Levels of Authentication

Hacking, financial fraud, and phishing scams are just some of the common cyber-crimes that anyone can fall victim to if appropriate internet security measures aren’t implemented. One way to protect confidential data and personal information is by limiting access to a secured system to authorized personnel only. As an additional layer of cybersecurity, authentication methods can be used to confirm a user’s identity before they can access the network or database.

What Is Authentication and Why Is It Important?

Authentication is a key component of cybersecurity. It involves the process of validating whether a person who is attempting to or requesting permission to access a resource (a system, device, network, database, or application) is genuinely someone who they claim to be. User authentication is essential in businesses because it helps prevent breaches to the company’s digital infrastructure.

Authentication vs. Identification vs. Authorization: What’s the Difference?

In cybersecurity, the terms authentication, identification, and authorization are sometimes used interchangeably. However, these processes perform different yet complementary functions to strengthen data security. 

Identification occurs before authentication, where the user presents credentials to authenticate their identity. The credentials can be any piece of information, like a password, a response to a security question, biometric data, facial recognition data, or a combination of these elements, which have been previously stored in the system. The system verifies the user’s identity by comparing the credentials from the user with the information kept in the system’s database. If the information matches, then the identity of the user is confirmed or authenticated.

Meanwhile, authorization typically comes after the secured resource determines the identity of the user as valid or authentic. In the authorization process, the system determines the specific actions that the user can perform or the types of information, funds, or database the user can access. 

Levels of Authentication: What Are They?

Generally, there are three levels of authentication. The level of authentication your organization implements depends on the degree of confidentiality of the information stored, accessed, or used.

Single-Factor Authentication (SFA)

Also called primary authentication, SFA is the simplest form of authentication because it prompts the user to provide just a single factor or credential to verify their identity. Password authentication is one of the most widely used SFA methods.

SFA is easy to set up, costs less, and works fast in authenticating a person’s identity. However, it is less secure compared to other authentication levels.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA requires users to provide two or more credentials before they can log in to a secured system. Because the second or third factor is typically a possession or a piece of knowledge that only the user has, MFA makes it more difficult for cybercriminals to hack into the user’s social media account or gain unauthorized access to a system or database.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is one of the most common types of MFA, where the user must provide an additional unique identifier or credential after entering their username and password. The additional information could be a Personal Identification Number (PIN), a code sent to the email address or via text message, or a fingerprint.

Because 2FA prompts the user to enter two different factors to gain access to a resource, it ensures that the network or data is not compromised should a cybercriminal gain possession of one of the two verification factors.

Factors of Authentication

Authentication factors or security credentials refer to items, attributes, or information that a user can provide as proof of their identity to gain access, permission, rights, or privileges to a protected resource. These factors fall into three categories:

Knowledge Factors

Knowledge factors are unique information that only the user knows. Username-password combinations, email addresses, PIN of an ATM card, the CVV at the back of a credit card, or the answer to a security question are some examples of knowledge factors.

Possession Factors

Possession factors are items that only the user possesses. These could be a one-time password (OTP) or verification link sent to the user’s email address or mobile phone, USB tokens, and smart cards that the user owns.

Inherence Factors

Inherence factors refer to the unique physical features or attributes of the user. Some examples of inherence factors are the user’s fingerprints, handprints, and retina or iris scans.