Which Authentication Method is the Weakest (Least Secure)?

We live in a society where our most valuable information is stored on digital networks and databases for remote access. The evolution of information technology has made this more beneficial than maintaining physical copies of your data. In addition to minimizing paper costs, virtual data storage enables us to access our information no matter where we are. 

Nowadays, most people have dozens of accounts with multiple programs and websites we use for one of several reasons. These accounts range from extremely important to relatively unimportant, depending on the service they provide. These databases, websites, and accounts usually host important personal or financial information that should not fall into the wrong hands. This means the databases use authentication methods to secure that information.

Authentication helps secure the data against unauthorized access to databases we use or create. These authentication methods vary widely and use different programs and tools to ensure the person logging into the database is supposed to have access. Any system without an authentication mechanism is extremely vulnerable to cyberattacks and hack attempts by unauthorized users who want to abuse the information stored in the system for their own gain. 

Unfortunately, having an authentication system does not automatically mean your data is secure, as not every authentication method is created equal. Some authentication methods are too weak to be relied on and will be easily bypassed by a cybercriminal with a modicum of experience.

Password Authentication Method

What is Authentication?

The term “authentication” finds its entomological roots in the Greek word “αὐθεντικός,” pronounced “authentikos” in English. Authentication is proving something is genuine and has developed applications in multiple industries. 

While authentication methods are available in art, archeology, and literature, it also plays a significant role in data protection. When pertaining to digital databases, authentication is considered electronic authentication (also known as e-authentication). E-authentication takes multiple forms and is used by private citizens, companies, and cybersecurity professionals to ensure unauthorized users do not access data. 

Electronic User Authentication

Like most technology, authentication adapts to the environment where it is used, but the American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) created a generic model for reference:

  • Enrollment: This stage applies to a credential service provider and where they give their information. This establishes them as users of a particular service or database and provides them with login credentials for future access.
  • Authentication: This stage involves the creation of an authentication token unique to the current user. This authenticator proves that the user is the same one who completed the enrollment stage.
  • Life-Cycle Maintenance: This stage pertains to the database’s efforts to preserve and maintain records of the user’s enrollment and authentication tokens. This ensures the user’s account remains accessible as long as the user is authorized.

An authentication method is used to secure the user’s profile if you use any software or websites where your personal information is used to conduct business or access records. The exact methods used by each website or database can vary, though all of them maintain the use of a traditional password. With the different levels of authentication available, it can be difficult to keep track of which are effective and which are not. We can not trust every authentication method to protect your information since some are too weak to serve as a total protection method.

Which Authentication Methods Are Most Common?

The different authentication methods used in data protection can vary widely, with some methods being used exclusively by government entities while others are available to civilians. If you have created a social media account or accessed a cloud server, you have used an authentication tool to access your data. You might not have realized it, but you constantly use authentication tools whenever you access an account.

Accessing an Account

The most common authentication methods used by modern citizens include:

  • Passwords: A single word comprised of letters, numbers, or special characters like ampersands that will be easy to remember for the user but difficult to guess for someone else. The most effective passwords are those that combine all 3 of these characters.
  • Multi-Factor: Multi-factor authentication (MFA) combines the standard passwords used to access your account with a secondary code sent to another device. This usually involves a 6-digit numeric code being sent to your e-mail address or cell phone that you enter into a new code entry line on the database’s URL. In rare cases, a special physical dongle is provided that creates a random secondary code on activation.
  • Certificate: Some programs create certificates akin to driver’s licenses or passports that you are expected to keep for future login attempts. This authentication method is less common than others but serves as a way to access your account via a document only you can access.
  • Biometric: Biometric authentication is a more recent authentication method that takes advantage of the one thing that is almost impossible to emulate–your body. Biometric authentication includes facial recognition, retinal scans, fingerprint scans, and voice recognition software. These authentication methods vary in efficiency depending on how advanced the software is, with government databases having the most advanced versions.
  • Token: A lesser-known authentication method is the token system, where entering your credentials rewards you with a unique string of characters. You can use this token instead of re-entering your credentials for subsequent logins. 

There are other, less reliable authentication methods available that some websites employ. Some websites employ CAPTCHA to authenticate the user as human, though this does little to prevent hack attempts. There are others though they see less use than those mentioned above due to reliability or accessibility issues. Unfortunately, the common nature of these authentication methods does not translate to them being the most reliable. Among this list of authentication methods, one of them is the weakest and easiest to bypass. The question is: which one?

Which Authentication Method is the Weakest?

