What is user authentication?
User authentication is a process of verifying user identity whenever they attempt to access a system, network, account, or device. It’s a security procedure that ensures unauthorized entities wouldn’t reach sensitive data or connect to private networks. Businesses can also apply user verification methods to grant different authorization levels when employees access certain information or assets.
During the authentication process, the user is asked to provide their credentials, usually a username and password, created upon registration. In some cases, credentials can include other forms than a user-created password, such as an additional one-time password (OTP) sent to a phone or email account, a piece of biometric data, or a push notification. If the user fails to provide correct login credentials for the account or network, the authentication system blocks their access.
How user authentication works
User authentication works by proving to the network or account that the user who tries to access it is who they claim to be. Typically, the user confirms their identity with unique login details. Let’s take a closer look into the three main stages of the verification process:
- Inputting login credentials. To gain access to the safeguarded system, you need to enter your username, password, or other type of passkey you have chosen upon registration.
- Credentials compared. The system you’re trying to access sends your credentials to its authentication server, which compares them with credential hashes securely stored in the system’s database.
- Authentication completed. If the login info you’ve entered is equivalent to the one stored in the server, it grants you access to the account. Your authentication request is declined if you fail to provide the correct credentials. Your account may also get flagged for suspicious activity if you attempt to log in unsuccessfully several times in a row. In this case, the authentication system may issue an additional verification step for you to complete, such as an OTP.
User authentication types
User authentication types refer to different methods applied to recognize a legitimate user. Each method may use information of a different nature that only the authentication server and the user would know. This information typically falls into three different categories called authenticator factors. Let’s look more closely at each of them:
- A knowledge factor, or something the user knows, includes a username, password, and PINs created by the user.
- A possession factor, or something the user has, refers to physical devices, including phones and key fobs, or digital assets, such as email accounts.
- An inherence factor, or something the user is, meaning their biometric data, such as fingerprint scan or face recognition.
Depending on the authentication type, each factor can be used as a unique verification token or combined for more robust authentication solutions.
Read on to learn about the most popular user authentication types.
A password is one of the most common authentication methods in use. It is typically a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters that the user creates to prove their identity whenever they want to access their account.
For the user to adequately safeguard their accounts, they have to create strong passwords. They should be at least eight characters long and include a mix of upper and lowercase letters as well as numbers and symbols. Strong passwords are harder to crack because they are more complex and less predictable. They’re also more effective against brute force attacks, which remain popular among hackers to gain unauthorized access to accounts. In the event of a brute force attack, threat actors run through possible password combinations until they find the right match and gain access to personal accounts or sensitive data.
However, practice shows that people tend to create weak passwords that are easy to remember. Given the number of online accounts a single person has to juggle daily, it’s only natural. Unfortunately, this practice significantly threatens the user’s online safety. In addition, users are inclined to use the same password for multiple accounts, making them more susceptible to becoming victims of various cybercrimes. For instance, if you use the same credentials for your social media and bank accounts and the hacker manages to crack one of them, they gain access to both accounts.
Hackers increasingly manage to access sensitive and confidential data, including user passwords, through data breaches of large companies. If you’re using the same username and password for all your online accounts, a data leak of one of your accounts might have ruinous consequences because hackers could easily access all of your accounts with the same credentials. That’s why it’s vitally important not to use the same password for multiple accounts and not to include any personal information within your passwords — in the case of a breach, a hacker would gain another piece of your valuable personal information.
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a user verification method that requires two or more identification factors to let the user access their account. For instance, after you provide your username and password, the MFA may send you a push notification or one-time verification code to confirm your connection. MFA is often interchangeably referred to as two-factor authentication (2FA). However, the latter is only the subset of MFA that use exactly two factors to authenticate users, whereas MFA can include more than two factors to identify users.
Thanks to its layered approach to security, MFA can stop hackers from gaining access to user accounts even if they manage to breach the passwords. The secondary authentication factors in MFA typically include something the user has (e.g., digital assets) or something they are (e.g., biometric data), which require elaborate effort to fake or get access to.
Biometric authentication is a method to verify users based on their unique physiological or behavioral characteristics. These may include:
- Fingerprint, face, eye, or voice recognition, considered a physiological biometric.
- Keystroke dynamics or signature analysis, considered behavioral characteristics.
This authentication method is becoming increasingly popular because it can grant a high level of security — unique biological characteristics are hard to duplicate. Moreover, it provides an almost seamless user experience because the user simply needs to touch the screen to provide a fingerprint or let the device scan their face.
