prevent data exposure. As cyber threats become more complex, companies are fighting back through single sign-on and multi-factor authentication. These solutions can strengthen your cybersecurity framework without hindering user experience. 

What Is Single Sign-On?

Single-sign on (SSO) is a login method in which users have one set of credentials to access multiple applications. The main benefit of SSO is the streamlined approach. Users can access multiple services without pausing to enter new credentials. 

A common example of SSO is Google’s set of applications. With one login, users can access their email inbox, calendar, documents, photos, and videos. They can organize a video call and even shop online through one central login. 

There are a few main benefits of SSO. This approach can improve user experience when used externally and boost workflow when used internally. It’s also convenient when users are accessing applications on multiple devices. 

SSO is more centralized, so it can also make it easier for IT departments to monitor user activity. This centralization may also cut down on the number of weak passwords in the network. Hackers will have fewer potential entry points, and the IT team can stop attacks more quickly. 

When implementing SSO in your cybersecurity framework, it’s important to keep some potential pitfalls in mind. Widespread access through one entry point is one of the main risks of this approach. If a hacker gains entry into an SSO system, they’ll have access to all of the applications tied to that login. Similarly, if the system is compromised, users won’t be able to access any of the associated applications. With fewer accounts to remember and maintain, it is often a good idea for an organization using SSO to strengthen the authentication controls by increasing the number of characters required for the password, increasing complexity requirements (e.g., the number of characters required for passwords) and updating policies for account lockouts and password reuse.

This is where multi-factor authentication comes in. 

What Is Multi-Factor Authentication?

Since password guessing and login access are among the top causes of cyber attacks, additional layers of protection are essential. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires users to enter two or more identification factors to access an application. These pieces of information are unique to the user and challenging to guess or replicate. The MFA approach makes it more difficult for hackers or malicious parties to access sensitive data. 

Security experts typically separate MFA credentials into three main categories:

  • Something You Know: Factors that a user knows can include passwords, security questions, and pin numbers. These are private login credentials that are difficult for others to guess, especially when they’re simply memorized and not stored in an external location. 
  • Something You Have: This type of factor involves another device or object, like a smartphone, when verifying a user. As an example, a user might need to enter a code that they receive as a text message following their password. Other factors that users might have include security badges, verification apps, or security tokens. 
  • Something You Are: This group of factors generally includes biometrics. Fingerprints, facial recognition, and voice recognition are common sources of verification. Retina scans are also part of this group. These factors are often part of high-level security requirements. 

When implementing MFA, organizations typically choose two of the above factors. So, a user might need to enter a password and a Short Message Service (SMS) code. The system might require MFA with every login or only when users login on a new device. By doing so, users verify their identity and can safely access the applications. These authentication layers also make it more challenging for hackers to access applications and networks.

SMS codes, security questions, and pin numbers are the most common types of authentication factors. However, these factors can become more complex when users need more security clearance. Your organization might have data that only upper management can access. You might add more advanced login factors like security tokens and voice recognition to prevent unauthorized access. Biometric verification factors go even further, creating exclusive access. It’s important that your organization chooses appropriate authentication factors based on the data at risk. 

SSO or MFA — Which is Better for Cybersecurity?

Single sign-on and multi-factor authentication aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, organizations can benefit from implementing both at the same time. Doing so improves both user experience and security, while making it easier to monitor network activity. 

These security layers together can stop hackers in their tracks. If a hacker or malicious party somehow gains access to a user’s password, this won’t be enough to access your system. Chances are, they don’t have the answers to a user’s security questions as well. It’s even less likely that they can access a user’s text messages to enter the verification code. This keeps the hacker away from all applications, and authorized users can still enjoy the streamlined experience. 

When implementing SSO and MFA, it’s important to do so in a way that meets your organization’s unique cyber security needs. A cyber security consulting firm can work with you to effectively add these data loss prevention solutions into your framework. An expert can assess whether SSO makes sense for your users and when MFA is necessary. With the right approach, your organization can balance network security and user experience. 

Ready to Strengthen Your Cybersecurity Framework through MFA and SSO?

The team at Fortified Health Security, based in Franklin, TN, offers comprehensive security solutions. With services like penetration testing, vulnerability threat management, data loss prevention, and managed solutions, our seasoned specialists can put together a security strategy based on your organization’s needs. We specialize in the healthcare industry, offering HIPAA compliance and medical device solutions as well. Contact us today to get started.