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Modern enterprises now rely on sprawling digital infrastructures that span multiple cloud providers and services. And keeping their data safe in the cloud is now a mission-critical task. That places authentication methods and authorization techniques on the front lines of a battle that businesses can’t afford to lose.

But the terms authentication and authorization, while often used interchangeably, refer to two very different concepts.

And while they may both be parts of the broader cloud security picture, business decision-makers must know the difference. To help, here’s a deep dive that will explain the two concepts in detail. We’ll cover their similarities, differences, and some of the techniques involved. Then we’ll discuss the role they play in modern cloud security. Let’s dive in.

What is Authentication?

Authentication is the act of identifying a user and making sure they are who they say they are. It’s how most modern networks and platforms grant access to protected parts of their systems. Anyone who’s encountered a login page on a website or computer system has seen authentication in action.

In that scenario, a username is how we tell a platform who we claim to be. And when we enter a password, it’s how we prove to the platform that we are, in fact, that user. Once the system matches the username with its password, it has reasonable confidence that you are who you claim to be. And that’s where authorization comes into play.

What is Authorization?

Authorization, by contrast, is how modern networks and platforms grant a given user the right to perform specific actions once they’ve authenticated. For example, after logging into an email provider, we don’t see the mail of every user on that system. We see only our own messages. And we’re prevented from sending messages on behalf of other users on the system. That’s authorization at work.

In short, authorization is a system of rights management. And most of the time, authorization takes place right after a user authenticates. The only way a network or platform could have one without the other would be if all its users had the same access rights. Since that would pose a significant security risk, it’s all but impossible to operate a secure system that way.

Two Steps in a Secure Login Process

In practice, all of this means that the concepts are like two sides of the same coin. They represent sequential steps in a secure login process to protect a digital system. Either one without the other would be useless. But together, they work to control who gains access to a system and what they can do once inside.

From a user perspective, the primary difference between the two is that one is visible and partly under their control, and the other is not. For example, it’s typically possible for a user to change their username or password on most platforms. But they would need to seek the permission of the system’s owner or administrator if they wanted to gain additional rights. For that reason, most people are already familiar with the most common authentication methods.

Common Authentication Methods

Since almost every digital system relies on some kind of authentication method, the most common ones are well known. They include:

  • Username and Password Combinations – By far the most common method, which relies on a user entering a username and a secret password to prove their identity at login.
  • Biometrics – Identifies users based on a unique physical trait, such as fingerprint, voice, or facial recognition.
  • Hardware Tokens – Requires that each user have a physical key that identifies them once connected to the device they’re using to request access to a protected system.
  • Authentication Apps – Identifies a user through an app installed on their smartphone or another device, often by generating a single-use login code based on a shared encrypted secret.

In many cases, systems rely on more than one of these methods for added security. This is what’s known as two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA).

Common Authorization Techniques

Because most authorization processes happen in the background, they’re also transparent to users. That also makes them a bit more difficult to visualize and understand. Some of the most common authorization techniques include:

  • Session Tokens – A cryptographic token, issued at login, specifies and controls user access for the duration of their session.
  • Access Control Lists – Assigned at the resource level or globally, these are permission lists that spell out what rights each user has within a given system.
  • Role-Based Access – A system that creates user groups based on needed permissions and assigns permissions at the group level.

Most modern digital systems use a mixture of the above authorization techniques to control access to their various resources. This is because none offer a one-size-fits-all approach that’s appropriate in every situation.

And many systems require users to reauthenticate when they move between permission levels. For example, a user might log into their email account and have immediate access to their mailbox. But if they attempted to change their mailbox settings by adding a forwarding address or an auto-reply, they may be asked to reauthenticate before being granted permission to proceed.

Managing Access in a Multi-Cloud Environment

Even though it may seem complex, all modern digital networks and platforms use a combination of the authentication methods and authorization techniques above to control access. And individually, they’re fairly easy to manage for the businesses that rely on them. But most businesses today rely on more than one network or platform to support the work they do. And that’s when things get more complicated.

For example, granting appropriate access to multiple independent systems for a single new employee may be time-consuming and difficult. And, the complexity of the work increases the chances that an errant setting might grant inappropriate access to a user. And the same thing happens when an employee departs – often leaving dangerous vulnerabilities in a business’s security and access controls.

But that’s where one-click provisioning solutions like Teamstack come in handy. It features native compatibility with over 1,000 common platforms and services. That makes it possible for a business to add new users with appropriate access to all of the cloud-based platforms they depend on from a single easy-to-use interface. It also provides complete visibility into user access rights across all of those platforms at a glance. And when it’s necessary to remove a user or alter their access rights, Teamstack helps make sure that no stray credentials remain to pose a threat to the business’s data security.

The Bottom Line

By now, it should be clear that authentication and authorization form the basis for controlling access to the digital platforms we use every day. And although they are two distinct concepts, they work in concert to make sure nobody gains access to data that they’re not supposed to see.

But in today’s complex multi-platform environments, it’s easy for businesses to lose track of user rights and access levels. There are simply too many ways for errors and omissions to slip through the cracks. Therefore, it is important more than ever to prioritize authorization techniques and authentication methods So, now that the role of these two oft-misunderstood concepts is clear, so too should be the importance of managing them so they can do their job.

In an environment where a single stray user credential can lead to a data breach, that’s not something any business can leave up to chance. That means either designing a comprehensive user onboarding and deboarding process with redundant checks to eliminate mistakes, or finding a more streamlined solution. And with centralized identity and access management solutions like Teamstack available to do the heavy lifting, the right approach is just a click away.