Authentication Types: Explained

User authentication is helping elevate security and data privacy today. It allows the accurate identification of the end-user based on the verification types chosen by the provider. This verification can be performed with passwords, biometric methods, and passwordless techniques. Let’s take a closer look at the most common authentication types you need to consider today.

What is Authentication?

So what is authentication all about? It is basically a process where the application, system or device makes sure that the user trying to gain access is really the person allowed to do so. The main purpose of doing so is preventing any kind of illegal or unauthorised access. In other words, authentication is a subset of authorization, where the user identity is inspected before granting access.

There are three types of authentication layers that are in play today. Most mechanisms use all three or some kind of combination, based on the use case.

  • Possession – This can be some kind of authentication option that the only user possesses – an OTP, email verification link or a browser cookie
  • Inherence – This can involve some kind of unique variable. Think fingerprints, retinal scans, facial recognition, and voice recordings
  • Knowledge – Here, the authentication hinges upon things that only the user knows (hopefully) – custom personal security questions for example

The rapid rise in mobile usage has also led to accelerated use of Location-Based Authentication, where the device’s GPS is used as a part of the process. If the geo location is blacklisted, the user simply cannot access the service. Due to the relatively low level of security, this is often used with other kinds of authentication. The next section will elaborate more on the variations that are being used today. 

Top 5 Authentication Types

Now that we are familiar with authentication and what it’s based on, let’s take a closer look at the main authentication types in use today. Let’s dive into it.

1. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

As the name suggests, Multi-Factor Authentication involves at least two different kinds of authentication factors to elevate security levels. Unlike Two-Factor Authentication that is limited to two factors only, MFA use cases can involve three or more of them. This kind of authentication is now considered to be a key component of any modern Identity and Access Management (IAM) protocol. 

The typical Multi-Factor Authentication scenario involves the use of a password, after which the user is sent a verification code to the personal smartphone. The latter can be replaced by biometric techniques like fingerprint scans or voice authentication. Vendors opting for MFA need to look out for false positives and network outages, which can become big problems while scaling up fast.

2. Biometric Authentication 

Biometric authentication is gaining popularity due to the ease of use and customer satisfaction benefits. The user simply doesn’t have to remember or reset anything when it comes to this type of authentication. Common biometric devices include fingerprint scanners and facial recognition modules, both of which are commonly available on smartphones and tablets today.

What goes on under the hood with this authentication type? 

A sample of the fingerprint or iris/face scan is stored in a dedicated database to compare it with the user’s input on-demand. However, smartphones aside, biometric authentication requires an initial investment in endpoint hardware. More importantly, vendors need to make it sensitive enough to minimize false-positives, while keeping it user-friendly and minimizing friction-related churn.

3. Token Based Authentication 

Token-Based Authentication is a commonly used methodology where the user is issued a unique token upon being verified. With this unique token, the user can then access the relevant service. This privilege is active till the token expires. The user doesn’t have to use passwords or other credentials during this period. JSON Web Token is a commonly used Token-Based Authentication standard today. 

Tokens are being used extensively in multiple scenarios today since they are stateless entities, with all authentication-related information baked into them. There is also the option to separate token generation from token verification, which gives vendors added flexibility. Token-Based Authentication allows full control over the token payloads for fine-grained access control at all times.

4. Certificate Based Authentication

Certificate-Based Authentication is a protocol that promotes the use of digital certificates to get the job done. These certificates can be used to identify and verify the user or end-device, before granting access permissions. This authentication methodology, which also works seamlessly with Internet of Things (IoT) devices, is commonly used with passwords and usernames. 

One of the biggest advantages of Certificate-Based Authentication is it’s ease of use from the admin’s side. No hardware is required, with all digital certificates being stored locally on the relevant device. Issuing, renewing, modifying, and revoking them also becomes very easy. Users also like this kind of authentication, as it requires no further action once the digital certificate has been issued.

5. Password Based Authentication 

We can’t wrap up this list without mentioning the proven and tested Password Authentication, which is still being used by thousands of organizations worldwide. But it’s pretty clear that this methodology is getting outdated. Just like Biometric Authentication, vendors need to enforce complex password implementation, while also making sure that there is minimal friction for the end-user.

The way Password Authentication works is pretty straightforward, as shown in the diagram above. Firstly, the user inputs his name and password, which are sent via the internet to the Directory Server (DS). If the name binds with the Distinguished Name (DN) and there is a password match, the server decides to authenticate the request and lets the user access the resource for a predefined amount of time. 

Related: How Passwords Are Breached

Passwordless Authentication: The Next Big Thing

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the conventional authentication types are becoming outdated. They are all security liabilities that enlarge the attack surface, while also creating usability and implementation obstacles in one way or another. This is exactly why we are witnessing a surge in Passwordless Authentication, a trend that is only going to intensify as the world becomes more digitalized.

This is not to say that other authentication methods are going to go extinct. For example, Biometric Authentication is still going to stay relevant and play a big part in Passwordless Authentication processes. With more and more smartphones and laptops coming with built-in fingerprint readers, face readers, and iris scanners, it’s only logical to keep using these devices as authentication end-points.

Passwordless Authentication is basically eliminating all risks of brute force attacks and ransomware exploits, while significantly improving the user experience. But this methodology is yet to go mainstream because there is no real protocol to adhere to, nor is implementation straightforward and cost-friendly. But it does make perfect sense to go passwordless if you have an enterprise-scale operation.

The future belongs to passwordless. Frontegg has already made passwordless its default option in it’s end-to-end user management platform. Try it out now!