The Difference Between Authentication and Authorization — Explained in Detail by a Security Expert

The Difference Between Authentication and Authorization — Explained in Detail by a Security Expert

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Authentication vs authorization — what these two terms are and why should you care about them

People tend to get confused between the words “authentication” and “authorization” because they sound and are spelled in a somewhat similar manner. And while the terms appear similar on the surface, their goals are different — the first is about figuring out who you are, and the other focuses on verifying whether you’re authorized to do something.

Although they have different meanings and serve different functions, authentication and authorization are both essential concepts of identity and access management (IAM) and good security design. In this article, we’ll explore what these terms entail and discuss examples from real-life scenarios. After that, we’ll jump into how organizations can utilize both of these practices to strengthen their IAM posture.

So, without further delay, let’s explore authentication vs. authorization in detail.

Authentication vs Authorization: What’s Authentication and How Does It Work?

In the most basic sense, authentication refers to the process of confirming someone’s identity. To confirm a person’s identity through non-digital means, documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, state ID, social security cards, etc. are used as a part of the authentication process.

In the digital world, though, we rely on machines and artificial intelligence to verify users’ identities. To make sure it is dealing with the same person they are claiming to be, the machine needs to use authentication methods such as passwords, one-time passwords (OTPs), and biometrics.

The authentication methods are selected from three main types of information:

  • what you know (like passwords, answers of security questions, access pins, ATM pins, etc.),
  • what you possess (like a digital ID card, a mobile device or app, a security token, etc.), and
  • who you are (biometric data like fingerprint authentication software, retinal scans, face recognition software, etc.)?

There are three main types of authentication:

Single-Factor Authentication (SFA)

This is the simplest form of authentication. A person needs to provide only one piece of information to confirm their identity. The most common example of SFA is a password. So, for example, just by entering your specific password, you can access your email, social media accounts, and pretty much any website where only a password is required to log in.

However, this method isn’t perfect and certainly isn’t the most secure option. SFA is risky because it involves only one security layer. However, it can be a good option for websites that don’t handle personal, financial, or other types of sensitive information.

To mitigate the risk, you can either set a strong password or opt for two-factor authentication or select a more complex authentication method like biometric data.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

In 2FA, there are two verification steps involved to get access to a system. The authentication methods are selected from the three types of authentication info we listed earlier.

The common example is the one-time password or one-time pins (OTP). To complete online purchases, you need to provide credit card/debit card number, CVV, and card expiry date information. If all this information is accurate, you may be asked by your bank to provide an OTP that’s sent to your registered mobile number as a second layer of protection. Only after providing the six-digit OTP the transaction can be completed.  

You may get an OTP delivered to your registered mobile device, or you may be asked to answer security questions when you log in to your email or social media accounts from a different device. Both of these are examples of two-factor authentication.

In short, for 2FA, two pieces of confidential information are needed to verify the person’s identity. For transactions that handle sensitive information, this is obviously a safer method than simply relying on single-factor authentication alone.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Multi factor authentication is the most advanced form of authentication. Here, you have to pass through two or more layers of verification processes to prove your identity to a system.

Examples of Authentication Methods in Action

Want an example of how some of these authentication methods work? Let’s consider the following scenario:

Bob is the purchasing manager of an organization that has implemented MFA. Bob wants to order some inventory for the production department using the company’s debit card. This means that he needs to order from their designated supplier’s website. To pay for the order, he needs a card number, expiration date, and CVV number. After that, he needs a one-time password that the bank sends to the mobile number, which only the purchase manager can have access to, in order to complete the purchase.

As you can see, there are multiple layers of authentication required in this case. If he was just asked to provide a username and password to complete the transaction, then it wouldn’t be considered multi-factor authentication.

The concept of authentication plays a crucial role in the public key infrastructure (PKI). All the digital certificates use cryptographical “keys” as an authentication method to make sure the data exchange is taking place between the intended endpoints only. 

Authentication and Email Signing Certificates

Email signing certificates also use PKI to enable the email senders to insert their digital signature with all the outgoing emails. These digital signatures can’t be tampered with, hence they’re robust proof of the sender’s identity. When the recipients authenticate the sender’s true identity, they can protect themselves from becoming victims of email spoofing.

Authentication and Code Signing Certificates

A code signing certificate is another security tool made exclusively for software publishers’ identity authentication. The CA conducts a strict background check before issuing a code signing certificate to any entity. When a user downloads a software, which is digitally signed using a code signing certificate, the security window displays the original software publisher’s name on it as a proof of their authenticity. It gives power to the users to know who they are downloading software from and decide whether to trust the source.

Graphic: Authentication is essential and code signing certificates help to get rid of these types of warning messages.

Authentication and SSL Certificates

All websites that use SSL/TLS certificates have unique public keys and corresponding private keys. During the TLS handshake, the browser generates a session key using a website’s public key and sends it to the server. The server can decrypt the session key only with its unique private key. This is how the browser authenticates the server’s identity and ensures that it’s communicating with the same website it claims to be.

