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Jul 06, 2022

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Jul 06, 2022

Authentication vs. Authorization: What's the Difference?

Braden Sidoti

Braden Sidoti


Understand the differences between authentication vs. authorization and the purpose they both serve.


Authentication and authorization are essential parts of security. Companies need both to protect their networks and systems from unauthorized access to business resources. Let’s look at the core elements of authentication vs. authorization and ways to leverage them to enhance your organization’s security posture. The evolution of network security makes access control more critical than ever. While people tend to use the terms authentication and authorization interchangeably, it’s important to understand how they contrast and how each helps protect company applications.

The Differences Between Authentication vs. Authorization Explained

Below is an overview of the differences in how each process works.

The Authentication Process

Authentication focuses on recognizing and proving that an individual is using the correct identity. For example, when someone logs into their workstation, they’re prompted for verification through credentials like a username or password. 

An authentication solution running behind the scenes checks the information provided against a database of stored credentials. If the data checks out, the user gains access to the target resource.

Usernames and passwords have been the go-to for most businesses when asking workers to verify their identity. Security protocols typically require employees to keep their passwords secret to prevent unauthorized users from using their credentials in a way that could harm the company.

As hackers have evolved the methods they use to go after companies’ systems, passwords have become more vulnerable. Many IT departments try to keep passwords secure by requiring users to enact a certain degree of complexity when creating them. In addition, workers are prompted by the system to change their passwords frequently, usually every 30 days.

The onus is on IT personnel to manage stored complex passwords. The difficulty of remembering intricate passwords often leads users to reuse their passwords on multiple devices and in different systems. Even if a password meets the length requirements, the actual entry phrase may be extremely uncomplicated, making it easy for cybercriminals to guess the pattern and gain system access using stolen credentials.

The Authorization Process

Authorization covers the permissions provided to users when it comes to system resources. For example, someone working in the accounting department may have permission to access accounting software that isn’t granted to someone who works in operations.

However, having permission to access that application doesn’t mean the user has free rein to go where they want. While they may have permission to log certain transactions, the worker may be blocked from functions that allow them to retrieve sensitive information like Social Security numbers and bank account information.

Additional privileges are typically granted based on a user’s role within a company. For example, an IT director would likely have system permissions that aren’t given to an application developer. At the same time, that IT director would likely not have access to the repository where software engineers store their code.

System administrators usually control who receives privileges to access various organizational resources and how far those permissions extend. Authorization is about making sure individuals receive the permissions they need and ensuring they don’t proceed beyond those set boundaries.

Let’s use a nightclub analogy to wrap up the contrast between authentication and authorization. Authentication is what gets you past the line and through the doors. However, that doesn’t mean you get to go right up to the VIP lounge. Instead, someone must give you specific permission to access that area.

Types of Authentication

Let’s look at the different methods employed by businesses to validate a user's identity.

Multifactor Authentication

Passwords don’t offer the level of security that’s necessary in today’s digital world. Cyberthieves use methods like keyloggers to capture password entries or look for clues to a person’s work credentials by poring over their social media profile. Some resort to using password-cracking tools, which try out various username-and-password combinations until they get a hit.

Multifactor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security to identify users. That way, hackers need more than a user’s password to get past a company’s security. Users must identify themselves in multiple ways, reducing the risk of hackers using employee information to steal data or sabotage business systems.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) requires users to provide two authentication factors before receiving access to a system, application, or device. It provides more robust security protections than requiring only a password or code.

Most 2FA methods require users to provide a password and then a security token or one-time password (OTP) that is generated from a separate device, like a mobile phone. The extra layer of security makes it more difficult for attackers to use a password to access a user’s device or get into their online accounts.

Single-Factor Authentication

Single-factor authentication (SFA) grants access to a system by asking a user for only one type of identification. Password-based SFA is the most common type used by organizations. The best way to implement SFA is by establishing robust password protocols that are enforced by system administrators.