However, it’s important to remember that infallible online tools don’t exist, and biometric authentication is no exception. Threat actors are keeping up with the technology and have introduced methods like image recognition to fake a person’s identity. That’s why biometric authentication is the most valuable when combined with other authentication methods.
Single sign-on (SSO)
Single sign-on (SSO) is a verification method that allows users to apply a unified set of credentials for multiple accounts. SSO is especially popular in business because it simplifies the login process for employees who can access several connected applications and services, only logging in once using one set of credentials.
The SSO system verifies the user’s credentials whenever the user logs in to an SSO-integrated platform. It issues a token or a digital certificate, which is checked when the user attempts to access another integrated application. If it’s proved valid, the user gains access to the application without needing to go through a login process again.
SSO can provide close to seamless transitions between integrated applications and services because it helps users cut down on accounts and login credentials they must manage.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that if a hacker gains access to the user’s SSO credentials, they gain access to all of the connected applications. It’s the main reason SSO is typically used with MFA, gaining a layer of security in addition to its convenient operation.
Certificate-based authentication is a verification method when the user proves their identity by providing a digital certificate to the authentication server. These certificates are issued by a certificate authority (CA), a third party that verifies if the entity — a person or organization — is legitimate before issuing them a certificate.
The digital certificate typically combines the user’s digital identity and a certification authority’s digital signature, verifying that identity.
When the user attempts to connect to an account with the digital certificate, the authentication server first checks if the certificate is valid (hasn’t expired or been revoked) and has been issued by a trusted CA. The server then sends a cryptographic message to the user’s device, which has to respond with a correct answer associated with the certificate. If the response is correct, the server confirms the user’s identity and grants them access to the account.
With certificate-based authentication, systems can authenticate users with minimal human intervention, removing the burden from the users to manage numerous login credentials. On the other hand, if threat actors ever compromise the digital certificate, they could impersonate the user to get hold of their multiple accounts. Another issue may occur if the CA gets compromised — then all certificates issued by it might be at risk.
Device authentication is the process of identifying and verifying the device, such as a phone or a computer, before it accesses a network or service. It helps ensure the device is legitimate and trustworthy before it connects to sensitive systems or data. Device authentication is often combined with other user authentication methods, such as MFA, biometric authentication, or digital certificates.
This type of authentication is especially useful in business environments, when employees may need to connect to networks or reach sensitive information while working remotely. Device authentication adds an additional layer of security by verifying the user and their device so that only approved devices can access corporate resources.
Why is user authentication important?
User authentication is important because it helps to protect user accounts, networks, and systems from unauthorized access. Without proper user authentication, threat actors may gain access and compromise both private and business accounts. A breach of one account may easily lead to a breach of all the connected accounts, compromising the user’s sensitive data.
Strong user authentication is considered a must for many businesses to run their operations without the risk of leaking confidential information. In addition to granting secure access only to authorized personnel, user authentication can help to maintain an accurate record of who accessed what data and when. User verification can also be paired with various access control mechanisms that help determine the employee’s level of access.
Tips how to improve user authentication
Improving user authentication is crucial because it helps enhance the security and privacy of sensitive data stored behind the authentication mechanism. Let’s look into what you can do to keep your authentication system in pristine condition:
- Use a strong password. Many systems still use passwords to authenticate users, so users must create complicated and strong credentials that won’t yield to various cyberattacks.
- Use a password manager. If it’s hard for you to remember a number of different usernames and passwords associated with different accounts, a password manager is a tool you should consider. It saves all the passcodes in one integrated system, usually safeguarded by MFA. In addition to your account credentials, you’ll need to provide a master password to open the vault of credentials saved in your password manager.
- Update the authentication system. Regularly updating authentication mechanisms can address existing vulnerabilities and guard your accounts against ever-advancing techniques for attacking authentication systems.
- Implement automatic logouts. Implemented session time-outs after a longer period of inactivity reduce the risk of unauthorized access because the user has to go through a login process every time they want to use their account.
- Activate device recognition. Allowing systems to grant access only to recognized devices will help to challenge and block risky devices and entities from accessing the network or systems.
- Update the recovery process. It’s vital to ensure that authentication recovery processes are intact because they are your way back into your account if you lose or forget your verification credentials. Ensure that security questions are hard to guess and that OTPs are active for only a brief period of time.
- Audit authentication logs. Regularly reviewing authentication logs will help you identify any suspicious logins and activities at the heels of possible cyberattacks.
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