With the various authentication methods, it should not surprise you that some are more effective than others. Unfortunately, the weakest authentication method is the most common one. We use passwords to access almost every database, account, and profile, and we do not question the situation. Most websites require passwords to ensure that only the person to whom the account belongs can access it, often requiring the password to meet certain requirements. While these requirements are designed to make the password more secure, relying solely on a password to protect your account is a poor decision. Passwords are one of the easiest authentication methods to bypass, and several techniques have emerged to bypass them.

The easiest method for bypassing a password is to steal it from the original user. Most passwords bear significance to the one who created them, such as the name of a pet or family member. Sometimes it is a date significant to the user’s history, such as a birthday or anniversary, but almost always, something the user will remember and keep close to their hearts. Combining those words or numeric strings with additional characters is encouraged but not always employed. 

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the account owner will be able to guess the dates significant to the user and likely discover the correct password. While this might seem like an avoidable outcome by employing the recommended special characters, passwords are still highly vulnerable.

Entering a Password

Even people who are not familiar with the user’s background can acquire that information through a practice called phishing. Phishing derived its name from “fishing for information,” where someone asks simple questions to get relevant information about a person, group, or place. While the answers might be innocuous, they can give another party insight into potential passwords. 

Modern phishing involves sending e-mails or texts where a hacker poses as a representative of an otherwise legitimate group and asks questions. Sometimes, a phisher will employ phone calls to extract information from you. The more you answer, the greater chance they will acquire the information they need to identify or brute force your passwords.

Another flaw with passwords is that most people employ the same password, or variations, for all of their relevant accounts. This practice helps minimize the number of passwords we have to remember so we can access our accounts without racking our brains. Unfortunately, the principle of making it easier for us to remember our passwords makes it easier for hackers to guess the password to multiple accounts. Using the password for your Netflix account as the password for your bank account makes it so that phishers and hackers can acquire the password for one and access the other.

Once a hacker or phisher accesses your accounts, they will likely change it to lock you out and minimize the risk of being kicked out until they have what they are after. This can make it difficult to regain control of your account until it is too late and your information has been compromised. Relying solely on passwords as the authentication method for your private accounts makes them more vulnerable than you realize. 

You could have the most complicated password in the world, and a cybercriminal could still bypass it and access your data. This does not mean we should abandon password use, but that it must be supplemented by a more reliable authentication method.

The biggest question is which authentication methods will best secure your personal and corporate accounts against hacking attempts. Fortunately, combining password use with some of the other authentication tools mentioned earlier can go a long way toward securing your accounts.

Which Authentication Method Should You Supplement With?

Using passwords is an inescapable part of data security and something we will continue to use to ensure the profile we log into is ours. To ensure our passwords are not compromised, combining them with additional authentication procedures will help protect the information behind them. One of the best tools for this is to employ a multi-factor authentication process that requires the one logging in to input additional information to be successful. The most common execution of a multi-factor authentication tool is a two-factor process where the one logging in receives an additional code they must input after entering their password. While this can be more secure, most two-factor authorization applications can be compromised if a hacker can access the program.

Biometric Authentication Method

Fortunately, other multi-factor authentication tools are more reliable than codes. One of the most reliable alternatives is biometric authentication which requires facial or fingerprint recognition to complete the login process. Most mobile applications with sensitive information are equipped to use facial recognition instead of a password or passcode. Before facial recognition, fingerprint scanning was standard on every iPhone. More advanced versions of this software are available for use by cybersecurity professionals that can be extended to private citizens and corporate teams. Combining these multi-factor authentication tools with your password can help secure your data and compensate for the issues the more mundane authentication tools possess.

Technically Speaking…

Securing a database or account will never be as simple as setting up a security measure and calling it a day. Maintaining the security of an account or database is a full-time job that requires constant observation to prevent attacks. Most accounts are difficult to breach, but cybercriminals develop new methods annually to bypass previously reliable security measures. While a password is an excellent start to securing your information, it is insufficient to cover all your bases and will require supplementation to maintain your safety. 

Unfortunately, when you are handling extremely sensitive information, cybercriminals are more likely to launch attacks to access that data. To protect your information and your clients’ information, you will need a full-time team to protect the data from cybercriminals. The trouble is finding a team you can rely on when you cannot finance an in-house team.

A Cybersecurity Professional

We at U.S. Cybersecurity know that you cannot skimp on your digital security measures if you want to protect your privacy and that of your clients. We offer a full range of cybersecurity services that will enable you to protect your network without stocking an in-house cybersecurity team. We live in an era where information technology can make or break your life, so securing your network is critical. If you need assistance, we urge you to visit our website and assess our services. We are standing by and ready to assist you.

Herman McCargo

Herman is a Microsoft Certified Security Engineer and Cybersecurity Specialist. He’s been in the technology field for over 20 years and has expertise working with the most critical technology infrastructures. He has a deep understanding of cyber risks, threat mitigation and prevention, and overseeing infrastructure.