The drawback to SFA is that many users have difficulty coming up with strong passwords that they can easily remember. Problems also result when IT departments don’t enforce standards that ensure users don’t try to get around the protocols by repeating passwords or using patterns that are easy for an experienced hacker to figure out.

Token Authentication

Tokens are a form of 2FA that uses digitally encoded signatures to authenticate a user attempting to access a network or another IT resource. The token comes in the form of a unique OTP that's generated every time a user logs into a system. Users enter the information along with another authentication factor to prove their identity.

Many organizations use security tokens because it’s easy to scale the system to accommodate new employees. It’s also possible to use access tokens on multiple servers. The flexibility of the process allows companies to use security tokens for various applications and websites simultaneously.


Biometric Authentication

Biometric authentication uses distinct biological characteristics to verify someone’s identity. Using your fingerprint to log into your phone is a form of biometric authentication. The physical trait used to identify a person must match information that was previously stored in a biometric authentication system.

Other standard biological information used for this method of authentication include:

  • Genetic material, like DNA
  • Iris recognition
  • Retinal scans that analyze the blood vessels at the back of the eyes
  • Hand geometry recognition, which evaluates the unique characteristics of a person’s hand
  • Voice identification

Biometric devices consist of a scanner, technology that converts and evaluates biometric data for comparison, and a database that stores biometric information. The device used for scanning can include a fingerprint reader or voice analyzer. Once the user provides their data, the biometric application attempts to match it to a previously stored sample.

How to Choose an Authentication Strategy

Most modern companies have developers located everywhere, making it more complicated to implement effective security measures. Establishing an authentication strategy goes a long way toward striking a balance between continued flexibility for employees and protecting business assets.

Evaluate Your Environment

Look at your company's available hardware to determine whether it’s sufficient to support multiple login and authentication requests. You don’t want to end up with a bunch of authentication failures that keep workers from performing their jobs. Review the network connectivity available and make sure remote users have what they need to establish connections.

Establish a Strong Password Policy

If passwords are going to be part of your security posture, you need to establish strong policies governing their use. First, encrypt any passwords that are sent over the network to prevent them from getting intercepted. You want to make it difficult for attackers to crack user credentials. Ideally, the password should change by the time the attacker figures things out.

Passwords should be easily remembered by individual users but complex enough to ward off potential hackers. While characters like hashtags and “at” symbols can aid in that effort, adding too many of them can make it harder for users to remember. Users can add a unique suffix to a password, like dandelion@hardtoguess.net, to make it more complicated. Other rules your organization should follow when it comes to password creation include:

  • Not using any part of the user’s name
  • Making the password at least eight characters in length
  • Having the password contain at least one non alphabetic character
  • Adding both upper- and lower-case characters
  • Prompting users to change passwords at least every 45 days, though 30 is ideal

Make sure to limit how many times users can try logging in with an incorrect password before a lockout policy is implemented. Many hackers use tools that endlessly guess at password options. However, be aware that hackers can take advantage of such a policy to launch a denial-of-service (DoS) attack that locks out legitimate users. If employees forget their password, set up options that allow them to recover their account securely.

Consider Multifactor Authentication

Adding MFA to your organization’s security posture provides extra layers of protection around employees' credentials and sensitive data. If you work in certain industries, like finance, MFA may be required to comply with established regulations.

The noninvasive nature of MFA doesn’t interfere with your IT infrastructure. Many MFA solutions on the market allow companies to enable single sign-on (SSO) for all company platforms, meaning users don’t have to keep up with complicated passwords for every application.

MFA offers additional security for remote workers, whom hackers often target. Requiring a second confirmation of identity alleviates concerns around cyberthieves using compromised credentials to log into company devices or systems.

Types of Authorization

Organizations should establish access boundaries for users, software applications, and even specific hardware using company resources. The two main methods of granting authorization to users are role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC).

