How Is Authentication Different from Authorization, and Why Should You Have Both?

Authentication is concerned with identity, while authorization is concerned with action.

Authentication involves validating the identity of a registered user attempting to gain access to data resources such as an application, an API, or microservices. 

Authorization involves specifying what actions a registered user is allowed to perform on a given data resource.

Why the need for authentication and authorization?

Both processes reinforce each other in controlling who gets access to your organization’s resources and the extent of what they can do with any particular resource. 

With authentication and authorization, your sensitive data is highly vulnerable to breaches or unauthorized access. The resulting problematic scenarios can range from stolen data or data held for ransom, customer loss, damage to reputation, or, worse, overall business collapse. 

How do the two processes work in a login or other forms of access sequence?

First of all, your organization resources should be protected. To ensure this involves having additional security steps than data that’s intended for public consumption.  

Authentication is your first step of access control at runtime. This gives you secure and reliable user identity validation. Once you have that, you are now able to properly determine which resources can be made available to the user (e.g., your company’s projects database, yes; your client database, no), and what they do with these resources (e.g., see, yes; download or copy, no).  

What are the current authentication processes? 

User identity can be validated with many authentication processes, including the following:

Single sign-on (SSO) 

This allows a user to access multiple applications using a single set of login credentials. When you are logging into applications that are spread across different domains, SSO systems use a technique called federation. 

An example of this is when you access several applications using your Facebook or Google accounts. 

This integration process is facilitated by industry standards like Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) and OpenID Connect (OIDC).

SSO fortifies your data security by removing the need for multiple passwords, which increases the risk for weak passwords (easy for the user to remember and for the hacker to crack) and giving users a better chance to come up with and manage one that is complex.

Tip: To ensure your SSO system doesn’t get seriously compromised and become unavailable if a hacker, malicious actor, or malware gets SSO access, deploy SSO with strong encryption and authentication methods to maximize protection against attacks.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) 

This is an authentication scheme that requires multiple means of authentication by employing either three or all these factors:  

  • Knowledge (something you know): PIN, username and password, security question  
  • Possession (something you have): token, USB key, magic link, or card  
  • Inherence (something you are): biometrics—e.g., fingerprint, voice, palm veins, complex iris/retina patterns, behavior pattern, etc.  
  • Location (someplace you are): actual physical location determined through GPS tracking. 

The goal of MFA is to create multiple security layers to provide a higher level of assurance during the authentication step.

Tip: For a layered security, use MFA and SSO together. 

Consumer Identity and Access Management (CIAM) 

These solutions offer such features as customer registration, self-service account management, consent and preference management, in addition to multiple authentication features, including SSO and MFA. CIAM solutions typically have a user interface that is specifically designed not for employees but for end-user populations.

What does modern authentication mean for user information? 

Through authentication techniques like the three examples above, information beyond the identity of a user can now be gathered by determining the following: 

  • Geolocation
  • Time of day
  • Occupation, role, or position
  • Company
  • Language preferences

In addition, CIAM systems manage user profiles, preferences, and consent settings—data (attributes) that is highly useful for an authorization service such as an Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) system.

Can authentication be combined with ABAC?

Yes, they interrelate and can interoperate. The result is increased security for highly sensitive information, assets, or transactions. Rather than requiring minimum strength authentication, as is typical for access to general resources and functions within an organization, the ABAC service can redirect an employee, customer, or partner to use MFA before access is granted. 

The ABAC policies can also determine the actions the employee can take after proper authentication. 

This combination of authentication and authorization is flexible: the MFA technique can be easily modified based how these technologies evolve or any update to the risk tolerance for access to data.

In the market for enterprise-level authentication solutions to better protect your data and assets? 

TraitWare can help you make the shift to passwordless multifactor authentication and/or single-sign on login for a layered defense against ransomware, phishing, and other attacks.  

Contact us today.