In a blog post, Alex Weinert, director of identity security at Microsoft, says people should definitely use MFA. He claims that accounts using any type of MFA get compromised at a rate that’s less than 0.1 per cent of the general population.
At the same time, he argues people should avoid relying on SMS messages or voice calls to handle one-time passcodes (OTPs) because phone-based protocols are fundamentally insecure.
“These mechanisms are based on public switched telephone networks (PSTN), and I believe they’re the least secure of the MFA methods available today,” said Weinert. “That gap will only widen as MFA adoption increases attackers’ interest in breaking these methods and purpose-built authenticators extend their security and usability advantages.”
Hacking techniques like SIM swapping – where a miscreant calls a mobile carrier posing as a customer to request the customer’s number be ported to a different SIM card in the attacker’s possession – and more sophisticated network attacks like SS7 interception have demonstrated the security shortcomings of public phone networks and the companies running them.
Computer scientists from Princeton University examined SIM swapping in a research study [PDF] earlier this year and their results support Weinert’s claims. They tested AT&T, T-Mobile, Tracfone, US Mobile, and Verizon Wireless and found “all 5 carriers used insecure authentication challenges that could easily be subverted by attackers.”
They also looked at 140 online services that used phone-based authentication to see whether they resisted SIM swapping attacks. And they found 17 had authentication policies that allowed an attacker to hijack an account with a SIM swap.
In September, security firm Check Point Research published a report describing various espionage campaigns, including the discovery of malware that sets up an Android backdoor to steal two-factor authentication codes from SMS messages.
Weinert argues that SMS and voice protocols were not designed with encryption, are easy to attack using social engineering, rely on unreliable mobile carriers, and are subject to shifting regulation.