RBAC

RBAC helps organizations maintain control over authenticating users while authorizing them to access systems and applications. It focuses on providing rights to individuals based on their role, the environment in which they work, and specific resource attributes. RBAC controls broad access granted to users throughout an organization.

Administrators manage the distribution of permissions to various organizational roles and the users assigned to those groups. Certain users may be assigned to a group that lets them edit sensitive information while individuals in a different category receive view-only permission.

Some users may be eligible for assignment to multiple role groups that expand their access within an organization. A project manager may have more permissions granted to them via several groups while an analyst working under them would receive more limited access.

The most significant benefit of using RBAC for authorization is that administrators don’t have to make major changes whenever someone switches jobs or leaves the company. Instead, the administrator removes that individual from a role group and moves them to a new one. RBAC also makes it easier to grant necessary permissions to new employees based on their roles.

ABAC

ABAC, also called policy-based access control (PBAC), is often put in place to protect information held in databases, business applications, application programming interfaces, and microservices contained within complicated architectures. Users receive permission to access system resources based on attributes like their role, the device being used, the attempted action, or their location. Each ABAC attribute must align with an established policy before the user receives access to the desired resource.

Organizations typically use ABAC when there’s a need to set up more dynamic security parameters versus those available through RBAC. The granular detail makes it possible for businesses to meet unique security challenges.

Policies for ABAC fall under the governance of corporate policies. Any changes made are enforced throughout the entire company. It’s also easier to implement complicated regulatory requirements with ABAC. Administrators gain real-time control over users' attempts to access company assets, systems, and networks.

ABAC makes it possible to manage a larger pool of control factors versus RBAC. It reduces the risk of users managing to gain unauthorized access thanks to the level of control it offers. For example, someone who works in finance could be restricted from accessing certain bank information outside of specific time periods or particular locations.

Authorization and Its Relation to User Permissions

Authentication is about establishing the identity of an entity trying to gain access to assets, networks, systems, or data controlled by an organization. That includes verifying the host ID of a remote machine, validating the certificate of a software component, or checking an employee's credentials through various means.

Once that entity gains access, the authorization process kicks in to determine what permissions are available. That includes looking at the role groups that entity belongs to and what access they have in different systems and applications.

How Authorization and Authentication Relate to Identity and Access Management

Identity management involves making sure that users have the access they need for various IT resources. It ties directly into the process of authenticating users and access management, controlling where users are allowed to go and what actions they can take with granted permissions.

One benefit of identity and access management is that organizations can ensure that users don’t have more access than necessary. That helps thwart attackers hoping to use stolen credentials to access company data and networks.

How to Determine Which Method of Authentication Is for You

Network security aims to ensure authorized individuals have required access while keeping out unauthorized users. Setting up ABAC properly can quickly devolve into complexity. If there are no strict regulatory guidelines for your industry, then RBAC may be sufficient for your organizational needs. There are also additional costs and human resources required to implement ABAC.

Regardless of which method you choose, try to apply the minimum number of filters that are necessary to comply with your company's security posture. Plan out directory data and the approaches your business wishes to take in granting access.

It’s also possible to use RBAC and ABAC in a hierarchical manner, through which RBAC covers broader protocols and ABAC kicks in when there’s a need for finite security management. An example of that would be using RBAC to figure out which groups within an organization are allowed to access a resource. The company could then use ABAC to figure out the permissions given to users and any actions they can take.

How You Can Utilize Authentication Concepts and Authorization Methods

Authorization policies manage access to IT resources and control what users do with that permission. If you are going to make passwords part of your company’s access protocols, make sure you implement strong password policies to prevent employees from using combinations that could make it easy to compromise their credentials.

One way for companies to expand their security protections is by implementing MFA in addition to using IDs and passwords. Having a secondary method for user authentication keeps hackers from using stolen information to access company resources.

When deciding between RBAC and ABAC, go with the option that covers your essential security needs without adding unnecessary complexity. You can also choose to combine the two to ensure that you’ve established the most robust security protection possible for your organization.


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Colin Sidoti

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