Difference Between Authorization and Authentication

Written by Cassa Niedringhaus on February 6, 2020

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Authentication (AuthN) and authorization (AuthZ) are industry terms that are sometimes confused or used interchangeably. They’re also presented together in AAA (authentication, authorization, and accounting). However, they’re individual concepts with separate effects on organizational security.

Here, we’ll cover how they’re defined and how to implement them in enterprises.

What is Authentication?

Authentication refers to identity: It’s about verifying that a user is who they say they are.

Just as in the real world, where we might verify a person’s identity by their facial features, we need measures to verify a user’s digital identity. A user can authenticate their identity with credentials such as a username and password, an SSH key, or biometrics.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) strengthens the process by requiring a user to enter something they know (i.e. password) and something they have (i.e. time-based one-time token). That way, even if a password is compromised, an account is still protected by the TOTP, which is more difficult to compromise.

Newer methods of authentication, such as biometrics or hardware keys, still stem from the idea that users provide something they know and/or something they have to authenticate their identities.

There are many considerations for organizations as they decide how users will authenticate and whether that process should differ by resource — such as requiring MFA for systems and SSH keys for cloud servers. They also need to ensure that verification happens over secure channels.

What is Authorization?

Authorization is an orthogonal concept to authentication: It’s about privilege and verifying what resources a user is allowed to access after you’ve verified their identity.

Organizations should heed the concept of least privilege so users have access only to the resources and data they need to get their jobs done — and nothing more.

In an enterprise, for example, employees in the engineering department would be granted access to a different set of resources than employees in the sales department.  Furthermore, within individual resources, different users might be granted different access levels.

Why AuthN and AuthZ Matter to your Org

Authentication and authorization are important concepts for organizations as they determine how to assess their threat models, strengthen their security postures, and meet compliance regulations.

In conjunction, authentication and authorization serve organizations looking to implement access controls.

Implementing Identity Management and Access Control

A centralized identity and access management solution that connects users to their resources — including systems, applications, networks, and files — can play a critical role in implementing standardized authentication and authorization frameworks.

Through a central IAM solution, IT admins can create authoritative user identities across resources and automate access control based on roles and groups, rather than having to do so manually, which saves time and reduces the chance for human error. 

They can define how users will authenticate and authorize (or restrict) their access to resources systematically. Interested in learning more? Check out our guide to identity management.

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