Tech Time Warp: Multi-factor authentication is more secure, but who invented it?
The theme of this year’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month is “See Yourself in Cyber,” focusing on all the ways the human touch is needed for true cybersecurity. One focus for the month is multi-factor authentication (MFA), which keeps technology secure by requiring users to authenticate their identity in two or more ways in order to log in to a system. For instance, you might be required to enter your password and a time-limited unique code delivered via text. Or you might need to provide biometric data through facial recognition or a fingerprint. Either way, the human brain is required to complete the multi-step login process, preventing brute force attacks.
While MFA is widely used (and should be even more prevalent), its origin story is contested. RSA received a patent for its encryption algorithm, which required the use of a public key and a private key, in September 1983. In 1998, AT&T received a patent for an “automated method for alerting a customer than a transaction is being initiated and for authorizing the transaction based on a confirmation/approval by the customer thereto.”
The most intriguing claim to MFA history comes from none other than Kim Dotcom, founder of the now-defunct piracy website MegaUpload, who has been living in New Zealand to avoid extradition to the United States for the past 10 years. In May 2013, Dotcom tweeted: “Big reveal: 1billion+ Two-Step-Authentications on the Internet weekly. I invented it. Here’s proof.” In his tweet, he linked to a patent he filed for in 1998 and was granted in 2000 under the name Kim Schmitz. That was two years after AT&T’s patent—but that didn’t stop Dotcom from suggesting the tech giants relying on his two-factor authentication method (including Google and Facebook) should assist him with his estimated $50 million in legal fees. No one seemed compelled by his argument, and while two of his MegaUpload co-founders cut deals with the U.S. government in June 2022, Dotcom is keeping up his fight.
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