User Authentication: An Introduction

User authentication is the foundation of ensuring digital identities and information are protected. Your digital identity is who you are and what you do and store online. Therefore, to be able to access that information and those sites, you will need to validate – authenticate you are who you are.

User Authentication Definition

“An act, process, or method of showing something (such as an identity, a piece of art, or a financial transaction) to be real, true, or genuine.”

This applies to any number of things or individuals. It answers the questions, is this real, is this legitimate, are you who you say you are.

Identity theft is on the rise and is something you must guard against, whether digital or not. Your identity allows access to any number of privileges and resources, from driving to working to accessing your bank accounts. Authentication is how your identity is confirmed or validated.

When you open a bank account, you are asked to provide identification. This is often a birth certificate, a driver’s license, Social Security number, address, and more. The financial institution has an authentication process by which they validate that you are who you say you are. From there, they have you sign documents, making that token, your signature, a line of validation moving forward. That is the authentication step.

You can also protect your identity by adding additional protection and requirements for authentication. By adding alerts or locks on your credit, you increase the required steps for authentication, which can stop someone from opening accounts in your name, as this would require additional steps to validate the identity.

User authentication is not new, nor is different levels of user authentication. Whether it’s showing a government ID, providing a Social Security number, providing a short-form birth certificate or a long-form one, the level of authentication required is typically proportional to the sensitivity of the information or access involved.

Digital authentication

Basic authentication

Digital authentication, or user authentication in the digital world, is the process of verifying the user is who they say they are. This is done at the basic level of matching a username and password to what was entered upon registration. If you meet those two basic authentication criteria, you are authorized for access.

This is also one of the most vulnerable points in security. When entering user ID and passwords you could be inadvertently offering up your information to potential hackers. This can happen any number of ways:

  • Using public networks
  • Clicking on a phishing email
  • Someone could be watching over your shoulder
  • Malware on your computer could be tracking keystrokes

It’s also likely that at some point you’ve forgotten a username or password and have to click on the reset link, further making you vulnerable, as you now likely have to access your email or mobile device.

Multi-factor authentication

To further protect against cyber threats, many sites, companies, and platforms have set up multi-factor authentication (MFA). This can be a simple two-factor authentication (2FA) or a more robust and adaptive process for authentication.

A few examples of MFA include:

  • Validating the image/token you’ve selected at registration is correct
  • Entering a pin number
  • Answering a question
  • A biometric scan (face, fingerprint, retina)
  • Response to a push notification (authorize on a mobile device, enter a sent code)

Each of these offers more opportunities to authenticate that you are the user, which serves as additional protection and security for your identity and your information. It also serves to protect access to the networks and services you are using.

Authentication vs Authorization

Authentication is what enables any number of organizations or services to ensure that you are who you say you are before providing access to information or content. But how does that Different from Authorization?

  • Authentication verifies you are who you say you are.
  • Authorization is what your authenticated identity allows you to access.

This can be seen in access levels on shared folders. Typically, shared folders have different access settings, where users can be designated as:

  • Administrator
  • Editor
  • Read/View

Each of those levels comes with different rights and access responsibilities. That is the authorization level, and it is based on the login credentials, the authentication step, for each user.

User authentication is the first step in gaining access and in protecting your identity.

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