Authentication in Information Security

  • December 17, 2020
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Authentication in Information Security

Authentication is defined as a process/procedure/methodology of confirming the identity of a user. In layperson’s definition, it is a method of confirming whether the person is indeed the one who declares themselves to be.

The technology of authentication offers access to systems and platforms by confirming whether the credentials submitted by a user match the ones that are kept in the database.

Often, the identity of users is confirmed using the user ID and they are authenticated to access the platform when submitting the credential, like a password.

The majority of users understand the meaning of passwords as they have used them all their time. For security reasons, a password is only known to one individual and is referred to as a knowledge authentication factor.

There are two levels of an authentication process: human (user) and machine level. At the human level, a person simply signs in to a resource by providing their net ID, also known as a username, and a password.

On the other hand, machine level is a sophisticated method that uses a predetermined ID and a password known to machines that are allowed to access the resource.

This happens when a computer attempts to access a particular resource after a human user has completed their human authentication.

Here, a router or a server understands that the machine trying to gain access to their network must be an authorized machine hence it must submit its identity credentials such as an IP address and a secret code in order to verify its validity to access the resource.

There are three major factors associated with an authentication process: knowledge factors, possession factors, and inheritance factors.

Knowledge factors are the type of information known only to the users. It is an information set that will enable user recognition of the resource (network). It might be a password, a security question, or a PIN number.

The sophistication of their combination varies depending on the fragility of the resource and how much the service provider is capable of offering protection against unauthorized access.

Possession factors involve the assets a particular resource user possesses. It can be a hardware device, for example, a MAC address, a cell phone for receiving an OTP, or a security token.

Inheritance factors can either involve biometric information exact to users who use biometric authentication to gain access to a resource or a cookie that has been left in a device to verify it at another time.

For instance, a computer or a mobile phone will in the future remember a particular network once connected to it and will automatically reconnect once it identifies it.

What Happens During an Authentication Process?

The majority of network users rarely understand what happens in the background.

Network administrators and system managers are responsible for leveraging the existing hardware, the protocols of the network, and software to make sure that all the users in this network are entitled to access only the resources allowed for them.

Cyber-security and network security workloads vary depending on different factors. It is assumed that responsible users will not temper with the resource, that is, they will do what is supposed of them and won’t attempt hacking the system or attempt unauthorized entry.

But in reality, security pundits must stay awake to diagnose any weakness in the network, rectify it before irresponsible users and attackers can take advantage of it.

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Authentication in Information Security

Authentication allows businesses to protect their resources (websites, networks, databases, internet-powered services) by authorizing only authenticated users to access them.

After authentication, the user is then passed through an authorized channel to confirm whether they should be allowed to visit the secured resource.

This implies that even when a user has been authenticated, they can be denied access to the resource. Whereas the two terms – authentication and authorization – are confused and applied interchangeably, they have different meanings.

While authentication involves confirming whether the credentials entered by the user match the information kept in the database to validate their entry to a secured resource, authorization involves the validation of the authenticated users to permit them to enter the protected resource.

To pass authorization, the user but be authenticated first.

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Authentication occurs when humans are interacting with computer systems. To begin, the user identifies themselves by submitting their user ID and a password.

This type of authentication is referred to as user authentication and it permits users (humans) to interact with computer systems – laptops, mobile phones, tablets et al. – in operating systems or offline applications.

Authentication is widely used by companies across the globe to accept only authorized individuals to their systems.

Without emphasizing this security measure, information of valid users like credit card information, social security information, driver’s license information, financial information, et al. could be extracted by cyber-attackers.

Also, companies adopt authentication to regulate and manage users who gain access to their corporate resources and recognize and regulate these devices.

Businesses whose employees operate remotely use authentication to allow them to access their resources.

Principle of Operation

To authenticate a user’s access to a particular resource, the personally identifiable information (PII) – credentials – they submit are compared to the ones stored in the database.

If this information matches, the users are allowed to gain access to the resource, and the authentication process ends.

After gaining access, the users are provided with an environment to interact with depending on the type of services offered by the network.

For instance, if it is a PayPal website where the user has an account, the user can view their profile, check their balance, modify settings, view transactions, and transfer funds among other activities.

The environment also provides rights such as time of access and storage capacity.

Conventionally, authentication is carried out by the resource(s) the user wants to access. For instance, authentication of a user is fulfilled by a server applying its password system, executed locally by applying user IDs and passwords.

If the user knows the valid login information, it is assumed that they are already an authentic user of that particular resource(s).

To initially register (sign up), the user adopts self-declared login credentials and in every subsequent sign-in, they must be remembering and using these credentials.

Nevertheless, due to the statelessness of internet applications such as HTTP and HTTPS, users are required to submit their login credentials every time they want to gain access to these resources.

Instead of burdening users with re-authentication each time they are interacting with web applications, token-based authentication was invented for secured systems to allow a single authentication at the beginning of a session.

Authentication Methods Of Information Security

Conventional authentication involves the application of a password where the user’s username and the associated password are kept together.

Upon submitting the password, it is compared to the one stored in the file. When the system confirms that the two values match, the user is allowed to access the site.

However, this kind of authentication is prone to vulnerabilities, particularly where the login details are used across various platforms.

An attacker who succeeds to access these login credentials can use them to attempt in other platforms. Multiple-factor type of authentication can reduce vulnerabilities associated with a password-based authentication approach.

For security reasons, security experts have devised more secure approaches to authentication such as two-factor authentication, multi-factor authentication, three-factor authentication, biometric authentication, mobile authentication, continuous authentication, and API authentication among others.

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Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

In recent years, there has been massive information leaks and websites losing their users’ credentials to cyber-attackers. As cyber-crime gets even more complicated, businesses are discovering their security capabilities do not match these threats.

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To reduce cyber-attackers from stealing users’ personal information, 2FA adds an additional security layer to authentication.

It requests the user to provide an extra authentication factor on top of their password. Often, it asks the user to submit a verification code that is sent to their pre-registered mobile phone number or email.

Three-Factor authentication

It is a multi-factor authentication approach where the user is required to present three authentication factors, often a password, security token, and biometric details.

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Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA authentication requires users to present more than a single piece of their identification credentials.

This authentication approach offers an extra security layer, minimizing the possibility of illegitimate access.

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MFA can request the user to present their biometric details like facial recognition and fingerprint information, a possession factor such as security keys, or a one-time token generated using authentication software.

Biometric Authentication

Biometric authentication involves using the unique features of the user’s body to permit them in accessing a resource.

Whereas some authentication approaches rely mainly on biometric information to authorize access, in other authentication approaches biometric information is used as an additional authentication factor.

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Types of biometric information required in authentication include facial recognition, fingerprint information, voice recognition, and retina information.

Mobile Authentication

It is a technique of authenticating users to access resources through their mobile devices – sending a security code via a pre-registered mobile number – or authenticating the devices themselves.

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Mobile authentication allows users to access several platforms from anywhere.


Today, networks are endangered entities prone to easy hijacking by cyber-attackers. Consequently, several topographies and protocols have been set to identify the user before allowing them to connect to their systems.

The identification process/method confirms the validity of the information submitted by the user to verify whether the user should be permitted or denied to access the resources.

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