Website Authentication Guide: Understanding the Fundamentals
The internet plays a larger and more important role in our lives today than ever before. It touches nearly aspect of our daily lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. If you’re an entrepreneur looking to expand your digital footprint or simply curious about how websites work, you need to start with the basics.
Website authentication is a fundamental part of how the internet works. It’s the first step in how users engage with digital content, and it’s essential for websites to successfully administer their digital properties. Let’s dive in:
Here at Swoop, we hate passwords. The internet could be so much better without them. If every website could prioritize fast, high-quality user experience like the reigning eCommerce giants, there would be a lot more successful small businesses online.
Think about it: We already have to create and remember so many, they’ve become an irrelevant hassle for online consumers. They literally stand between your web visitors (or customers!) and your business. Most importantly, passwords are also among the weakest ways to protect your website. We’ll walk through some of the reasons why in this article. If you are hopelessly dedicated to passwords, though, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through some best practices for proper password management.
Our goal at Swoop is to help online entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes make their websites work for them. Authentication is a huge factor in online security and user experience, so let’s get started by exploring a basic definition.
Website Authentication Definition
“the process of identifying a user as the person they claim to be.”
Sounds simple enough, but this concept is fundamental to the ways that websites work.
As the owner or site administrator of a small online business, for instance, you need to be able to identify who is visiting your site. Growing your business is all about building relationships with customers, after all, and it’s very hard to grow a relationship with an anonymous web visitor! By having your users identify themselves, you stand a much better chance of developing a relationship. Maybe they’ll become a customer, a contributor to your blog, or a supporter of your cause. The only way to get to that point is to learn more about them.
Usually, this is done with the dreaded password. Imagine you’re visiting a new business for the first time. You’re interested in making a purchase when the owner says, “I won’t build a long-term relationship with you unless you invent an 8 digit code with special characters and promise to remember it when you come back in 3 months.” Pretty bad model for customer service, right?
Is it any wonder that 80% of internet revenue is concentrated in players like Facebook, Google, and Amazon? These firms make it incredibly easy to use their products and services, not harder. But don’t panic! There are some password alternatives that can help your business and website actively grow. One is a complete solution, and the other two are partial solutions for building relationships without forcing customers to create passwords.
Swoop lets you securely login with just your email account.
Social sign-in allows you to use a social media account like Facebook or Twitter.
Biometrics let you use your fingerprints or face to authenticate identity.
The most important thing to recognize is that the security weaknesses and user experiences issues of passwords have turned them into an overall liability. Understanding the authentication process and exploring your alternatives is the first step to moving beyond them.
Related Authentication Terms
Click on each term to explore our in-depth guides on these essential authentication concepts:
Everyone hates passwords. If you require them, you’ll actively drive away more users than you get. Passwords are hard to remember, and most people can’t create a truly secure one, instead just reusing the same passwords.
It’s important to follow some website authentication best practices even if you use passwords, but going passwordless might be the smartest way to take your site to the next level. For security and user experience, passwordless is the new standard.
Prevent Online Fraud
Preventing fraud and boosting security is of course the core purpose of website authentication. The importance of web security, especially for online businesses or organizations of any size, cannot be understated.
Traditional passwords are among the least secure authentication methods and are the source of literally billions of dollars of fraud each year. Passwordless alternatives like Swoop, social sign-in, and biometric technologies all offer more secure options for websites and businesses.
Website Authentication vs. Authorization
Before moving forward, it’s important to understand the difference between website authentication and authorization. While the terms are often used synonymously, they are actually two different steps in the process of granting a user access to protected information.
The two steps often get confused because they occur closely together when a user logs into their account. However, authentication is always the first step in the process and is quickly followed by authorization.
Authentication is the first step in the two-step process of granting a user access. Website authentication simply verifies that the user is who they claim to be. Websites can authenticate users with tools like Swoop, social sign-in, or traditional passwords. Once this is established, authorization occurs, granting the user custom permissions.
Each authenticated user stored in the database has a set of permissions allowing them to take certain actions or view certain information. This is called authorization. In other words: when you log into your bank account, the authorization process grants you access to just your account—not every users’ account in the system.
Every website should be authenticating.
When users are authenticated and engage with your site, they’re one step closer to doing business with you and developing a deeper relationship. Succeeding online is about building relationships. Make it easy for people to start your application or engage with your website. Get them to log in and read special content at no cost. These are important baby steps!
When it’s easier to begin building a relationship with your site and business, users will be more willing to enter a payment method to access even better content or purchase a product or service. Authentication techniques that prioritize safety and user experience are essential for building trust and earning business!
