Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



Committee Director

Jeremiah D. Still

Committee Member

Robin Lewis

Committee Member

Rachel Phillips


System administrators have started to adopt two-factor authentication (2FA) to increase user account resistance to cyber-attacks. Systems with 2FA require users to verify their identity using a password and a second-factor authentication device to gain account access. This research found that 60% of users only enroll one second-factor device to their account. If a user’s second factor becomes unavailable, systems are using different procedures to ensure its authorized owner recovers the account. Account recovery is essentially a bypass of the system’s main security protocols and needs to be handled as an alternative authentication process (Loveless, 2018). The current research aimed to evaluate users’ perceived security for four 2FA account recovery methods. Using Renaud’s (2007) opportunistic equation, the present study determined that a fallback phone number recovery method provides user accounts with the most cyber-attack resistance followed by system-generated recovery codes, a color grid pattern, and graphical passcode. This study surveyed 103 participants about authentication knowledge, general risk perception aptitude, ability to correctly rank the recovery methods in terms of their attackr esistance, and recovery method perceptions. Other survey inquires related to previous 2FA, account recovery, and cybersecurity training experiences. Participants generally performed poorly when asked to rank the recovery methods by security strength. Results suggested that neither risk numeracy, authentication knowledge, nor cybersecurity familiarity impacted users’ ability to rank recovery methods by security strength. However, the majority of participants ranked either generated recovery codes, 39%, or a fallback phone number, 25%, as being most secure. The majority of participants, 45%, preferred the fallback phone number for account recovery, 38% expect it will be the easiest to use, and 46% expect it to be the most memorable. However, user’s annotative descriptions for recovery method preferences revealed that users are likely to disregard the setup instructions and use their phone number instead of an emergency contact number. Overall, this exploratory study offers information that researchers and designers can deploy to improve user’s 2FA- and 2FA account recovery- experiences.


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