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HOTP vs TOTP: Difference and know which one is better

HOTP vs TOTP for 2FA: Differences, Which is Better & Secure

TOTP (Time-based One-time Password) and HOTP (Counter-based One-time Password) are both forms of one-time authentication methods that generate unique codes used for secure logins. However, they differ in the way they utilize a “moving factor” to generate these codes.

This post will make a detailed comparison between the two authentication methods. Before getting into that it’s important to establish the basic principles of two-factor authentication.

A brief overview of 2FA or 2-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a security measure that adds an extra layer of protection to password-protected online accounts.

It can be thought of as a two-step verification process that involves 

  1. Something you know: Typically a password
  2. Something you have: A code sent via SMS or an authenticator application/ hardware key that you plug into the computer/ a fingerprint scan or facial ID. 

When a user tries to log into a 2FA-enabled online account by entering the login credentials (username and password) the server sends a code or prompt to verify the second authenticating factor. The login process is completed only when both factors are verified.

If a hacker steals the username and password for a 2FA-enabled account, they won’t be able to log in without the second factor. 2FA makes it much harder for hackers to gain unauthorized access to online accounts.

There are many forms of 2FA authentication. HOTP and TOTP are both examples of such authentication methods.

What is an HOTP?

HOTP stands for HMAC-based One-Time Password. HMAC stands for Hash-based message authentication code. HMAC works like a digital fingerprint that ensures that A. the message is not tampered with during transmission and B. the message has come from the authorized source. 

So, HOTP is a one-time password based on the HMAC algorithm.

How is HOTP generated?

HMAC-based OTP is generated using a secret key and a counter. 

The secret key has a constant value shared by the user and the server. The counter starts at an initial value and is incremented with each attempt to generate a code.

How is HOTP generated
Fig. HOTP working explained

The secret and the counter are combined and put through a hash function to generate a hash at the user’s end. The OTP is a truncated version of this hash. This truncated hash is shared by the user with the server. The server uses the same secret, counter, and hash function to verify that the right code is sent by the user. With every attempt the counter changes and so does the hash. This ensures that an older code cannot be reused.

The success of HOTP depends on server-client synchronization.    

What is a TOTP? 

TOTP stands for Time-based One-Time Password. Time works as a changing factor in this system to ensure old passwords cannot be reused. This method is an improvement on the HMAC-based OTP. Instead of a counter that shifts with every attempt, it uses a counter that shifts with time. 

How does a TOTP work?

Each TOTP stays valid for a certain period. This period is called a time step. It is usually set at 30 seconds and can be modified in some cases. The user and the server use the same clock to determine the current time.

The current time is usually represented by the number of seconds elapsed since January 1, 1970. The current time is then divided by the time step to find out the current time value. That means the time value changes with each passing time step.

how TOTP works
Fig. How does TOTP working

Now, the secret key shared by the client/user and the server along with the time value is put through an HMAC algorithm from the user’s end. A truncated version of the resultant hash works as the OTP. The same process is repeated by the server to verify the authenticity of the TOTP sent by the user.

HOTP vs TOTP: the key differences

TOTP is an improvement on HOTP and they have certain common elements. But there is a lot that segregates TOTP and HOTP in terms of the process, security, usability, and application. The following sections will walk you through some of those differences.

Passwords cannot be reused as the counter value is incremented each time. Provides better securityHOTPTOTP
Algorithm BasisHMAC (Hash-based Message Authentication Code)HMAC (Hash-based Message Authentication Code)
Key AspectCounter-basedTime-based
Primary UsageOTPs are generated based on a counter valueOTPs are generated based on the current time
SecurityRelies on the security of the counter value; if compromised, OTPs can be predictedRelies on time synchronization; less prone to prediction if the time source is secure
Synchronization RequirementSynchronization of the counter between server and client is crucialSynchronization of time between server and client is crucial
OTP ValidityOTP validity is not time-bound and depends on the counter incrementOTP is valid for a short period, typically 30 to 60 seconds
Implementation ComplexityLess complex as it requires simple counter-managementMore complex due to the need for time synchronization
User ExperienceUsers can use the OTP until the next one is generatedTime-bound OTP can be more challenging for users, leading to a need for quick entry
Risk of Replay AttacksLower, as each OTP is based on the next counter valueHigher, as OTPs are valid for a set time period
Standard ReferencesDefined in RFC 4226Defined in RFC 6238
Typical ApplicationsSuitable for systems where time synchronization is challengingPreferred in online systems where time synchronization is feasible
User CasesLess complex as it requires simple counter-managementBetter for infrequent events and transaction authentication due to the event-based nature
Token RequiredA hardware or software token is required to generate the passwordsA hardware or software token is required to generate the passwords
Password ReuseThe same password may repeat after the validity window elapses making it less secureBetter for frequent events and session authentication due to the time-based nature
Detailed comparison of HOTP vs TOTP

