Understanding the Fundamentals of Website Authentication

Table of Contents

What Is Website Authentication?

Website Authentication Definition

Website authentication is the process of identifying a user or machine as the person or thing they claim to be. Generally, users must enter a username and password to verify their identity, but there are other forms of verification which will be covered later on.

Once a user logs in with his or her credentials, the authentication process begins. The system compares the user’s information to all the credentials on file in the authentication server. When a match is found, the authentication process is complete.

Related Terms

User Authentication
SSO Authentication
Token-Based Authentication
OAuth

Why Is Website Authentication Important?

More Sensitive Information Is Stored Online

From bank accounts to credit card numbers to personal information to home addresses, more of our information is stored online.  Without the right security measures, that data can easily get into the wrong hands. As a result, it’s important that websites restrict who has access to that sensitive information.

Website authentication is the first step in that process, verifying the user’s identity so that the system can then grant access to specific information.

Blocks Unauthorized Users From Gaining Access

While usernames, passwords, and security questions feel like an inconvenience, imagine if all you had to do to access your bank account information was type in your full name. Anyone capable of doing a simple Google search could enter your account, change your settings, and even withdraw funds.

The purpose of website authentication is to prevent this from happening, by blocking unauthorized users from seeing or changing your information. 

What’s the Difference Between Website Authentication and 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.

Website authentication identifies the user.

Authentication

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 by comparing the user’s credentials with those on file. In order to do this, the user must enter a password or token that is only known to the user. When a match is found, the user must be authorized to complete the process.

Once website authentication is approved, the system checks to see what permissions the users has.

Authorization

Each user stored in the database has a set of permissions that allow the user to take certain actions or view certain information. The act of granting users permissions and and checking those rights 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.

How Does Website Authentication Work?

The website authentication and authorization process takes four steps to complete.

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 do 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 will need to log in again.

Single-Sign-On Authentication

Essentially, SSO works in the same as logon authentication, however, this feature allows a user to be authenticated on multiple servers without entering credentials twice. A common form of SSO is when users log into their Gmail. These credentials will give you access to most of Google’s products all through one login.

IPSec Authentication

IPSec authentication allows users to encrypt or sign documents that are sent across a network 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 Authenication

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 Does Website Authentication Verify Users?

Users can complete the website authentication process by entering a password and username.

Password-Based Authentication

Passwords are the most commonly used way to authenticate a user. When users registers 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.

Learn more about the pros and cons of password security

Email Authentication

Email authentication is a passwordless option that anyone with an email account can use. Essentially, when users want to log into their accounts, they can do so by clicking the “Login” button. This will trigger a mailto link that directs them to a pre-written email using their primary email account. Once the email has been sent, users will be able to access their accounts!

Whats more, email authentication uses a unique key in the email to identify the user and requested action.

Swoop is a leading provider in email authentication services. With a secure server, your private information is kept safe. Even if your email becomes compromised, Swoop will detect login attempts made from different devices or IP addresses and flag any usual activity. If our system isn’t positive that the email came from you, we’ll send you a message (via text) asking your to confirm or decline the request.

Learn more about passwordless login systems!
Verifying a user's identity via email is a type of secure website authentication.
Verifying a user's identity via email is a type of secure website authentication.

Email Authentication

Email authentication is a passwordless option that anyone with an email account can use. Essentially, when users want to log into their accounts, they can do so by clicking the “Login” button. This will trigger a mailto link that directs them to a pre-written email using their primary email account. Once the email has been sent, users will be able to access their accounts!

Whats more, email authentication uses a unique key in the email to identify the user and requested action.

Swoop is a leading provider in email authentication services. With a secure server, your private information is kept safe. Even if your email becomes compromised, Swoop will detect login attempts made from different devices or IP addresses and flag any usual activity. If our system isn’t positive that the email came from you, we’ll send you a message (via text) asking your to confirm or decline the request.

Learn more about passwordless login systems!
Two-factor verification requires users to complete the website authentication process twice: once with their credentials and again with their phone.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication uses password-based authentication, but requires the user to complete an additional step. The most common type of two-factor authentication is via text message. Here’s how it works: once users enter their login credentials, they’ll be asked to type in a unique code that was sent to their phone. Users will be able to access their accounts once they’ve entered the code. 

This process prevents hackers from gaining access to your account even if they have your password. The only downside to two-factor authentication is that it adds an additional step during login and requires users to have their phones with them.

Learn more about two-factor authentication!

Biometric Authentication

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. 

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.

Learn more about biometric authentication
Using biometrics, users can complete the website authentication process with a fingerprint, iris, or facial scan.
Using biometrics, users can complete the website authentication process with a fingerprint, iris, or facial scan.

Biometric Authentication

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. 

However, biometrics is one of the least cost-effective options as 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.

Learn more about biometric authentication

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.

Use Encryption

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?

Without the proper web authentication, your website is at risk.

A password breach is when a hacker gains access to your user database where you store all your website authentication credentials. When a data breach occurs, your user’s information is at risk, especially if your organization didn’t store credentials using the best practices mentioned in the previous section. 

A hacker can obtain information from your user database by hacking account 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 being unaware of an attack until it’s too late. Organizations should use the following ways to help prevent a password breach from occurring.

Ways to Prevent a Security Breach

Create Stronger Passwords

While website authentication works to help prevent unauthorized people from entering accounts, it’s not completely foolproof, especially, when passwords are used. To protect your information, it’s important that users create strong credentials so that it’s difficult for cybercriminals to crack them. Passwords should be at least 8 characters long and include a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. As another precaution, users should never use words or personal information in their credentials.

Delete Old or Inactive Accounts

This advice can be applied to individual users as well as organizations. Old and inactive accounts can be a great entry point for cybercriminals because they often use weak or compromised passwords. Additionally, these accounts aren’t being monitored, which means that unauthorized activity can go unchecked for quite a long time. To avoid these concerns any accounts you no longer use should be deleted. Deleting inactive accounts not only protects your information but also removes one more account you have to keep up with.

Update Software Regularly

Another way that hackers can gain access to your data is through vulnerabilities in your software and computer programs. Luckily, when vendors spot these issues, they create a patch or update to prevent these errors from causing any real harm. Unfortunately, many users and organizations don’t take the time to update their software. If you have an IT team, their role should be to ensure that updates are being made on a regular basis.

Don't Share Your Passwords

A common practice in organizations is to share passwords among employees, but this practice can lead to weaker security. Since passwords are often shared via email, if a hacker gains access to your email account, they’ll be able enter any accounts you’ve passed along or received. Additionally, if everyone is using the same accounts there, is no accountability for who is making changes, which could cause a hacker to make changes that go undetected.

Are There Ways to Make Website Authentication More Secure?

Use a HTTPS Website Domain

Hyper Text Transfer Protocal (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.

Screen Passwords

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.

Additional Website Authentication Resources

Passwords Won't Protect Your Website

Interested in learning more about passwords and their weaknesses? This article walks you through all the ways passwords won’t protect your website and solutions to make your data secure.

Passwordless Login System Benefits

Many experts are predicting the end of the password. If you want to get a jump-start on implementing a passwordless login system, check out all the benefits it has to offer.

What is OAuth & How Does It Work?

OAuth is a type of authentication method that makes it easy to share information across different organizations without revealing any user credentials. Keep reading to learn more!

Keep your sensitive information safe with our guide to password security.
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