Understanding the differences between Authentication and Authorization

Within the scope of IAM and CIAM, the terms authentication and authorization are fundamental concepts that form the framework of cybersecurity. Their similarity in meaning and pronunciation primarily accounts for why they are regarded as the same thing. However, they are not.
Authentication vs Authorization

Simply put, authentication identifies and confirms the identity that a user claims, while authorization grants/restricts access to a secured component depending on a user's access privileges. Both, of course, are security procedures that prevent unwanted access to a secured system. However, they entail different concepts and thus work differently. In this article, we will discuss authentication and authorization proper and how they differ entirely from each other.

What is Authentication?

Authentication is a security component that validates who the users claim to be. This component prevents illegal/unauthorized access to a secured file and also prevents data theft.

Cyberattacks are now on the rise, and according to the study carried out by Digital Shadows Research Team in 2020, up to 15 billion credentials were stolen, which paved the way for account takeover¹. Basically, if you want to access a secured file as a person who owns or can access the secured file, authentication asks you for something that is only known to the owner of the secured file. The answer you give will validate or nullify your claim as the owner of the file and, thus, determines whether access will be granted or not. A typical example is the use of passwords and usernames.

Authentication Factors

Authentication requires the use of specific factors to do its work effectively. These authentication factors are unique to every user and are required to confirm the identities of the users. They include:

    • Something you know: This factor is about what the user knows. It is the knowledge that the user alone is privy to. It includes passwords, PINS, secret personal questions, and answers like a favorite color or food.
    • Something you have: This factor is about the user's possession; something he/she owns and uses to access the secured component. It includes devices like a laptop or phone or a key card. Only the users can use these possessions to access the secured component, except if it is lost or stolen.
    • Something you are: This authentication factor is what the user is. It’s a factor that is unique to the user alone. It includes biometrics like fingerprints, voice recognition, iris scans, etc.
    • Location of the user: This additional factor uses the information about where the user is to validate identity. If the user always accesses the file from a particular vicinity or state, and access to the secured file is now being sought from another state, vicinity, or country, the secured system puts up an additional security front to confirm if it’s still the same user.
    • Time of access: Just like the user's location, if the user accesses a file during specific hours or days, for example, during working hours or working days of the week, it puts up another authentication factor if access is being sought outside these time slots.

    Of all these authentication factors, passwords and usernames are the most basic form. It also serves as the first layer of security in most cases. However, using passwords alone can no longer deter cyberattacks and unauthorized access because it is now easy to override and hack into.

    Using the “something you know” factor alone as a security component is considered the weakest form of security. To further reinforce security, you need more than just one authentication factor. That’s why the world is now gearing towards 2FAs (Two Factor Authentication) and MFAs (Multi-Factor Authentication) for increased protection of their files and resources. By the way, contrary to common belief, 2FA is different from MFA and is usually less secure. To learn more about this, check out our article.

    What is Authorization?

    Authorization is a security procedure that controls/limits a user's access to a particular secured entity. This security concept is about how many access privileges a user has to be able to access a secured file.

    Authentication and authorization work hand in hand, as authorization will only come after authentication. You will find out what this means in a bit.

    Let’s take an example.

    In a security organization, every staff member can access different files and resources, depending on their role or level. All these secured files and resources are, however, cloud-based, and every member of the staff can locate these files as long as they log into the organization's cloud network. What they cannot do, however, is access the files that their role in the organization does not permit.

    This means that to even locate the files on the company’s cloud, you need to be able to verify your identity (authentication). If you aren’t a staff of the organization, you can’t access the cloud network.

    After verifying your identity as a member of the company, then, authorization can come into play. Your role will now determine the limit to the files you, as a member, can access on the cloud (authorization).

    The 2021 investigations data breach report by Verizon shows that about 61% of data breaches in 2020 were due to unauthorized access to secured systems². To avoid falling victim to the data breach, adopting an effective access control technique from vendors like inWebo allows you to protect many aspects of your system from unauthorized individuals.

    The different management modes of IAM

    To manage the security and the ease of use of a digital environment, it is necessary to juggle identities, authentications and different levels of authorization. This is the very purpose of IAM (Identity and Access Management) which can be organized around different strategies:
    Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

    Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

    RBAC grants access based on the business roles of a set of users. This model grants access to secured components based on the roles that the users take on within the organization.

    Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

    Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

    This control strategy grants access based on the attributes of the user. It could be a user’s location, department and role, and the kind of action to be performed.

    Policy Based Access Control (PBAC)

    Policy Based Access Control (PBAC)

    PBAC is an access control strategy that integrates a user’s role with the policies set by the organization to grant authorized access to the system.

    Rule-Based Access Control

    Rule-Based Access Control

    This access control system grants access based on a set of rules already laid down. These rules will guide how each user will be granted access.

    Authentication and Authorization: What is the Difference?

    Authentication and authorization differ from each other in terms of the following criteria:

    • Occasion: Authentication is the first security procedure encountered when connecting to a secured system. Authorization only occurs after authentication has successfully taken place.
    • Function: Authentication verifies the identity of a user. Authorization grants or restricts users' access to files.
    • Modification: Authentication factors can be modified by the users to reinforce security. Authorization can only be modified by the security teams/personnel put in place to enforce it.
    • Visibility: Authentication is visible to the users. Authorization, however, is invisible.
    • Requirements: Users’ credentials can be used to confirm identity during authentication. Policies and rules are set in place to determine if access should be granted or not during authorization.

    IAM: Orchestrate your authentication and authorization strategy

    Understanding the fundamental difference between Authentication and Authorization is a requirement for setting up and handling complex Identity and Access Management platforms. By now, you should be able to map your IAM needs to this framework, evaluate the authentication and access orchestration you will require, and look for the best fit. If you need help with that, inWebo’s experts are available to guide you through your IAM journey. Please feel free to contact them.

    What is Authentication?

    Authentication is a security component that validates who the users claim to be. This component prevents illegal/unauthorized access to a secured file and also prevents data theft.

    What is Authorization?

    Authorization is a security procedure that controls/limits a user's access to a particular secured entity. This security concept is about how many access privileges a user has to be able to access a secured file.

    What is the difference between Authentication and Authorization?

    Authentication and authorization work hand in hand but differ from each other according to certain criteria such as their moment of intervention, function, modification modalities, visibility and requirements.

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