The Difference Between Authentication and Authorization


People sometimes confuse the terms “authentication” and “authorization” because they sound and are pronounced similarly. Although the words tend to be identical on the surface, their objectives are distinct: the first is to figure out who you are, while the second is to check whether you are permitted to do anything.

Authentication and authorization are both important concepts in identity and access management (IAM) and good security design, even though they have different definitions and serve different purposes. We’ll look at what these words mean and look at some examples from real-life situations in this post.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at authentication vs. authorization.

Authentication vs. Authorization: What’s the Difference Between Authentication and Authorization?

Authentication is one of the prerequisites for authorization: you get authorization only after you’ve been authenticated, not the other way around.

To authenticate myself on Facebook and log in to my account, for example, I need my user ID and password. I’m allowed to make changes to my Facebook profile once I’ve verified my identity. But if I forget my password, I won’t be able to access my account. As a result, I won’t be able to use my privileges (authorization) until I complete the authentication process.

The levels of both definitions are different: Is it possible to change the whole Facebook colour scheme from blue to pink after logging in? Certainly not! So, when I log in as a user, Facebook gives me permission to post text and media, control my friend list, and make other account-specific adjustments. However, I am not permitted to alter their website’s coding, CSS, or databases. To do so, I need to prove that I am Facebook’s webmaster, administrator, production manager, or Mark Zuckerberg!

Human Intelligence Vs. Machines in Authentication and Authorization

Human intelligence is an integral part of the authentication and authorization processes in the real world. Let’s say a cop asks for your driver’s licence, and you show him one that has Donald Trump’s name and photo on it. The cop immediately recognises the licence as a forgery. He’ll also refuse to let you drive unless you show him an authentic driver’s licence with details that fits your description.

In the modern world, however, authentication is less straightforward. If you use Trump’s correct user ID and password on Twitter, for example, the system will immediately trust you and grant you access to his account, along with all the privileges that entails.

As you can see, despite the fact that computers have made our lives much easier, it is very easy to defraud them. Hackers can deceive the authentication and authorization mechanism using a variety of sophisticated cyberattacks (such as cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, DDoS attacks, cross-site request forgeries, and so on).

As a result, companies must carefully and vigilantly set authentication and authorization policies.

Authorization and Authentication Within an Organizational Environment

Authentication and authorization are two different but connected processes in any organisation. Outsiders will access whatever information is accessible to the account based on its rights if the company fails in the authentication step (i.e., if it doesn’t have a robust security mechanism like strong passwords, biometrics, etc. to correctly authenticate users).

You’re increasing the chance of data leaks, data breaches, and other harm from insider attacks if your company doesn’t enforce authorization strategically and gives out excessive levels of access. If an employee steals sensitive company databases, files, papers, and services and sells them to rivals or on the dark web, you’ve effectively given them the keys to your empire.

As a result, please ensure that all employees’ permissions and access rights are properly configured. You can also allow staff to use password managers or create powerful passwords.

Authorization and Authentication in WordPress

If you have several contributors on your WordPress platform, such as co-authors, writers, designers, WP developers, and so on, make sure you pay equal attention to authentication and authorization.

Use plugins like Force Strong Passwords to force all users to build strong passwords for secure authentication. Password managers such as Password Pointer, 1Password, LastPass, Stable Password Generator, Disable Post Passwords, and others are also accessible.

Use plugins like Limit Login Attempts, Loginizer, or WPS Limit Login to prevent unauthorised access through brute force attacks.

You may restrict the functions and permissions of other contributors for authorization purposes. Only you should have complete control over your admin panel, with others having access to only the features that are needed for them to do their jobs. To secure critical parts of the admin dashboard, you can use.htaccess or cPanel to set a different password for certain parts of the admin dashboard.

Authentication: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Authentication is the act of verifying someone’s identity at the most basic level. Documents such as passports, driver’s licences, state IDs, social security cards, and other non-digital means of confirming a person’s identity are used as part of the authentication process.

To verify users’ identities in the digital world, however, we rely on machines and artificial intelligence. The computer must use authentication methods such as passwords, one-time passwords (OTPs), and biometrics to ensure it is communicating with the same person they claim to be.

