In today's digital age, securing access to sensitive information or restricted areas is paramount. Two critical concepts in achieving this security are authentication and authorization. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings, and it's essential to understand their differences to build a secure system.
This article will define and explain authentication and authorization, highlight their differences, and explore how they relate to each other.
Authentication is an identity confirmation process responsible for checking that users are who they claim to be. This process requires users to prove their identity by using one or more authentication methods:
Username and password combinations (commonplace but insecure)
Physical tokens (e.g., USBs, smart cards)
After confirming the user provided the correct credentials, it’s time to authorize their access.
Following authentication, the user requests access to an environment, system, application, database, or other resource. This is where authorization comes in, granting or denying access based on the user's previously authenticated identity and their level of permission to view or modify the resource.
Depending on the organization’s authorization model, access can be granted or denied based on:
The user’s role (e.g., job title)
Attributes associated with the user and their account (e.g., department, location)
Mandatory security attributes (e.g., security clearance)
An object owner’s discretion
The difference between authentication and authorization
Authentication and authorization are two distinct processes that work together to ensure secure access to resources and systems.
Authentication is a prerequisite for authorization. Before a user can be granted access to a resource or system, they must first authenticate themselves to confirm their identity. Once authenticated, authorization is used to determine what the user can do based on predefined roles, permissions, or attributes.
Authentication can influence authorization decisions. Namely, if a user fails to authenticate, they will not be granted authorization. Similarly, if a user is authenticated but does not have the appropriate role or clearance level, they will not be granted authorization.
In other words, authentication confirms who the user is, and authorization determines what the user can do.
For example, possession of a birth certificate, passport, or naturalization documents indicates an individual's citizenship of a given country – authentication. The country’s constitution and laws specify what rights and privileges all citizens hold – authorization.
The successful implementation of both authentication and authorization processes is critical for ensuring secure access to resources and systems. By implementing strong authentication and authorization, organizations can protect against unauthorized access, prevent identity theft, ensure compliance with regulations, enable granular access controls, and enhance their overall security posture.
Read more: 4 Benefits of Passwordless Authentication
Verifying a user's identity
Granting or denying access to a resource
To ensure that only intended users can access a resource or system
To determine what a user is authorized to do once their identity has been confirmed
Passwords, biometrics, multi-factor authentication
Permissions, roles, attributes
Relationship to each other
Authentication is a prerequisite for authorization
Authorization cannot occur without authentication
Authentication and RBAC with Descope
Authentication and authorization may be distinct processes, but they’re also inseparable. Organizations need to excel at both to protect their IT environments and data from unintentional errors or malicious activity.
Descope helps developers add authentication and role-based access control (RBAC) to their applications with a few lines of code. Our drag-and-drop workflows, SDKs, and APIs abstract away the complexity of authentication – while also making it frictionless and secure – so that developers can spend more time building their core product. And for particularly sensitive environments and data, Descope’s passwordless capabilities add the necessary levels of security.
Sign up for Descope and nail down your auth!