Cybersecurity Blog

Authenticator apps, the good, the bad and the ugly 04/03/19

 

 

With compromised passwords floating around the dark web like masses of lemmings, two-factor authentication is moving from  nice-to-have to a must. Unfortunately, the most commonly used second factor is a SMS text message. Although this method is easy for account providers to implement, it can also be compromised.

Fortunately, more and more account providers are recognizing this and they are integrating with authenticator apps. An authenticator app is a phone app that either generates an authorization code for you or provides the user with a prompt they can respond to. As the phone number is not used to deliver the code, the 2FA cannot be bypassed by a SIM swap.

There are several well known authenticator apps on the market. The top ones are Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, 1PasswordLastPass Authenticator and Authy. All are free to try out. For the most part, they work pretty much the same way. You set them up by either scaning a QR code or entering a key to register your account with the app. When you go to login, the code appears in the app with a count down showing you how long it is valid for. You enter the code and shazam, you are in!

What sets them apart are the added features. Lets start with Google Authenticator. As it is free, simple to use. As it is by Google it is often highly rated by reviewers. However, the devil is in the details and one huge detail is you cannot backup your authenticator keys. This is a big problem if you get a new phone. It is also the reason why it is so poorly rated on the Apple Store. No one wants to spend days re-authenticating dozens of sites. This puts it squarely in the category of ugly.

Next up is Microsoft Authenticator. It works pretty much like the Google one for non Microsoft accounts. However, with Microsoft accounts you can use your phone’s biometrics or PIN to login instead of entering a password. This is a slick feature if you use a lot of Microsoft products and its free. Unlike Google Authenticator you can backup your authorization keys, but you must have a Microsoft account to do it. I put this one in the good category for Microsoft users and in the bad category for everyone else.

On to 1Password. This app is actually a password manager with an authenticator built in. If you are looking for a full feature password solution, this would be your tool. It is free to try, but you have to purchase it once your trial is over. Like the Microsoft app you can backup your keys and it generates authentication codes for its second factor. This one is also rated good.

We finally arrive at my favorite, LastPass Authenticator. The free version functions on its own like the Microsoft and Google products. However, if you purchase the LastPass password manager you can backup your keys plus you get this nice little feature that lets you respond to a prompt instead of entering in a code. Winner, winner chicken dinner!! No more entering codes puts this one at the top of my list. Not only is it a full feature password solution, but it makes securing your accounts way less work.

Lastly, is Authy. This little app is free to use, does the job and you can backup your codes. It is a solid solution that is always highly rated. if you don’t want to pay for an authenticator, this is your app. It definitely falls on the good side.

As determining which app is better for you can largely depend on your personal likes and dislikes I recommend you try them out before you commit long term.

On a final note, although authenticator apps may be more secure they still use your phone for the authentication process. If you lose your phone or forget it, you won’t be able to get into your account. Therefore before you enable any type of phone based two-factor authentication, make sure you can print off backup codes and store them in your wallet or purse. If you lose or forget your phone, you can use the the codes to get into your account.  Not all accounts have backup codes, the LastPass password manager is one of them, so do your homework before you enable 2FA.

 

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