Marlowe Evans
Marlowe Evans
Originally from British Columbia, Evans is pursuing a Bachelor in Political Science at UNB.
February 26, 2021

Technology in an Online Semester and UNB’s Multi-Factor Authentication

Computer attached to a handcuff | Illustration by Jules Keenan

As of January 5, the University of New Brunswick is demanding that students use multi-factor authentication (MFA) to access UNB Microsoft services. While added security is always a benefit, and the extra few seconds it takes to redirect to a second app or device may not be more than a momentary inconvenience for some students, for others it may pose an additional barrier to accessibility during a year that has been increasingly difficult. So the question must be posed – is MFA just another technological barrier and financial wall adding to the burden of students?

The 2020-2021 school year is online – and this means that for students whose access to technology was already tenuous, things have been even more difficult. Everything from textbooks to lectures are online this year, and most often with no alternatives for those who don’t have laptops, tablets, or cellphones that are able to connect to apps like Microsoft Teams. 

Many people don’t consider the human cost of the increased reliance on technology that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Students who don’t have the ability to pay for WiFi at home, students whose technology was out of date, or even those who only had one device and relied on public spaces like the library computers and printers and who were forced to complete the term at home are being put to further disadvantage by the university asking all students to use multi-factor authentication.

The new IT Services policy asks that UNB Microsoft 365 account holders verify their identities not only via secure username and password, but also via secondary methods. This affects Teams, OneDrive, and also UNB email accounts. This can be done with the Microsoft Authenticator App, which is compatible with smartphones and tablets (Android, iOS, and Windows). The second provided method is via text message to a cell phone. There is also a prompt at the end of the page saying that if no method available is viable, to contact the IT Service Desk to work towards a solution.

Despite what seem like reasonable options, however, the list isn’t exhaustive. There are other multi-factor authentication methods, sure – for-purchase hardware tokens, which are basically like a version of the authenticator app but for a laptop or desktop computer, and also any of the phone number/cell phone SMS dupe programs that allow computers to pretend to receive SMS notifications to a phone number. Still – all of these possible work-arounds and solutions involve having to delve deeper into technology.

It’s obvious that this school year’s move to an almost entirely online model was done for the safety of both students and staff, and adding security to online UNB services is being done for the same reason. However, requiring additional devices and access is still compounding an accessibility issue that’s been growing as the year progresses. University is expensive enough already – asking students to have a secondary device, the money to buy a workaround, or even the time to develop the technological literacy required to find another solution isn’t fair. It may not seem like an issue for those who view having a laptop, smartphone, and tablet as a default, but for those students who pieced together every bit of savings they had to buy a laptop, to pay for school, and to manage a phone bill on top of it? Not every student who has a phone has the ability to load the authenticator app. Not every student has the understanding in and knowledge required to figure out how to use hardware tokens or SMS dupes. But worse still is the affront to pride.

The webpage for the move to MFA says account users can contact eservices for help with alternatives. Sounds great on the surface. But anyone who has experience with real financial hardship understands the immense affront to pride that comes with having to reach out, personally, and say something like, “None of these options work for me because I can’t afford the necessary infrastructure.” It’s just like in grade school when the teacher would say that even students who couldn’t afford the field trip could go if they said so and demonstrated financial hardship. Having to single oneself out as having less than others, just to gain access to a service which is necessary is, by definition, classist. 

So the question stands – is MFA another difficulty UNB students have to weather going into  a second term of online delivery?


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