If your company or nonprofit organization is looking into password security options for your website or application, it’s likely you’ve heard the terms “security authentication” and “authorization.” While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are actually very different.

Authentication and authorization both play a part in how security systems confirm the identity of users and grant them access to your website or application. It’s vital that you understand the differences so you can determine which type of user authentication is best for your security needs. 

To help you better understand how authentication and authorization work, we’ll go over the following:

  1. Understanding security authentication 
  2. Defining authorization
  3. Why security authentication and authorization are important

Whether you want to make your login process more convenient or want to implement more rigorous security checks, knowing the difference between authentication and authorization can help you gain a better understanding of online security.

Before you can understand how the two processes work together, you need to understand what separates the two terms. First, we’ll start with authentication.

Learn the basics of security authentication and how it affects your website security.

1. Understanding Security 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 know who the user is; the password (that only the user and the system should know) is what verifies the person.

The website authentication system will verify that the user is who they claim to be 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 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. With special technology, cybercriminals are able to crack passwords in less time, leaving your accounts even more vulnerable to attacks.

Luckily, passwords aren’t the only way to authenticate your users. We’ll cover two additional methods organizations can use to verify a user’s identity.

Email Authentication

Email authentication is a passwordless option that allows users to log in to their accounts using 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?

At Swoop, we implement our version of email authentication on our donation, buy, login, and signup buttons. If a user wants to log in to their account, here’s what the process will look like:

  • First, the user clicks on the login button. This will activate a mailto link that directs the person to pre-written email with details on their request and next steps.
  • Second, the user sends the email. The message already comes with a recipient address so the user doesn’t have to input any information.
  • Finally, our system uses three levels of security checks to verify the request. Using a combination of security checks, we make sure that the email came from the intended user, and if we suspect any malicious activity, we’ll send the user a text message to confirm or decline the request.

@Pay's email security authentication process doesn't require a password to login.

All in all, the process takes just a few seconds. The user will have access to their account without entering a single password!

Biometric Authentication

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 there is also iris and face scanning.

With biometric authentication, hackers have a much more difficult time obtaining a users’ biological characteristics, but it is important to note that some cybercriminals have been able to gain access using high-quality photos of a person’s face or master fingerprints. Check out Swoop’s post on fingerprint scanning to learn more about these vulnerabilities.

Another factor to point out is that once used, biometric authentication can’t be changed or altered if a user’s fingerprints have been compromised.

Key point: Authentication is the first step in the web security process where the user’s identity is confirmed. There are several ways companies can request users to verify their identities like password, email, or biometric authentication.

Security authentication can't complete the login process on its own — authorization is needed to complete the process.

2. Defining Authorization

Now that you understand how authentication works, let’s dive into authorization. Once a user has been authenticated, authorization is the step in the process that dictates what permissions each user has access to. 

Permissions are what the user is able to do and see on your account, and without them every user would have the same abilities and access to the same information. There are several reasons why permissions are important:

  • Prevents 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 and the ability to withdraw and transfer funds but also access to every user’s account on the application. A website’s permissions allows users to access only their accounts and complete actions that are necessary for managing their account.
  • It restricts 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.
  • Internal accounts only have access to what they need. Your users aren’t the only ones that need permissions — it’s just as important for your staff accounts to have them, too. For instance, sensitive information like your users’ home addresses might be something your marketing team needs access to, but they should never have permissions to access your users’ credentials.

Learn more about protecting your sensitive information with permissions by checking out Swoop’s web application authentication best practices.

As you can see, 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 just as unsafe as having poor website authentication.

Authorization occurs with every request the user makes, starting with logging into their account. A user not only has to verify their account, but also have the right permissions in order to log in.

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 donor database

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.

Learn why security authentication and authorization are important to your website security.

3. Why Security Authentication and Authorization Are Important

Now that you’re familiar with both security authentication and authorization, you probably have a better picture of how these two steps work together. In the login process, one step can’t be completed without the other. Authentication always comes first.

To simplify their roles: authentication is the “Who are you?” part, and authorization provides the “What are you allowed to do?” part.

Security authentication is the first step in the process that identifies the user. After security authentication, authorization dictates what the user can 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.

Here is why authentication and authorization should be one of your companies priorities:

Authentication and authorization keep internal accounts organized and can help catch unauthorized activity before it becomes a serious threat. We’ve talked about how companies can keep their internal accounts secure by protecting against data breaches. And one of the main steps we recommend is to make sure accounts only have the permissions they need. That way, your team will be able to spot any unusual behavior early. Plus, authorization ensures that your staff only has access to the information they need, thus keeping your users protected.

Security authentication prevents cybercriminals from gaining access to your account. Having a secure authentication method will make it more difficult for hackers to crack a users’ key and gain access to their information. That’s why we suggest companies go for a passwordless authentication method, but if your company still wants to use passwords, consider implementing two-factor authentication. This requires the user to enter in their password and username, as well as a passcode that is sent to their phone. This prevents a hacker from gaining access to an account even if they have a user’s credentials.

Protecting your accounts is important, and security authentication and authorization are key components of that equation.

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 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:

Sign up for a free @Pay account to get access to a secure password alternative.

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