Authentication vs Authorization: What’s the Difference?


Authentication and authorization are equally important concepts that work together yet serve very different purposes. With the increased focus of attacks on identity and access management (IAM) systems, it is critical to understand authentication vs authorization to understand where your organization may be exposed and identify areas to harden. In the most basic terms:

  • Authentication verifies that a prospective user is who they say they are.
  • Authorization ensures that users can only access the applications, data, and systems for which they have been granted privileges.

Discussion of authentication vs authorization should emphasize the inter-relationship of the two systems. Authorization cannot be given without prior authentication. Conversely, if a user is not authorized to access anything, authentication achieves nothing.

As digital processes become more entwined and complex, and In the face of unprecedented security challenges, strong authentication and authorization processes must play a central role in every organization’s security strategy. Here, we take a closer look at authentication vs authorization, what each of the terms means, and how your organization can leverage both to improve user experience and security.

What is Authentication?

Authentication is the process by which a user verifies their identity. For example, logging into an online banking account, where you prove who you are by entering a username and password and, often, also answering security questions, that theoretically only you know. This proves to the system that you are the account's legitimate owner.

There are three categories of factors that users can leverage to verify their identity: 

  • Knowledge: This is something you know. It is the weakest authentication factor as something a user knows can also be learned, guessed or phished by an attacker.
  • Possession: This is something you have. It is stronger than knowledge, as an attacker would have to physically steal (or intercept) the object.
  • Inherence: This is what you are. This is the strongest factor of authentication and generally provides the best user experience as the user always possesses their own biometric data. 

Those are the technical categories for proving your identity, but most people are more concerned with the methods used for authentication. Unfortunately, usernames and passwords or PINs are still the most common. Others include:

  • Biometrics, such as fingerprints, face or retina scans
  • Security keys and smart cards
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires a user to provide 2 or more factors of authentication.
  • Passwordless authentication, where the traditional use of the knowledge factor, such as usernames and passwords, is eliminated in favor of more secure authentication factors. 
  • API authentication involves certifying user identity for accessing services on the server.

What is Authorization?

Authorization is the process by which the level of access or privilege a user has to data, services, and systems or their ability to perform certain actions is decided. In terms of authentication vs authorization, access policies will determine what a user is authorized to do after they have been authenticated. 

Sometimes, an IAM system may require further authentication checks to raise the authorization level. For example, after logging into your bank account, you may be able to check your balance, but before you can perform a transfer, you must provide additional authentication factors.

The most common methods of authorization include the following:

  • Role-based access controls (RBAC): Pre-determined privilege levels within an organization that corresponds to roles and their needs. With RBAC, a user's account is automatically updated to the new privilege level whenever they move into a new role. This is the simplest way for large organizations to manage the authorization for potentially thousands of users.
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC): This is a more targeted authorization process where specific attributes determine a user’s privilege. These can include the user’s role, security clearance, ID or environmental attributes such as location or time of day.
  • Policy-Based Access Control (PBAC): An authorization approach that uses both attributes and roles to dynamically determine access rights in real-time. Authorization that uses a PBAC framework enables organizations to centralize management of access policies across application, API, microservice, and data layers, giving organizations more granular control and visibility.

Authentication vs. Authorization: Similarities

As they are both part of the broader spectrum of IAM, authentication and authorization share much in common. They are generally used in tandem to ensure that specific users have the right amount of access. Additionally, as more organizations begin to grasp that traditional authentication methods are insufficient from security and usability perspectives, authentication and authorization will both continue to transform and evolve.

Authentication vs. Authorization: Differences

Though they are often used side-by-side, sound similar and play critical roles in securing applications and data, there are also major differences in the authentication vs authorization breakdown. Authentication deals with preventing illegitimate users from entering a system in the first place, while authorization deals with how much access users have once inside. Understanding these differences and how they affect your security posture is vital. The chart below summarizes these.





Verify user identity

Define level of user’s access to system

Impact on User

User must provide authentication factors

Allows or prevents system actions

Processes It Uses

Passwords, devices, biometric identifiers

Validates user permission and privileges through pre-specified rules

IAM Timeline

Before authorization

After authentication

Validity Check for Data Transfer

ID tokens

Access tokens


Employees are required to authenticate themselves before they can access the company finance management portal

After successful authentication, they can only access certain functions based on their roles


Strong Authentication Is Essential to Secure Authorization

The most sophisticated authorization policies will not protect your data and systems from unauthorized access if you cannot guarantee the user’s identity through strong authentication processes. HYPR delivers secure, phishing-resistant authentication that protects your systems from illegitimate access. Our True Passwordless™ MFA eliminates factors that can be phished, intercepted or breached, leveraging secure cryptographic protocols and the capabilities of a user’s smart device to allow for easy, secure authentication. 

To find out more about how passwordless authentication can secure your systems, download our Passwordless Security 101 guide or arrange a free demo.

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