The authentication methods are chosen from three different types of data:

  • What you know (passwords, security questions, access pins, ATM pins, and so on),
  • what you have (a digital ID card, a mobile device or app, a security key, and so on), and
  • who you are (biometric data such as fingerprint verification software, retinal scans, and facial recognition software, and so on)?

Authentication can be divided into three categories:

SFA (Single-Factor Authentication): It is the most basic form of authentication. To prove their identity, an individual only needs to provide one piece of information. A password is the most popular example of SFA. So, for example, you can access your email, social media pages, and pretty much any website that only requires a password to log in by simply entering your unique password.

Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): Two verification steps are required to gain access to a device with 2FA.

A one-time password or one-time pin is a common example (OTP). To make an online purchase, you’ll need to include your credit card or debit card number, CVV, and expiration date. If all of this information is right, your bank may request an OTP to be sent to your registered mobile number as a second layer of security. The transaction can only be completed after the six-digit OTP has been entered.

To summarise, two pieces of confidential information are needed to verify a person’s identity using 2FA. This is clearly a safer approach than relying solely on single-factor authentication for transactions involving sensitive data.

MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication): MFA is the most sophisticated method of authentication. To prove your identity to a system, you must go through two or more layers of verification procedures.

Examples of Authentication Methods in Action

In the public key infrastructure, the principle of authentication is essential (PKI). To ensure that data is only exchanged between the intended endpoints, all digital certificates use cryptographic “keys” as an authentication mechanism.

Authentication and Email Signing Certificates

PKI is often used for email signing certificates to enable email senders to use their digital signature in all outgoing emails. Since these digital signatures can’t be altered, they’re reliable evidence of the sender’s identity. When recipients verify the sender’s true identity, they may avoid becoming a victim of email spoofing.

Authentication and Code Signing Certificates

Another protection mechanism designed specifically for software publishers’ identity verification is a code signing certificate. Before issuing a code signing certificate to any person, the CA performs a thorough background check. When a user instals software that has been digitally signed with a code signing certificate, the security window shows the name of the original software publisher as evidence of authenticity. It empowers users to understand from whom they are downloading software and to determine whether or not to trust the source.

Authentication and SSL Certificates

Any website that uses SSL/TLS certificates has its own set of public and private keys. The browser creates a session key using a website’s public key and sends it to the server during the TLS handshake. Only the server’s unique private key will decrypt the session key. This is how the browser verifies the identity of the server and guarantees that it’s interacting with the website it appears to be.

Authorization: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Authorization is the method of determining whether or not you have the required access rights, licences, or privileges to perform a task. This usually happens after the identity has been confirmed. When a police officer pulls you over, for example, he will check your identification by looking at your driver’s licence. Your licence, on the other hand, has run out. Even though you passed the authentication step, you can’t drive until your driver’s licence is renewed.

Editor capability options available with Microsoft Office products such as MS Word, MS Excel, and others are a clear example of authorization. If you allow the “Always Open Read-Only” or “Restrict Editing” modes, you give others permission to read the document’s content but not to make any changes to it.

Similarly, the admin of WordPress and other CSM sites will set the permissions for each of the contributors. You may, for example, give staff writers permission to publish content but not to modify the blog’s theme or plugins.

A Final Thought

Any organization’s security efforts must provide authorization and authentication. In reality, almost every company uses these approaches in some form or another for their employees and users. The question is how good or bad they are at it.

It is common knowledge that the more secure an authorization and authentication system is, the more expensive it is. Implementing biometrics, for example. But this is a naive viewpoint, and here’s why:

Consider the financial burden of cybercrime. Once the data falls into the wrong hands — and we say “once” rather than “if” because a data breach is a matter of when, not if — the direct (like paying a ransom or unauthorised fund transfer from a bank account) and indirect (like sullying the company’s reputation due to data leaks, or losing sales due to the leakage of confidential information or know-how) costs will add up quickly. As a result, it’s critical to introduce better and safer authorization and authentication methods in order to improve your company’s or organization’s overall security.

Melina Richardson is a Cyber Security Enthusiast, Security Blogger, Technical Editor, Certified Ethical Hacker, Author at Cybers Guards & w-se. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.