Authentication and authorization are both common terms in the world of identity and access management (IAM). While they might sound similar, both are distinct security processes, and understanding the difference between the two is key to successfully implementing an IAM solution.
What Is Authentication?
Authentication is the act of validating that users are who they claim to be. Passwords are the most common authentication factor—if a user enters the correct password, the system assumes the identity is valid and grants access.
Other technologies such as One-Time Pins, authentication apps, and even biometrics can also be used to authenticate identity. In some instances, systems require the successful verification of more than one factor before granting access. This multi-factor authentication (MFA) requirement is often deployed to increase security beyond what passwords alone can provide.
What Is Authorization?
Authorization in system security is the process of giving the user permission to access a specific resource or function. This term is often used interchangeably with access control or client privilege. Giving someone permission to download a particular file on a server or providing individual users with administrative access to an application are good examples. In secure environments, authorization must always follow authentication—users should first prove that their identities are genuine before an organization’s administrators grant them access to the requested resources.
Authentication vs. Authorization
Let's use an analogy to outline the differences. If you need to enter a house and the door is locked, you need a set of keys to open it. Unlocking the door with the correct key and gaining access to the house verifies you have the right to enter. This process is authentication. The lock on the door only grants access to someone with the correct key, in much the same way that a system only grants access to users that have the correct credentials.
However, once you have entered the house, you may not have the owner’s permission to access certain areas or appliances. Imagine that your neighbor has asked you to feed her pets while she is away. In this example, you have the authorization to access the kitchen and open the cupboard storing the pet food. However, you can’t go into your neighbor’s bedroom as she did not explicitly permit you to do so. Even though you had the right to enter the house (authentication), your neighbor only allowed you access to certain areas (authorization).
Systems implement these concepts in the same way, so it’s crucial that IAM administrators understand how to utilize both authentication and authorization. As far as authentication goes, it makes sense to let every staff member access your workplace systems if they provide the right credentials in response to your chosen authentication requirements. However, you might not need to grant them permission to department-specific files, and may want to reserve access to confidential data, such as financial information, only for those it concerns. Equally, you need to ensure that employees have access to the files they need to do their jobs. Understanding the difference between authentication and authorization, and then implementing IAM solutions that have strong support for both, will allow you to protect your organization against data breaches and enable your workforce to be more productive.
Granting Permissions with Okta
Getting a strong grip of authentication and authorization across your organization requires implementing IAM solutions. Okta Lifecycle Management gives you an at-a-glance view of user permissions, meaning you can easily grant and revoke access to your systems and tools as needed. Meanwhile, Okta Adaptive MFA lets you safeguard your infrastructure behind your choice of authentication factors. This goes hand in hand with securing access to privileged functions and resources. For example, you can make placing production orders accessible only to a certain group of users, that may then have to authenticate using both their company credentials and voice recognition. The opportunities to streamline IAM in your organization are endless; find out how Okta can keep you, your employees, and your enterprise safe.