Many make the mistake of using the terms interchangeably without understanding the difference between authentication and authorization. However, they are distinct concepts, as we will explore in this article.
As Forbes article puts it, “authentication and authorization are often confused but they are distinct and are part of a broader security control called Identity and Access Management (IAM).”
Difference Between Authentication and Authorization
Two crucial cybersecurity concepts are authentication and authorization. The former validates the user and latter determines what level of access the user is granted.
First and foremost, a system needs to validate users as they attempt to access the system. This is usually initiated by filling in the username and password fields. Beyond that, the site might send a one-time password (OTP) to confirm it is truly a valid user trying to sign in.
In fact, as web hosting company IONOS puts it, “more and more online services are beginning to use two-factor authentication, especially when it comes to sensitive data.” This is due, in large part, to the fact that so many passwords have been compromised over the years”.
How Does Authentication Work?
After entering the username and password, the system compares that information to its database to confirm user identity. “Authentication solutions provide access control by checking a user’s credentials against the database of authorized users or an authentication server.” And once the system has authenticated user identity, the next step is authorization to determine the access level.
After users are authenticated, authorization is a matter of determining what level of access authenticated users should have. For instance, the system admin of a web application has typically more access than a regular user.
Why Are Authentication and Authorization Crucial?
We live in a world full of cybersecurity threats, and data breaches compromise the information of customers and could ruin the reputation of an affected company. Thus, security measures which limit who has access to what information are crucial.
For instance, SQL injection is a cyberattack where instead of typing a username or email into the fields, they enter SQL code to sign in as an admin and steal information from a MySQL database.
In fact, the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) lists both SQL injection and authentication failures in their Top 10 Application Security Risks.
The back end of a website is usually accessible only to the site owner and its system admins which includes direct access to the database, plugins, servers, etc. without accessing the system data through the front-end access program. When users login to their bank account, they are accessing the system information stored in the database through the front-end portal which also controls access level referred to as “permissions”. However, direct access to systems via back-end access may pose greater risks if access controls are not maintained or are loose.
Data Security Standards
As noted by the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research, the primary reason for many system security vulnerabilities is the existence of “insecure coding practices.” Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the web developers apply secure coding practices.
Data security standards are designed to minimize cybersecurity risks. For instance, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) require that payment sites facilitating financial transactions pass an annual system penetration test. Such pen tests are conducted by an ethical hacker or team of hackers that aim to identify any vulnerabilities in the site. They use the same tools and techniques as the black hat hackers (bad guys) but without the malicious intent. They aim to identify system security vulnerabilities to report and perhaps even mitigate risks whereas the black hat hackers identify and exploit vulnerabilities such as selling stolen data on the dark web.
Stay Safe Online
All things considered, authentication and authorization are necessary to keep our data safe. In a world where so many want to illegally access our information for either fun or profit, or a combination of the two, cybersecurity is a top priority. For example, stolen credit card numbers could be used for a shopping spree or possibly even be soled on the dark web. Thus, the importance of cybersecurity cannot be overstated.
We hope that you enjoyed our article and realize the importance of the concepts discussed and the difference between authentication and authorization. And while things such as two-factor authentication might seem an inconvenience to users, perhaps now you have a deeper appreciation for better security controls. It’s always better to spend a few extra seconds to check your email for a one-time password or use a second authentication factor than enduring the ordeal of identity theft.