Authentication vs. Authorization

Once authentication is confirmed, authorization comes into play. Authorization is the process of determining what resources or actions the authenticated user is allowed to access or perform. Essentially, it answers the question, “What are you allowed to do?” Authorization is about granting or denying permissions to do something within a system, such as viewing specific data, editing a file, or accessing a particular room.

Concisely, the difference:

  • Authentication: Who are you? Authentication is the act of verifying a user’s identity. Think of it like showing your ID at the airport – you’re proving you are who you claim to be. This typically involves usernames, passwords, security tokens, or biometrics.
  • Authorization: What can you do? Authorization deals with the permissions granted to a user after they’ve been authenticated. It’s like getting your boarding pass after your ID is checked – it determines which flight you can board and what class of seat you have.

Key Differences Between Authentication and Authorization

  • Sequence in Security Protocol: Authentication always precedes authorization. The system must first recognize who the user is before it can determine what the user is allowed to do.
  • Functionality: Authentication verifies identity, while authorization allocates access levels and permissions.
  • Data Involved: Authentication involves collecting credentials to verify identity. Authorization, however, works with permissions and policies to define access levels.
  • Controlled by: Typically, authentication is managed by the system itself, verifying credentials against its database. Authorization rules and permissions, on the other hand, are often defined by an organization’s policies or the resource owner.

Real-World Examples

Example 1: Office Building

  • Authentication: An employee swipes their badge at the main entrance. The system scans the badge to verify their identity.
  • Authorization: Once authenticated, the system knows the person’s job role and unlocks specific doors they’re permitted to access (their office, specific labs, conference rooms, etc.).

Example 2: Online Bank Account

  • Authentication: A customer logs into their bank account using their username and password. They might also have to answer a security question or use a fingerprint scanner.
  • Authorization: Once authenticated, the customer can see their account balance and recent transactions. However, they may be restricted from transferring large sums of money or accessing other customers’ information.