Authentication vs Authorization – What's the Difference?

Published on: December 22, 2022
LicenseSpring Guide
Table of Contents:

Authentication vs Authorization – What's the Difference?

tldr: Authentication identifies a person or thing, while authorization determines their access to resources. A computer system always authenticates before it authorizes. A computer system always authenticates before it authorizes.

Authentication and authorization are information security processes that administrators use to protect systems and information from data breaches.

Although the two terms sound similar, they play separate but equally vital roles in securing applications and data.

Combined, they determine the security of a cloud platform or system. A secure solution consists of correctly configured authentication and authorization.

What is Authentication?

Authentication is a process that verifies that someone or something is whom they say they are.

Technology systems and authentication providers typically use some form of an authentication process to secure access to an application or its data.

  • A common example of authentication is the combination of a username and password being required to grant access to an online site or service.
  • The username and password input by the user is authenticated when the system checks the database for an existing, matching entry.

Authentication is the act of validating that users are whom they claim to be. This is the first step in any security process. 

Common Authentication Methods:

Traditionally, user identity verification relied on a combination of a username and password.

Modern user authentication and methods primarily fall into three categories:

  1. Knowledge-based: This involves using a password, an answer to a security question, or a one-time pin that grants access for a single session or transaction.
  2. Possession-based: This method requires having a specific item or device, such as a mobile device or app, a security token, or a digital ID card.
  3. Biometric-based: Utilizing biometric data, such as fingerprints, retinal scans, or facial recognition, to authenticate the user's identity.

In some cases, systems mandate the successful verification of multiple authentication factors before granting access. This approach, known as multi-factor authentication (MFA), enhances security measures beyond the limitations of passwords alone.

Why is Software Authentication Useful?

Being able to reliably identify a user, a computer, or a system, plays a crucial role in pretty much any computer system that needs a database.

Authentication protocols make it possible to create accounts on web apps, and implement roles and permissions on top of the identification system (aka authorization).

What is Authorization?

Authorization is the security process that determines a user or service's level of access. In technology, we use authorization to give users or services permission to gain access to some data or perform a particular action.

An examination of personnel within a supermarket can help to understand authorization and access management.

  • In the supermarket, there is a cashier and a manager, both of whom have different responsibilities and permissions.
  • The cashier may only be permitted to process payments, whereas the manager may have access to daily totals of payments.
  • The manager is authorized to access daily totals, while the cashier is not.

Common Authorization Methods:

Authorization methods are employed to determine the level of access and permissions granted to users within a system.

Several widely adopted authorization methods include:

  1. Role-based authorization: This approach involves assigning roles to users based on their responsibilities and granting access permissions accordingly.
  2. Attribute-based authorization: In this method, access decisions are based on various attributes associated with the user, such as their job title, department, location, or any other relevant attribute.
  3. Permission-based authorization: With this method, access is granted or denied at a more granular level, typically based on explicit permissions assigned to users or user groups.

Why is Software Authorization Important?

Software authorization is important for many reasons, including:

  • Improved security: It can be ensured that only permitted users get to access sensitive business software and documents.
  • Ease of control: Since every user or machine is authorized, it is easy to track and control the software.
  • User management: Enterprises can restrict the number of users by declining authorization. It can help the organization to cut down on unwanted use of the program.

Authorize vs Authenticate:

Authorization Process:

  • Grants or denies access to resources.
  • Controls access to specific functionalities.
  • Examples include assigning roles, setting permissions

Authentication Process:

  • Verifies the identity of a user or entity.
  • Establishes trust and validate identity.
  • Examples include username/password, biometric scans

Which Comes First, Authentication or Authorization?

Authentication always precedes authorization.

Authorization relies on the identification of the user to know what permissions to assign.

If the system is unable to authenticate and identify the user, it cannot provide the correct level of access. Authentication provides the verified identity authorization needs to control access.

  • The process of authentication can be likened to using a key to unlock a door. Just as a correct key is required to gain entry through the lock, a user needs the correct credentials to access a system.
  • On the other hand, authorization is comparable to permissions granted once inside. For instance, after entering the house, the person is authorized to access the kitchen and open the cupboard containing the pet food. However, they may not have permission to enter the bedroom for a quick nap.

Authentication and user authorization work in tandem in this scenario. The pet sitter is authenticated to enter the house, establishing their right to access specific areas (authorization).

How is Software Authentication Ensured?

In an authentication system, the process involves the user or computer demonstrating its identity to the server or client.

Typically, server authentication requires the use of a username and password. Alternative methods for authentication include the use of cards, retina scans, voice recognition, and fingerprints.

How is Software License Authorization Enforced?

Software license authorization can be achieved through a software license management tool, such as LicenseSpring.

LicenseSpring allows software vendors to use feature modules to enable or disable certain modules, components, and extensions according to the license entitlements.

Learn more about which software license models can be implemented in your software application using LicenseSpring.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What Is the Difference Between Authorize and Authenticate in API?

The authentication process verifies the identity of the user or client making the API request. It ensures that the requester is who they claim to be, typically using credentials like API keys or access tokens.

The authorization process determines if the authenticated requester has the necessary permissions to access specific resources or perform certain actions within the API. It controls what operations and data the authenticated user can access.

Is Login Authentication or Authorization?

Login is part of the authentication process. Authentication verifies the user's identity by validating their login credentials, such as a username and password.

Once the user's identity is confirmed, authorization determines their access level and permissions within the system.

How Does Verification Relate to Authentication and Authorization?

In authentication, verification confirms the user's identity through methods like credential validation or biometric checks.

In authorization, verification helps determine the user's access level and permissions based on their authenticated identity.

Kyle Brandon
Kyle BrandonSystems Engineer - LicenseSpring Software
Kyle Brandon is a Systems Engineer at LicenseSpring Software, based out of Vancouver, Canada. With over two years experience, Kyle helps current and prospective customers with ensuring successful implementation of all LicenseSpring has to offer. Specializing in Computing Science, Kyle uses that experience to assist with troubleshooting user-reported bugs and provide helpful guides.
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