DevOps and Security Glossary Terms

Glossary Terms

Authentication Factor - definition & overview

In this article
What is an authentication factor?
Five authentication factor categories and how they work
Why use multiple authentication factors?
Sumo Logic protects its platform with multifactor authentication
What is an authentication factor?
Five authentication factor categories and how they work
Why use multiple authentication factors?
Sumo Logic protects its platform with multifactor authentication

What is an authentication factor?

An authentication factor is a special category of security credential that is used to verify the identity and authorization of a user attempting to gain access, send communications, or request data from a secured network, system or application.

Key takeaways

  • Individual authentication factors on their own may present security vulnerabilities, sometimes due to user behavior patterns and habits and other times, because of the limitations of technology.
  • Today, many organizations use multiple authentication factors to control access to secure data systems and applications.
  • The five main authentication factor categories are knowledge factors, possession factors, inherence factors, location factors, and behavior factors.

Five authentication factor categories and how they work

Each authentication factor represents a category of security controls of the same type. Within each category, security analysts can design or choose a feature that fits their needs in terms of availability, cost, ease of implementation, etc. Increasing the number of authentication factors required to access a system can make the login process more cumbersome and may generate increased user requests for assistance accessing the system. Still, the authentication process helps to ensure that only authorized users can access the network or application.

Here are the five main authentication factor categories and how they work:

Knowledge factors

Knowledge factors require the user to provide data or information before accessing a secured system. A password or personal identification number (PIN) is the most common knowledge-based authentication factor used to restrict access to a system. Most generic applications or network logins require a username/e-mail address and a corresponding password or PIN to gain access. The username or email address is not an authentication factor - this is how the user claims their identity to the system. A password or PIN is used to authenticate that the correct person provides the username or email address.

Possession factors

Possession factors require the user to possess specific information or devices before being granted access to the system. Possession factors are typically controlled through a device known to belong to the correct user. Possession factors enhance security in multifactor authentication by requiring the user to physically possess something besides their knowledge or biometric factors. This could be a hardware token, security key, or a mobile device. By adding this additional layer, even if an attacker gains access to a user's password or biometric data, they still need the physical possession factor to authenticate successfully. This significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized access, making it much harder for malicious actors to compromise all authentication factors simultaneously.

A device like the RSA SecurID can generate one-time passwords, which may be generated automatically and sent to the user's cellular device via SMS. In either case, the correct user must have the device that receives/ generates the one-time password to access the system.

Inherence factors

Inherence factors authenticate access credentials based on factors unique to the user. These include biometric authentication via fingerprints, thumbprints, and palm or handprints. Voice, facial recognition, and retina or iris scans are inherence authentication factors. When properly implemented and secured, biometric authentication can be considered a reliable factor in the authentication process. The drawback is that users may lose flexibility in accessing their accounts. A system that requires a fingerprint scan to access can necessarily only be accessed on devices with hardware that supports that specific authentication factor. This restriction is useful for security but may negatively impact user convenience.

Location factors

Network administrators can implement services that use geolocation security checks to verify a user's location before granting access to an application, network or system.

Imagine a technology company with 100 employees based in San Francisco, California. A security analyst for this organization might recognize that a user attempting to access the network with an IP address originating from outside that state is likely to be a cyber attacker or another unauthorized actor. Geolocation security can be used to ensure that only users within a specific geographic area can gain access to the system.

IP addresses are a useful factor for assessing the origin of network traffic, but hackers can use VPNs to obscure their location. Unique to individual computing devices, MAC addresses can be implemented as a location-based authentication factor to ensure that a system is only accessed from a limited number of authorized devices.

Behavior factors

A behavior-based authentication factor is based on actions undertaken by the user to gain access to the system. Systems that support behavior-based authentication factors may allow users to pre-configure passwords by performing behaviors within a defined interface and repeating them later for identity verification.

Have you seen mobile phone lock screens where the user must draw a specific pattern onto a grid of dots? How about the Windows 8 picture password feature? These are examples of behavior-based authentication factors.

Why use multiple authentication factors?

In contrast to MFA factors, individual authentication factors may present security vulnerabilities, sometimes due to user behavior patterns and habits and other times because of technology limitations.

A knowledge-based authentication factor requires users to memorize passwords and PINs. This can lead to users who use overly simplistic passwords and change them too infrequently, making them easy to guess or hack.

A location-based authentication factor can be foiled by technologies that make it difficult to accurately authenticate network traffic's origin.

A behavior-based authentication factor could be observed and replicated by a malicious actor.

Biometric and possession-based authentication factors may be the strongest means of securing a network or application against unauthorized access. Combining these methods into a multifactor authentication process decreases the likelihood of a hacker gaining unauthorized access to the secured network.

Sumo Logic protects its platform with multifactor authentication

Sumo Logic secures its platform using a two-step verification process that incorporates the third-party Google Authenticator (for Android, iOS, and Blackberry), Duo Mobile (for Android and iOS) and Authenticator (for Windows) mobile applications. The combination of knowledge and possession-based authentication factor security significantly decreases the likelihood of credentials being compromised and makes it difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access to your Sumo Logic account. Sumo Logic's security reputation and commitment to protecting user data are exemplified by our PCI 3.2 DDS compliance.


What are the most common challenges when implementing adaptive authentication methods?

1. Balancing security and user experience: Striking the right balance between enhanced security measures and ensuring a seamless user experience can be challenging. Adaptive authentication methods must be robust enough to detect anomalies and adapt security measures accordingly without causing inconvenience to legitimate users.

2. Data privacy concerns: Adaptive authentication often involves collecting and analyzing user data to assess risk levels. Ensuring compliance with data privacy regulations and securing sensitive information from unauthorized access is a critical challenge.

3. False positives and false negatives: One of the challenges of adaptive authentication is the risk of false positives (legitimate users being denied access) and false negatives (fraudulent users gaining access). Fine-tuning the algorithms to minimize these errors is crucial for the effectiveness of adaptive authentication.

4. Integration complexity: Implementing adaptive authentication methods may require integration with existing systems and applications, which can be complex and time-consuming. Ensuring seamless integration while maintaining security standards is a common challenge.

5. User acceptance and training: Introducing new authentication methods or continuously adapting security measures based on user behavior may require user training and acceptance. Overcoming resistance to change and ensuring that users understand the purpose and benefits of adaptive authentication can be challenging.

6. Resource requirements: Adaptive authentication may require additional resources for real-time monitoring, analyzing data, and responding to security incidents. Allocating the necessary resources and expertise to support adaptive authentication systems is challenging for organizations.

7. Scalability and adaptability: As security threats evolve, adaptive authentication methods must be scalable and adaptable to accommodate changing security requirements. Ensuring that authentication mechanisms can evolve with the threat landscape is a continuous challenge for organizations implementing adaptive authentication.

What is adaptive MFA?

Adaptive MFA, or Adaptive multifactor authentication, is an advanced security method that dynamically adjusts the authentication requirements based on the perceived risk level of a particular login attempt. By analyzing various factors such as user behavior, device information, location, and time of access, Adaptive MFA can strengthen security by prompting additional authentication factors only when necessary to verify the user's identity for access. This proactive approach helps enhance security while minimizing disruptions for legitimate users.

What role do authentication factors play in a zero trust security model?

In a zero trust security model, trust is never assumed, and all activities, including user authentication, are constantly verified. Authentication factors are crucial components in the zero trust security framework, and they ensure that access is granted based on multiple factors regardless of the user's location or device.

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