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Registration Campaigns Push for Stronger Authentication Methods
A year ago, Microsoft VP for Identity Security Alex Weinert spoke at the TEC 2022 conference and was critical about the slow adoption of multi-factor authentication (MFA) within Microsoft 365 tenants. At the time, only 26.64% of all Entra ID accounts used MFA (34.15% for accounts holding an administrative role). During his presentation, Alex talked about some of the initiatives Microsoft planned to drive MFA adoption and more secure authentication, including changes to the authenticator app, the introduction of authenticator-lite in Outlook mobile, and differentiation of authentication strengths for conditional access policies.
The changes discussed at TEC 2022 are now in production, but there’s still room for improvement. On July 17, Alex Weinert published a Microsoft Technical Community post titled Advancing Modern Strong Authentication focused on Microsoft’s push to get users off SMS responses to use a stronger method such as the Authenticator app. Alex noted that Microsoft telemetry records SMS and voice phone calls still being used for 44% of responses, He also said that Microsoft research concludes that SMS is 40% less effective at repelling compromise by bad actors compared to the Authenticator app, possibly due to an increase in man-in-the-middle attacks.
The Entra ID includes a feature called registration campaigns to help organizations move users to the Authenticator app. Essentially, administrators create a campaign and users start to see prompts to “improve your sign ins.” Users can snooze the prompt for a predefined period of up to 14 days but eventually they’ll need to select the authentication method defined for the campaign (the Authenticator app). Nagging until you do something…
The Mail Announcing the Registration Campaign Arrives
Bringing things back to TEC, as I prepared to travel to Atlanta for the 2023 conference this week, I received a note from Microsoft saying that users in my tenant that use SMS and voice methods for MFA responses would be prompted to switch to the Authenticator app (Figure 1).
Good as it is for users to upgrade their authentication method, I didn’t want users to receive an unexpected “Improve Your Sign-in” prompt while I was out of the office. Atlanta isn’t too far away, but the five hours dislocation from my normal working hours would definitely interfere with communications.
Pausing the Campaign
The reason why I received the notification was that the tenant settings for Entra ID had an enabled campaign. I’m not quite sure how the campaign was initiated, but it’s probably due to something I did in the past when checking out new Entra ID features. Microsoft complied and launched the campaign by warning me that it was about to begin.
The short-term solution is simple. I edited the campaign settings to put it into a disabled state (Figure 2).
The available settings for a registration campaign are Disabled, Enabled, and Microsoft controlled. The latter allows Microsoft to control a registration campaign, which is fine if everyone’s prepared for the change. For instance, it’s a good idea to help users install the Authenticator app on their mobile devices in advance.
It’s also wise to brief people about why using the Authenticator app is easy. The first time a user sees number matching and the additional context (location) displayed by the app when responding to an MFA challenge, they might conclude that it’s a more complex process than typing in a simple code received by SMS. But when they understand that number matching makes it harder for attackers to compromise MFA and the additional context helps them recognize suspicious activity (like an unexpected app provoking a challenge), it usually leads to a good result.
The Campaign Relaunches Soon
It’s a good idea to get rid of SMS and voice responses to MFA challenges, so I’ll relaunch the registration campaign when I return from TEC 2023. Life should be calmer then. At least, that’s the plan until the next emergency arises.
So much change, all the time. It’s a challenge to stay abreast of all the updates Microsoft makes across Entra ID and the rest of the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. Subscribe to the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook to receive monthly insights into what happens, why it happens, and what new features and capabilities mean for your tenant.