Security Authentication vs. Authorization | What’s the Difference?
If your company or organization is looking into password security options for your website or application, you’ve probably heard the terms security authentication and authorization. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are actually very different.
Authentication and authorization both play important roles in online security systems. They confirm the identity of users and then grant access to your website or application. It’s vital that you understand their differences so you can determine which type of website authentication best suits your security needs.
To help you better understand how authentication and authorization work, we’ll walk through each:
- Understanding security authentication
- Defining authorization
- Why security authentication and authorization are important
Whether you want to remove the hassle of traditional password login or implement more rigorous security checks, understanding each concept will give you a stronger all-around understanding of online security and how it can be improved.
Before explaining how the two processes work together, let’s cover what sets them apart. We’ll start with authentication.
To put it simply, authentication is the process that confirms a user’s identity.
Traditionally, this is done through a username and password. The user enters their username, which allows the system to confirm their identity; this system relies on the fact that (hopefully) only the user and the site’s server know the password. The website authentication process works by comparing the user’s credentials with the ones on file. If a match is found, the authentication process is complete.
While password authentication is the most common way to confirm a user’s identity, it isn’t even close to the most effective or secure method.
Think about it: anyone with your credentials could access your account without your permission, and the system wouldn’t stop them. Most passwords are weak, and hacking techniques can break them in less and less time.
Passwords aren’t the only way to authenticate your users. We’ll cover two alternative methods that sites can use to verify a user’s identity:
Email authentication is a passwordless option that allows users to securely log in using just an email address. The process is very similar to signing in with a Facebook or Twitter account, but this method offers a universal approach. After all, who doesn’t have an email account?
Here’s how your site can authenticate users using an email method:
- The user clicks the login button. This opens a mailto link that directs the person to pre-written email that includes an encrypted token.
- The user sends the email. The message already comes with a recipient address so the user doesn’t need to enter any information.
- The server verifies the request. Using a combination of token-based security checks, the user’s identity is verified.
Aside from being inherently more secure than a password, email authentication tools like Swoop will also notify users of any suspected malicious or unusual activity. Read through our How it Works page for more detailed information and context on email authentication systems.
Biometric authentication includes any type of authentication method that requires a user’s biology. While this may seem like new-age technology, you’re probably already using it to unlock the screen on your smartphone. Fingerprint scanning is the most well-known form of biometric authentication, but face recognition tools are an increasingly popular choice for developers.
Of course, hackers have a much more difficult time replicating a users’ biological characteristics, but it is important to note that these authentication processes are often less secure than you’d initially assume. Small fingerprint scanners on smartphones only record portions of your fingerprint, for instance. Multiple images of part of a fingerprint are much less secure than a single, clear image.
Remember, too, that biometric authentication can’t be changed or altered if a user’s fingerprints have been compromised. While biometric authentication holds a lot of promise, it’s now most useful as an additional login tool to bolster an another system.
Key point: Authentication confirms an online user’s identity. There are several ways that websites, apps, and devices ask users to verify their identities, like by password, email, and biometric authentication.
Once a user has been authenticated, the authorization process determines what permissions they have.
Permissions are what the user is able to do and see on your website or server, and without them every user would have the same abilities and access to the same information. Permissions are crucial for a few a reasons:
- They prevent a user from accessing an account that isn’t theirs. Imagine if your online banking application didn’t have permissions. When you logged in, you’d not only have access to your account but also every other user’s account on the application! Permissions ensure users access and modify only what they need to.
- They restrict free accounts from getting premium features. Let’s say your website offers different feature packages. To restrict free accounts from gaining access to your premium features, you need to implement specific permissions so that every account has access to what capabilities they paid for.
- They ensure internal accounts only have access to what they need. Your users aren’t the only ones that need permissions — your staff accounts need them, too. Information like your users’ addresses might be useful for your marketing team, but they should never have permissions to access your users’ credentials.
Authorization and permissions are essential.
Setting up the right permissions is just as important as using a secure authentication method. Without dictating what users can see and do, your information is as unsafe as if there were no first layer of authentication at all. Authorization occurs with every request the user makes, starting with logging into their account.
It’s important that a company details the type of permissions that apply to both users and staff members so that accounts don’t have more capabilities than they need. These loopholes can be used by hackers to gain access to your server.
Key point: Authorization is the step that determines what a user is able to do and see on your website. Permissions should be used on both staff and user accounts so that they only have access to the capabilities they need.
In the login process as a whole, one step can’t be completed without the other. Authentication must always come first, however.
Think of them this way: authentication asks “Who are you?”, and authorization asks “What are you allowed to do?”
Security authentication and authorization should be incorporated into any website, especially those that deal with online transactions or personal information.
Since anyone with the “key” can gain access, it’s vital that companies implement a strong authentication system to keep unauthorized users from accessing accounts without permission.
Boosting security with authentication and authorization:
Authentication and authorization keep internal accounts organized and help catch unauthorized activity before it becomes a serious threat. One of the main steps we recommend to protect against breaches is to make sure accounts only have the permissions they need. That way, your team can spot any unusual behavior early.
Strong security authentication protocols prevent cybercriminals from gaining access to your accounts. Having a secure authentication method will make it more difficult for hackers to crack a users’ key and gain access to their information.
The only surefire way to completely prevent that kind of breach? Remove hackable keys from the equation entirely. All companies and websites should consider incorporating one or more password alternatives to replace a traditional username/password authentication system.
Hopefully, this guide has helped you understand the differences between security authentication and authorization. Now you can look into website security options with a better understanding of how your users are protected and why some security measures are more important than others.
For more information on website authentication, check out these additional resources:
- Website Authentication Guide: Understanding the Fundamentals. Interested in learning more about website authentication? Check out our complete guide that details the different ways your company can authenticate staff and users.
- 6 Shocking Reasons Why Passwords Won’t Protect Your Website. Passwords are the most common website authentication method, but they’re also the least effective. Learn more about why passwords aren’t the best way to protect your website or your users.
- Are Your Passwords Compromised? Why Companies Are at Risk. When it comes to passwords, companies are the most at risk for password breach. Learn why passwords are at risk and find out ways to protect your employee’s accounts.
This post was written by John Killoran