Whether you’re trying to protect your cryptocurrency from scammers, your personal data from being gathered by hackers, or your smart home camera feed from being hijacked, one thing is certain: You need more protection than a good password.
Even the popular password management tool LastPass is dealing with security breaches. And two-factor authentication (2FA), which has long been touted as an end-all security solution for most folks, is being beaten by hackers more frequently these days.
According to a recent study from researchers at Stony Brook University and cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks, there are over 1,200 verifiable “phishing toolkits” available online that capable hackers can use to skirt around authentication protections.
Needless to say, our digital data and accounts are regularly at risk. If you’ve been looking into beefing up your online security, you may have run into a few authenticator apps boasting serious security measures. But how exactly do authenticator apps work and which one is right for you?
How do authenticator apps work?
With traditional 2FA, the service or account you’re trying to access will send you a text message or email with a code to unlock your account. Unfortunately, text messages can be rerouted in a variety of ways by hackers. If someone with the tech skills really wanted to get into your account, 2FA might not be enough of a deterrent.
Authenticator apps avoid your mobile network, sending codes through its own secure channels to avoid them being compromised. These apps generate one-time six-digit codes that refresh every 30 seconds. The codes are only sent on the app, so you’ll need to have the device in front of you to access the code. The slim timeframe device on hand makes this method of security nearly impossible to get through.
It won’t change much about your digital life though. All you have to do is copy and paste an extra code each time you log in to a service with the authenticator app enabled.
What to look for in an authenticator app
You shouldn’t go looking for an authenticator app with a lot of extra bells and whistles. While time-sensitive codes and encryption may sound complicated, the app is really just passing along a secret string of numbers.
Convenience is obviously a factor when choosing an authenticator app. You’ll want to make sure that the one you’re using is compatible with the devices and services you use regularly. This is no problem with most popular apps, but some have bonus compatibility with extra devices like smartwatches.
An authenticator app that allows encrypted backups is also key. If you set up every account you have to run through an authenticator, but then you lose your phone and can’t access your codes, it can be an absolute pain to reset your digital life. If the app you choose offers digital backups, you can log in to your authenticator app account on another device and act like nothing happened (okay, they will run you through a handful of security tests, but you’ll get in there eventually).
The best authenticator apps available right now
There are dozens of authenticator apps out there, but there aren’t any good reasons to stray away from the most popular. The best authenticator apps are simple and backed by top tech companies and reviewers. Any of the apps below will serve you well.
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Authy is supported on all platforms, is easy to sync across multiple devices, and offers encrypted backups for account recovery. This is the best authenticator if you're working across multiple devices daily, or are concerned about losing your phone.
LastPass Authenticator is straightforward to set up and navigate. It works really well in tandem with the LastPass password manager app — you can keep backups of your authenticator accounts in your LastPass vault, taking the pain out of new phone transfers.
Microsoft Authenticator also includes a password generator, one-tap access to Microsoft services, and a smooth account recovery tool. It's available on both iOS and Android devices (although there are some hiccups if you're transferring an account between those devices).