Authentication vs. Authorization (What's the Difference?)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 6, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

It's critical to understand the differences between authentication and authorization if you're pursuing a career in software or technology. These two concepts relate to identity and access management (IAM), which is focused on the security of online platforms and resources. Learning the difference between these two terms can help you apply practical solutions for data safety.

In this article, we compare authentication vs. authorization, discuss their key differences, explore essential cybersecurity skills, and answer FAQs related to authentication.

Comparing authentication vs. authorization

If you want to pursue a career in cybersecurity or enhance your professional performance at work, you may benefit from learning how authentication vs. authorization compare. Here are their definitions:

What is authentication?

Authentication is the process of verifying your identification using several techniques, including login credentials. Authentication is useful to businesses, websites, and online applications to preserve information and prove the identity of their users. For instance, if a business uses a messaging program, only individuals with a company-issued email address and password are able to send and receive messages to and from other members of the organization. Typically, users provide their login credentials each time they visit a program or website. Several forms of authentication exist, including:

  • Login credentials: This is often a username or email address used with a password to gain access to the system. The user may change their password at any time.

  • Security questions: A system may ask a user to answer security questions to authenticate their identity. These are particular questions to which only the user can respond, such as the street on which they grew up.

  • Two-step authentication: Two-step authentication requires an additional piece of information besides the login and password. For instance, a system may send you an email with a onetime code that you may use to log in and authenticate your identity.

  • Multifactor authentication: Multi-factor authentication entails the use of additional sets of credentials, such as a backup email address and phone number. Because each means of identification is distinct from the others, this is the most secure technique.

Related: Computer Literacy in the Workplace: What You Need to Know

What is authorization?

Authorization, or access control or client privilege, involves authorizing a user to access a certain resource, such as a database or library, fully or partially. It happens after a user authenticates their identity. In other situations, another party, such as a system administrator or team leader, can grant access to the user. The user doesn't see or have influence over access restrictions, nor can they modify their level of access. For instance, if a team leader provides new associates access to a list of clients, the associate might be unable to access any clients that aren't on the authorized list.

Differences between authentication and authorization

Despite their particular differences, some people use authentication and authorization interchangeably. While you can use these two methods during the same operation or action, it's critical to understand how they vary. The following summarizes the distinctions between authentication and authorization:

Visibility

Access and controls are visible to users during authentication. Because the user inputs their username or password themselves, they can easily see the verification process. Even when a system requires more than one factor of authentication, they have full visibility of the process as the user submits each factor themselves.

Comparatively, a third entity, such as a supervisor or administrator, is responsible for determining user authorization. Because the user has no influence over their level of authorization, they cannot see this information. Only someone with a high level of permission has the power to modify the level of access granted to other users.

Related: How to Become a Security Consultant in 8 Steps (Plus Skills)

Access control

Like visibility, access control changes according to authentication and authorization. Employees may update their personal authentication methods periodically, such as changing their username or password. In this situation, the user retains control of access.

In contrast, the user has no control over the access they have in terms of authorization. This safeguards critical or sensitive data while allowing access when required. A user may request additional permissions, which the system administrator may allow or deny. For instance, if an employee requires access to data contained in a particular database to perform a task, the system administrator may allow access to the database by giving approved login credentials.

Method of validation

Each method uses different methods of validation. Authentication verifies a user's identity by using personal characteristics or information. They may accomplish this with the use of passwords, face recognition, a onetime password, or a secondary point of contact. These techniques authenticate the user prior to authorizing them. Authorization verifies the user based on the permissions set by the administrator. This happens upon authentication.

Transmission of data

The transmission of authentication data occurs through identification tokens, or ID tokens. These tokens permanently store the users' authentication credentials in the system's memory, ensuring that they function each time. Usually, the company uses access tokens to transmit permission data. Because these tokens are only available to the original resource server, the company increases the degree of security. Each access token includes data about the user and the rights granted to them.

Benefits

Authentication and authorization work together to deliver several advantages, including increased security and simpler access to organizational resources. Both processes may have common benefits, but each offers distinct advantages. For instance, authentication adds levels of security, the most secure of which is multifactor authentication. This is a straightforward process that deploys and provides users with an easy method to access the system. Authentication is also a remedy for cybersecurity breaches.

Authorization is an excellent technique for safeguarding sensitive data, files, or documents. Employee authorizations have role-based characteristics, which assist the organization in categorizing the information it communicates with employees. Authorization protects the entire system by limiting what each user may do, share, and access.

Essential skills for cybersecurity

Here are some crucial abilities you may use while working in cybersecurity:

Problem-solving skills

Several careers in cybersecurity focus on assisting customers with technological issues. Not all problems have a definite answer, as the challenges that cybersecurity professionals face are often subjective. Problem-solving skills focus on analyzing a problem and its potential solutions to find the best option that solves the issue quickly and effectively.

Related: Top Skills for Software Developer

Security knowledge

Cybersecurity professionals know and understand a variety of operating systems, applications, and devices, and also their respective security capabilities. Depending on the function you perform in cybersecurity, it may be necessary for you to possess expertise in hardware, software, or both. Certain roles require employees to study specialized hardware or software or to undergo training.

Patience

Several elements of a cybersecurity job need patience and some of them require you to code complete systems for a business, which can be a lengthy process. Even for individuals with extensive training, testing software to verify it runs properly may require several hours, days, or weeks of work, depending on the complexity of the software. Patience and effective research techniques often assist in resolving most troubleshooting problems.

FAQs about authentication

Here are some frequently asked questions about authentication:

What is multi-factor authentication?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a way of validating a user's identity in a secure manner. People who are trying to log in to an account or execute a transaction may go through a multi-factor authentication process to prove their authorization. MFA systems often demand users to validate their identities using two or more credential categories, such as a passcode, secure token, or personal data.

What does multi-factor authentication protect against?

MFA systems are usually the last barrier that protects personal or valuable information. Here are some situations that MFA protects against:

  • Automated credential stuffing: This refers to hackers who utilize stolen security detail combinations from one company to gain access to user accounts at another.

  • Brute force and reverse brute force attacks: Brute force attacks are when hackers utilize computers to create many distinct usernames and password variations.

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks: When a hacker intercepts data communications between computers and servers, you can refer to this as a man-in-the-middle attack. Hackers may be physically close to a victim or utilize malware in these processes.

How does multi-factor authentication differ from two-factor authentication?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) refers to techniques of user verification that rely only on two factors for identity. MFA employs two or more elements, depending on the organization's security requirements. While two-factor authentication is often more convenient for users who want simplified log in choices, many companies have switched from two-factor authentication to multi-factor authentication.

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