How Does Website Authentication Work?
1. User Enters Their Credentials
When the user lands on a website, she must first request access by logging into her account. Generally, the login process will require a username and password, however, there may be additional steps the individual will take to verify her identity.
2. Credentials Are Sent to the Authentication Server
Once the user presses “Login,” the credentials are sent to a local operating system or authentication server. The operating system or server is where every authorized user’s information—credentials and permissions—is stored.
3. System Looks for a Match on the Server
The system will compare the information entered by the user with all the credentials on file. If no match is found, the user will be notified that her credentials couldn’t be found and asked log in again. When a match is found, the system moves to the next step.
4. System Authorizes the User and Access Is Granted
When a match is found, the system will authorize the user by sending the permissions that define what the user can see and go back to the website, thus granting the user access to her account. Keep in mind: the entire process takes only a few seconds to complete.
What Are The Different Types of Website Authentication?
Logon Website Authentication
Logon authentication is the most common form of website authentication. When you log into your online bank account or social media profile, you’re using logon authentication. The user is required to enter some form of verification, usually in the form of a username and password. Every time users wish to access their accounts, they have to log in again.
Essentially, SSO works the same way as logon authentication. This feature, however, allows a user to be authenticated on multiple servers without entering credentials more than once. A common form of SSO authentication is when users log into their Gmail account. These credentials then give you access to most of Google’s products all through one login.
IPSec authentication allows users to encrypt or sign documents to make the information even more confidential. IPSec uses various authentication methods to keep information protected. Keep in mind that IPSec can only be used if both the sending and receiving computers are configured with the same authentication method.
Who Uses Web Authentication?
Businesses, Nonprofits, and Individuals
Organizations and users can use website authentication to access their accounts, in a process called user authentication. These human-to-computer interactions require users to create a username and password and input their credentials every time they want to enter their accounts.
One of the most common types of user authentication is when a user logs into a website, say their email account. But organizations can use user authentication internally as well.
Machine or Computer Authentication
Essentially, machine authentication is when different software or computers need authorization to complete automated tasks. For example, if you’re using software that integrates with each other, they need to complete the authentication process in order to make updates or changes.
In other words: this allows tasks between tools to be completed automatically. Each machine must present a unique set of credentials much like a user’s password.
How Do Passwords Verify Users?
Passwords are the most commonly used way to authenticate a user. When users register for an account, they are asked to create a password which includes a combination of symbols, characters, and numbers. In some cases, users will be assigned a password. Website authentication systems are built to assume that anyone with the password is guaranteed to be the “authentic” user.
But as we all know, this isn’t always the case. Password-based authentication isn’t very secure because a user’s credentials can be stolen or cracked by a hacker. Additionally, passwords can be a hassle to remember, especially as users acquire more and more accounts they must maintain. Think about it: the more passwords we have to create, the weaker those passwords are likely to be.
Safer Password Alternatives
Swoop: Email Account Authentication
Swoop: Email Account Authentication
Email account authentication is a passwordless option that anyone with an email account can use. Modern email is an extremely secure account to use for login. Leading providers (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, etc.) offer robust anti-intrusion technologies and easy-to-use 2-factor authentication. This makes email a perfect tool for logging into websites that can’t offer this level of security.
To login with your email account, follow a simple two tap process:
1. Click the “Login” button (which is actually a mailto link). Mailto links have been mostly forgotten up to now, but they’re part of early internet history; while hyperlinks take you from website to website, mailto links take you from a website to your email client containing a pre-formatted message. In this case, the mailto link composes a message that will deliver a unique token to the authentication server.
2. Send the email message. The outgoing mail server embeds an unbreakable digital key in the email header. This key is then delivered to the authentication server. If the decryption is successful, users are granted access.
The unique, digital key that email embeds makes for an extremely secure authentication, and the mailto link makes it an extremely simple experience for the user! Swoop is the leading provider in email account authentication services.
Social Media Account Authentication
Using an existing social media account to access other websites eliminates a lot of password creation and saves storage across the internet. However, this method is great for securing new sign-ups on your site! They make it easy to register quickly without requiring the manual entry of information that already exists in your user’s social media accounts.
There are a few downsides, though. Public opinion towards the reigning social media giants is constantly changing. With periodic (and often major) data breaches and questionable business practices, some users might feel uncomfortable linking their online activity with their social media accounts. Many consumers simply don’t trust the social media giants.
A Pew Institute study recently found that 60% of Americans won’t use social media account authentication options. Privacy is a central concern, and it relates closely to user experience. However, it can still be a good idea to offer your users this additional option. Just make sure you choose only the handful of social media platforms with login options that are most relevant to your users.