Authentication vs Authorization: What’s Authorization and How Does It Work?

Authorization is a process that determines whether you have the access rights, permissions, or privileges to do something. This typically takes place once your identity is authenticated. For example, if a police officer pulls you over, he can verify your identity after reviewing your driver’s license. However, your license is expired. Now, even though you have passed the authentication step, you’re not authorized to drive until your license is renewed.

A good example of authorization is editor capability options available with Microsoft Office products such as MS word, MS Excel, etc.

If you have enabled “Always Open Read-Only” or “Restrict Editing” mode, you authorize other people to read the content of the document but not to make any modification in the same. 

In the same way, WordPress and other CSM platforms also allow the admin to set the permissions for each of the contributor. For example, you can authorize staff writers to publish content but restrict them to change the theme or plugins of the blog.

Authentication vs Authorization: What’s the Difference Between Authentication and Authorization?

By now, it must be clear to you that, in general, authentication is one of the stepping-stones for authorization. Only after you’re authenticated can you attempt to gain authorization, but typically not vice versa.

For example, I need my user ID and password to log in to my Facebook account. Can I change the entire Facebook’s color from blue to pink? Absolutely not! So, when I log in as a user, Facebook does authorize me to post text and media on my account, manage my friends list, and make some other account-specific changes. But I am not authorized to make changes in their website’s coding, CSS, or databases. For that type of authorization, I obviously need Facebook’s webmaster, admin, development manager, or Mark Zuckerberg’s account privileges!

In the above example, I’m authorized to post a picture on my Facebook timeline. But if I forget my credentials, I can’t log in to my account. Hence, I can’t use my privileges (authorization) until I successfully pass through the authentication phase.

Authentication and Authorization for Businesses

In a real-life, human intelligence is also an important part of the authentication and authorization processes. So, let’s say, a cop asks for your driver’s license and you show him a license with Donald Trump’s name and picture on it. The cop instantly knows that the license is fake. He would also consider you ineligible to drive until you provide an authentic license that has information that matches your description.

However, in the digital world, authentication isn’t as clear-cut. For example, if you were to use Trump’s correct user ID and password on Twitter, the system will instantly believe you and give access to his account and all the privileges that entails.

As you can see, although machines have made our lives way more comfortable, it is easy to defraud them. There are many types of advanced cyberattacks (such as cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, DDoS attacks, cross-site request forgeries, etc.) that hackers can use to deceive the authentication and authorization process to commit cybercrimes.

That’s why businesses must set the authentication and authorization policies carefully and with due vigilance.  

Authorization and Authentication Within an Organizational Environment

In all organizations, authentication and authorization are separate but related processes. If your organization fails in the authentication step (i.e., if it doesn’t have a robust verification system like strong passwords, biometrics, etc. to correctly authenticate users), then outsiders can access whatever information is available to that account based on its privileges.

If your organization doesn’t implement authorization strategically and hands out unnecessary levels of access, then you’re increasing the risk of data leaks, data breaches, and other damage from insider threats. For example, if an employee decides to steal critical company databases, files, documents, resources, and sell them to competitors, or on the dark web, then you’ve essentially handed them the keys to your kingdom.

So, please make sure you carefully set the permission and access rights of all the employees. You must also encourage employees to set strong passwords or use password managers.

Authorization and Authentication in WordPress

If you’re running a WordPress site with having multiple contributors such as co-authors, editors, designers, WP developers, etc., make sure you pay equal attention to the authentication and authorization. 

For robust authentication, you need to use plugins like Force Strong Passwords, which forces all users to create strong passwords. You can also use password managers like Password Pointer, 1Password, LastPass, Secure Password Generator, Disable Post Passwords, etc.

To mitigate unauthorized access via brute force attacks, use plugins like Limit Login Attempts, Loginizer, or WPS Limit Login.

For authorization, you could limit other contributors’ functions and permissions. Only you should have 100% control on your admin panel, and others should only have access to the functionalities that are necessary for them to do their job. 

You can also set a separate password to access some parts of your admin dashboard, via .htaccess or cPanel to protect crucial parts of the admin dashboard.

A Final Word

Authorization and authentication are integral components of any organization’s security efforts. In fact, virtually all organizations implement these methods for their employees and users in one way or another. The question is how well or poorly they do so.

It is a general understanding that the safer the authorization and authentication method is, the more expensive it will be. For example, implementing biometrics. But this is a short-sighted view — and here’s why:

Consider the cost associated with cybercrimes. Once your data lands in the wrong hands — and we say “once” instead of “if” because it’s just a matter of when and not if a data breach will occur — the direct cost (like paying the ransom or unauthorized fund transfer from a bank account) and indirect cost (like spoiling company reputation due to data leaks, or losing sales due to leakage of company’s confidential information or know-how) can be devastating. Therefore, it’s essential to implement stronger and safer authorization and authentication methods to strengthen the overall security of your business or organization.

About the author

Medha is a regular contributor to InfoSec Insights. She's a tech enthusiast and writes about technology, website security, cryptography, cyber security, and data protection.

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