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SMS OTP: Is Your Authentication Code Truly Secure?

Is your SMS OTP (one time password) authentication secure? Explore vulnerabilities and enhance security for robust protection.
by Rista Fathika
January 5, 2024
SMS OTP: Is Your Authentication Code Truly Secure?

As digital security concerns continue escalating, authentication and validation processes have become critical to protecting systems and applications. One widely used approach is SMS OTP authentication, which generates and sends one-time passwords via text. SMS OTP authentication is a popular form of two-factor authentication that acts as a second verification step for users to gain access to networks, systems, or applications.

However, it is essential to note that despite its solid reputation in the authentication industry, SMS OTP authentication is considered a weak form of verification. This article will explore the pros and cons of SMS OTP authentication and examine why more is needed to ensure data security and user protection.

How does SMS authentication work?

SMS authentication is a security feature that uses a possession-based factor to verify a user's identity. This method adds an extra layer of security to the login process, making it more difficult for bad actors to gain unauthorized access to an account. Users who log in to a website or app that uses SMS authentication will receive a text message with an authentication code.

This code is unique and can only be used once. The user must enter this code on the website or app to access their account. Many popular services, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, use SMS authentication. It is also commonly used in the banking sector to ensure the security of user accounts. To explain further, let's consider an example. Enter your email address and password if you want to log in to your Gmail account.

However, you won't get direct access to your account after signing in. Google will send you a 2FA verification code via text on your registered mobile number to authenticate your identity. This code is usually numerical, which you then enter in your browser application to gain access to your Gmail account. Overall, SMS authentication is a reliable and secure way to verify a user's identity. It is easy to use and provides additional protection against unauthorized access to an account.

Pros of SMS authentication

Although it is generally advised to move away from SMS authentication, there are still a few reasons why people and organizations continue to use it.

  • First, it is more secure than using passwords alone. Passwords are usually weak, as users forget them, reuse them across various accounts or store them poorly, making them vulnerable to theft. SMS authentication helps to reduce our reliance on passwords and makes it more difficult for bad actors to steal logins and hack accounts.
  • Second, it is convenient. Users reuse passwords because of the many online accounts they create and manage. Research shows that people have to remember 10 passwords every day. SMS authentication eliminates this hassle by sending unique codes directly to users, which they can easily input on a website or app to verify their identities.
  • Finally, it is better than no 2FA. Proving an identity with more than one piece of information will always be more secure than proving it with a single factor. SMS authentication, therefore, is a safer alternative.

Cons of SMS authentication

Although SMS authentication is a convenient and straightforward method, more is needed to protect the sensitive data of organizations, employees, and customers. Therefore, organizations must consider the possible risks before relying on SMS authentication. Here are a few risks that one should keep in mind:

  • SIM swapping: Hackers can intercept SMS messages by swapping the SIM card of a phone number to another device. This allows them to access any authentication codes sent to that phone number.
  • SIM hacking: SMS or text message interception attacks, such as SIM hacking, can be risky. Hackers can spoof cell phone tower signals and SS7 systems that enable data roaming. This allows them to access private messages and the information they contain.
  • Lost and synced devices: It's risky to rely on SMS authentication as devices are often lost or stolen. This risk increases when devices are connected to social media accounts and banking apps. When devices are synced, bad actors can access text messages and other data from multiple devices.
  • Online account takeover: Wireless service providers often allow users to view text messages on their web portals. However, securing these accounts with a trusted second factor is essential to keep them safe. Without secure protection, unauthorized individuals can access and monitor these accounts for SMS authentication codes.
  • Social engineering attacks: Phishing attacks happen on mobile devices just as much as on computers. They occur when hackers pose as trusted organizations to get people's personal information, passwords, and SMS codes to gain unauthorized account access.
  • Cost: Organizations should consider the potential security risks and costs before implementing SMS authentication. The price of SMS authentication can vary depending on the provider and the number of messages being sent. Furthermore, weak SMS authentication can make organizations vulnerable to catastrophic attacks.

Is SMS authentication secure?

Is SMS authentication secure?

Hackers are becoming more sophisticated daily, as evidenced by the increasing number of SMS attacks and security concerns. Even small amounts of information can be exploited to hijack mobile phones, spoof user identities, and gain access to accounts. As a result, SMS authentication is only partially secure, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) formally advised against its use in 2016. Although they have since modified their statement, the vulnerability SMS authentication poses remains significant.

When stealing passwords, an individual must first steal your phone, making SMS OTPs highly secure. Additionally, SMS OTPs have numerous benefits over traditional passwords. In traditional password systems, credentials are stored on the network, making them susceptible to replay attacks, which hackers are adept at exploiting. However, OTPs are different. A single SMS OTP is used to authenticate your identity only once, and after a specific time limit has expired, even if unused, it becomes obsolete. As a result, replay attacks are no longer a concern.

That is why, when using a public network such as Wi-Fi at a hotel or airport, it is always recommended to use SMS OTPs to authenticate your identity and avoid the risk of having your data or passwords stolen by keyloggers. SMS OTP delivery takes place in real-time, allowing for immediate identity authentication and preventing possible attempts to hack into your accounts and applications. This provides you with ample time to take necessary actions.

Why is SMS-based 2FA still so popular?

The security risks associated with SMS have been widely discussed for several years. Despite this, SMS for 2FA is still commonly used by many organizations. One reason is that SMS authentication is easy to deploy and use. Customers and employees are familiar with it and use it to access applications such as Slack and Guild Wars 2 or transfer funds. End users want fast, seamless authentication experiences without considering the security risks associated with SMS. If organizations want to move away from SMS authentication, they must provide alternative solutions that are just as easy to use.

Alternatives to SMS OTP: More Secure and Better

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