The Moving Factor in HOTP vs TOTP

The moving factor is what ensures that each OTP is unique. It creates the primary difference between HOTP and TOTP.

  • The moving factor in HOTP: The moving factor in HOTP is a counter that increments with each generated code. That means one code loses validity only when the next one is generated.
  • The moving factor in TOTP: The moving factor in TOTP is the time value calculated by dividing the time-based since January 1, 1970, by the time step. Therefore, the moving factor changes automatically with every time step (30/60/90 seconds).

Synchronization between client and server

Synchronization between the user and the server is essential for a one-time password to work. Or else the server would get the moving factor wrong and fail to authenticate the legitimate user. 

Client-server synchronization in HOTP

HOTP uses a turn-based counter as the moving factor to generate the OTP. The counter value entered from the client’s end needs to match that of the server for successful authentication. This can pose a minor challenge in the event of a connectivity issue.

Let’s say, a user generates an OTP with the counter value 0 and doesn’t share it with the server. And then generates another OTP with the counter value 1 and shares it with the server. The server should try to verify the code by using the counter value 0. In such an event, the process would fail. The server is usually programmed to try 3 to 5 subsequent OTP to authenticate a user to avoid that.

Client-server synchronization in TOTP

In the case of TOTP, synchronization takes place through device time. It is independent of network connectivity or instance of attempts. Both the user’s OTP token and the server keep generating new codes with every time step, Since both sides follow the current Unix time, they’re always in sync. 

TOTP vs HOTP: Security 

The biggest flaw in the HMAC-based one-time password is that the validation window is indefinite. One OTP is valid until the next is generated. This creates some security challenges.

Replay attacks

If a man-in-the-middle attacker gets access to the HOTP as it is transmitted, they can reuse it to gain unauthorized access to the user’s account.

The chances of replay attacks are extremely low in the case of TOTPs as the small time step ensures the rapid regeneration of authentication codes.

Phishing attacks

HOTP-based authentication is less vulnerable to phishing attempts since it is mostly done using hardware tokens like key fobs. However, if the token gets stolen, it can cause severe problems. 

Hackers can acquire the TOTP through phishing websites. Hackers can manipulate users into entering their credentials to log into a service account by putting up a duplicate site. They can relay the information to the legitimate site. The server will ask for the 2FA information, which the user will enter into the fake site. Hackers can hijack the online account just like that.

Since time-based OTP changes every 30 seconds, hackers have very little time to run the whole process of stealing accounts. 

User experience

Both HOTP and TOTP can work offline. Both are easy to set up and use. However, TOTP gets the upper hand here since it doesn’t require the user to manually advance their counter.

Some users may find that entering a TOTP within the time step is a challenge, but it is this challenge that adds security to the method. TOTP is also easier to implement. 

The use of HOTP doesn’t require a device with a clock that is synced with the server. In the case of a TOTP, the need for a clock for OTP authentication necessitates an additional communication device such as a smartphone. 

Also, TOTP requires a digital authenticator app such as Google authenticator to function. Nevertheless, these dependencies are not considered cons since they add security to the process.

Supported Applications

Time-based OTPs are among the most popular authentication methods supported by a wide array of online services. HOTP, on the other hand, is more suitable for hardware token-based authentication. Hence, the use of HOTP is waning. 

Bottomline

TOTP codes change every 30 seconds and HOTP code changes with every attempt. TOTP brings an additional layer of security in the form of time. The same cannot be said for HOTP. A wide array of service providers including password management tools like Uniqkey have adopted the TOTP. It is definitely less hackable than the HOTP, which means more security and reliability. 

Uniqkey

Uniqkey is the perfect password management solution for teams and businesses. Built with high usability in mind, Uniqkey makes it easy for employees to adopt secure password habits, raising company-wide security in a simple and effective way.