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Authentication and authorization are two critical concepts in access control, used in identity and access management (IAM). They are essential components of any system or web application, which determine the security of a system. You cannot have a secure solution unless you have configured both authentication and authorization correctly.
Authentication is verifying the true identity of a user or entity, while authorization determines what a user can access and ensures that a user or entity receives the right access or permissions in a system. Authentication is a prerequisite to authorization.
Authentication is the process of verifying that a user is who they claim to be. For example, when you go through security at an airport, you show your ID to authenticate your identity.
Authorization is the process of determining if a user is allowed to perform certain actions or access certain resources or data. For example, an airline needs to determine which people can come on board.
Authentication and authorization work together to control access to protected resources. They play separate but equally essential roles in securing applications and data.
Common authentication technologies include OTPs, fingerprint recognition, and smart cards. For authorization, systems like OAuth are prevalent. Types of authorization include discretionary access control (DAC), mandatory access control (MAC), role-based access control (RBAC), and attribute-based access control (ABAC).
In this article, we’ll cover the differences and the techniques that are being used to implement them. We’ll also show how authentication and authorization are adapting to a modern IT environment, with remote connection of users to corporate systems becoming the norm.
Often confused with Authorization, Authentication is essentially verifying the true identity of an entity. It enables access control by proving that a user’s credentials match those in an authorized user’s database. Identity verification can ensure system security, process security, and corporate information security.
Authentication helps ensure that only authorized users can gain access to protected resources on the network level. Limited access may include networks, ports, hosts, and other services.
User authentication enables you to verify the identity of any user attempting to access the corporate network or computing resource. Authentication helps organizations ensure that only authorized users access protected resources. It prevents unauthorized entities from accessing and potentially stealing information, damaging systems, or causing various problems.
The authentication process authorizes a human-to-machine credentials transfer during interactions on a certain network to confirm the user’s identity. Human-to-computer interactions perform user authentication to authorize access on wired and wireless networks to enable access to networked and internet-connected systems and resources.
User authentication should not be confused with machine authentication, a different process that automates authentication and does not require user input. Common examples include automatically logged-in and guest accounts that do not require user input.
Types of Authentication
Related: All You Need to Know About Passwordless Authentication
Authorization, not to be confused with Authentication, occurs after a system has successfully verified the identity of an entity. The system will then allow access to resources such as information, files, databases, or specific operations and capabilities. After a system authenticates a user, authorization verifies access to the required resources. It is the process of determining whether an authenticated user can access a particular resource or perform a specific action.
For example, after a file server authenticates a user, it can check which files or directories that can be read, written, or deleted. This is where authorization comes into play.
User authorization help protect Software as a Service (SaaS) applications and services by ensuring users have the right permissions. It enables organizations to control and secure access to sensitive databases, private and personal data, and corporate resources.
Organizations typically implement a granular authorization structure that does not grant flat access to all resources. Instead, different organizational roles are assigned access to the resources relevant to their job. This access control practice is called the least privilege principle, and it guides many organizations in protecting their resources from unauthorized access.
Restricting access to resources helps protect critical data like intellectual property, medical records, consumers’ identities, and payroll information. It ensures users have access only to resources required for their role, minimizing the potential damage if a threat actor compromises the account. It also helps employees quickly find resources and information without sifting through all company documents and folders.
Related: RBAC vs ABAC
Here’s a quick overview of the differences between authentication and authorization. While both are important user management components, there are some key differences that must be considered before implementing them in the right places.
How it works
When it happens
How it transfers information
Common standards and methods
Authentication and authorization work together to control access to protected resources. Since authentication validates identity, this process comes first. Once identity is verified, the authorization process determines the user’s privileges and grants access accordingly. A user cannot be authorized before being authenticated first.
Authentication and authorization work seamlessly together, making them seem like the same mechanism. However, the two components work as part of an organization’s access management program, an extensive process of controlling, tracking, monitoring, and managing users and system resources.
Authentication is based on “factors”—things a user possesses or can present to prove their identity. Authorization is based on “permissions”—defining what an authenticated user can and cannot do in a computing system.
The industry standard today is to use Authentication providers to “build the door”, but what about Authorization (the door knob)? Most authentication vendors don’t go that extra mile, forcing SaaS vendors to invest in expensive in-house development. This often delays investment in core technology development, which negatively impacts innovation and time-to-market (TTM) metrics.
Frontegg’s end-to-end user management platform allows you to authenticate and authorize users with just a few clicks. Integration takes just a few minutes, thanks to it’s plug-and-play nature. It’s also multi-tenant by design.
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