Adoption of two-factor authentication (2FA) is rapidly increasing, particularly among people aged 18-34, as consumers grow concerned with protecting online accounts from data breaches.
When Duo Labs researchers set out to learn more about adoption and perception of 2FA in 2017, they learned 56% of Americans polled had never heard of the technology. Only 28% used 2FA on at least one website or app. Over the past two years, that adoption has increased - reaching 51%.
In their new State of the Auth report released this week, Duo analysts shared the results of a second census-representative survey designed to measure 2FA usage in the United States. By 2019, the researchers found, 77% of people surveyed had heard of 2FA, up from 44% two years prior.
Sean Frazier, Advisory CISO with Duo, says there are several reasons why consumers have become more familiar with 2FA. "Now, people are starting to see these things in their personal lives," he explains. Banks and tech companies are encouraging customers to use 2FA for accounts and devices. Newscasters reporting on data breaches now mention 2FA as an option for stronger consumer security.
"You're seeing it come up in basic conversations about security hygiene," Frazier continues. Indeed, much has changed in the years since Duo's initial poll: Apple released Face ID in its iPhone X, GDPR was fully enforced throughout the EU, and WebAuth was published as a W3C recommendation. Businesses have increasingly implemented 2FA requirements for employees, broadening adoption.
These shifts arrive at a time when a growing amount of data points to the unreliability of password-based authentication. Only 32% of US respondents to the Duo survey reported using strong, complex passwords. Password reuse, rampant among consumers and security pros alike, is at the core of incidents like the compromise of developer repositories on Bitbucket, GitHub, and GitLab.
SMS-based authentication remains the most popular 2FA factor at 72% usage, followed by email (57%), authenticator app (36%), and phone callback (30%). SMS was also the most popular answer when respondents were asked about their preferred authentication factor, indicating their familiarity with this option makes it more convenient and appealing.
"We want to make sure that even though we have to add friction to the user experience, we want it to be as minimal as possible," Frazier explains. While security experts have discovered flaws with SMS authentication, it's "better than nothing" if it's your only option, he continues.
Researchers asked participants which three online accounts they were most concerned with securing. Banking and financial accounts came out on top (85%), followed by communications and social media (32%), health (28%), retail (25%), and utilities (24%). Lack of concern for email accounts was "counterintuitive," they note in the report. In the absence of 2FA, email is usually the source of identity for financial accounts. If an attacker can successfully compromise an email account, they can likely change credentials for other accounts without raising red flags.
"If you're compromised once, you're compromised everywhere," Frazier points out.
Gaming Pays Off
A closer look at the demographic data shows younger users are at the forefront of 2FA adoption: 69% of users aged 18-24 use 2FA, as do 68% of those aged 25-34. The percentage drops for users among ages 35-44 (58%), 45-54 (49%), 55-64 (49%), and older than 65 (33%).
Part of the reason for this could be younger users' stronger familiarity with technology. As Frazier points out, gamers have been using 2FA for several years. As schools include tech and security in curricula, kids will continue to develop a greater understanding of basic security.
Frazier emphasizes the importance of encouraging awareness at the building block level with kids in schools, and continuing as they grow up and enter the workplace. "Apple, Google, and Microsoft have done a pretty good job of building this into their ecosystems," he continues. "As they are pervasive, it will make people intrinsically understand how these things work."
He anticipates by this time next year, consumers will report greater familiarity with, and adoption of, other authentication methods like security keys. In this year's survey, security keys were considered by those who used them to be efficient, secure, and easy to use.