Biometrics is often coined the most secure method of website authentication because it utilizes a user’s unique biological characteristics to grant the person access. You’ve probably encountered some form of biometric authentication, whether it be scanning your fingerprint to approve a purchase on your phone or scanning your face to unlock your phone’s screen. It’s a powerful security concept and holds a lot of promise for the future.
However, biometrics is one of the least cost-effective options because users need to have a device they can use to scan their iris, fingerprint, or face. Additionally, biometric authentication can be tricked by using high-quality images or replicated fingerprints, and once someone can access your account, you can’t change your biology like you could with a password. Instances of faulty biometric authentication tools are on the rise, especially as the technology becomes more and more common.
How Should User Credentials Be Stored?
Whether you’re using passwords, email accounts, or biometrics to authenticate your users’ information, all that data needs to be stored in a secure server. That way, the system can compare login attempts to the various credentials on file to find a match. If the information isn’t protected, those credentials will be vulnerable to attacks from cybercriminals. As a result, organizations should never store this information in plain text. Organizations can use the following techniques to ensure that their users’ credentials are protected.
Techniques to Protect Your Users’ Credentials
Salt Your Passwords
Salting your passwords adds an extra value to the end, extending the length of the password and making it more difficult for hackers to determine the actual password. Additionally this protects users that create simple passwords. For instance, the password “admin” would become “adminmore.salt” when salt is added. To make passwords even more secure, the salt can be completely random and unique for each password.
Hash Your Passwords
Hashing a password, essentially, turns it into a random set of characters and numbers, but once the data is encoded, it’s extremely difficult to decode. Hashing is useful when storing information that needs to be checked but doesn’t need to be read back, thus making it a great option for storing passwords. When users enter their password the same hashing algorithm is applied and then compared to the information in the database.
Encryption is similar to hashing but is more often used for information that needs to read later on. Using a mathematical algorithm, the information is scrambled into a different set of characters. Anyone with the code can unscramble the characters and read the original text, making encrypted information more susceptible to hacking. While this solution isn’t ideal for passwords, usernames and other login information can be encrypted to protect its sensitivity.
What Causes a Security Breach and How to Prevent It?
What Is a Password Breach?
A password breach occurs when a hacker gains access to your user database, which stores all your website authentication credentials. When a data breach occurs, your users’ information is at risk, especially if your organization doesn’t store credentials using the best practices mentioned above.
A hacker can obtain information from your user database by hacking accounts with high permissions or by cracking the algorithm on encrypted information. In recent years, many organizations have become victim to data breaches because of weak password security or from simply being unaware of an attack until it’s too late.
Are There Ways to Make Website Authentication More Secure?
Use a HTTPS Website Domain
Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the protocol in which data is sent between users’ browsers and the websites they’re accessing. Essentially, when websites have HTTPS, they’re using a protected connection (the ‘s’ stands for secure). This means any information transferred between the browser and website is encrypted, making it more difficult for unauthorized users to obtain the information.
Don't Create Secret Questions
The truth is that secret questions create a false sense of security and were initially created to eliminate the need for support calls made by users who couldn’t access their accounts. Most users will choose a simple security question in order to easily remember it. Since most of this information is readily available online, the security question isn’t effective and adds more unnecessary time to the account creation process.
To help encourage users to create stronger passwords, websites should prevent users from creating accounts using credentials that contain the most used passwords or passwords that have previously been compromised in a data breach. That way, when users need to create a password or change their current credentials, they’ll be forced to create something stronger than “admin” or “password123”.
Prevent Rapid-Fire Login Attempts
A common way that hackers crack a password is by using a brute-force attack. This method involves a computer system that tries every password combination until it finds a match. By only allowing login attempts for a short span of time (like 5 minutes), you make the hacker’s job more difficult. Plus, if you find an IP address is making an unusual amount of login attempts, you can block it to prevent attacks.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
If you want to continue using passwords as your primary authentication method, you should implement two-factor authentication. Basically, this requires users to log in with their credentials and then perform another action (like entering a code sent to their phones via text) to verify their identities. This other action makes it more difficult for hackers to access a user’s account because they’ll need the user’s credentials and phone.
Implement Passwordless Alternatives
With passwords becoming an insecure and inconvenient login option, organizations should gravitate toward passwordless alternatives. These alternatives offer a secure login process and are more difficult for hackers to obtain. Passwordless login is not only secure, but also easier to use. In most cases, users don’t have to remember their credentials and the authentication process can be completed in just two steps.