What is Identity Authentication?
Identity authentication establishes if an individual is who they claim to be. Authentication uses additional data, which is hard to provide if you are not that specific individual.
By providing an added layer of information relating to identity, authentication widens the scope of the identity information required to make a positive match. Authentication also minimizes the chance of fraud and increases the level of trust, so that it is possible to do business in a safe way with a certain individual.
Nearly all interactions that take place between a human and a computer (except for guests and accounts that are automatically logged-in) require user authentication. Authentication is used to access virtually all wireless networks, wired networks, and internet-connected and networked resources.
Historically, identity data provided during authentication was reliant on Knowledge-Based Authentication (KBA), which asked questions that, it was assumed, only a specific person was aware of. For instance, the name of your favorite pet or your Mother’s maiden name.
Biometrics provides an additional authentication process. It leverages the uniqueness of human characteristics, including retina, fingerprint, voice or face. Biometrics thus offers information regarding something you are, without relying only on something you know or have.
This is part of our series of articles about identity verification.
In this article:
- Password-Based Authentication
- Multi-Factor Authentication
- Certificate-Based Authentication
- Biometric Authentication
- Token-Based Authentication
Authentication vs Verification vs Validation
The terms pertaining to vetting identities are often used inaccurately. Identity validation, identity verification and identity authentication are commonly used in an interchangeable manner, yet they have nuanced differences in meaning:
- Identity validation—making sure that identity data represents real data, for instance making sure that a social security number provided as part of an identification process is not connected with an individual who is deceased.
- Identity verification—making sure that identity information is connected with a specific individual, for instance matching address and date of birth to the name of an individual.
- Identity authentication—a process of checking that an individual is who they say they are, for instance posing dynamic questions around Knowledge-Based Authentication, which would be challenging for another person to answer.
Types of Identity Authentication Systems
Passwords are a very common and well-recognized practice of authentication. Yet, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to make use of password authentication, as users must come up with a large number of different passwords.
An average individual makes use of approximately 25 different applications and websites that need a password. To feel secure an individual must develop reliable passwords that should be long and made up of different letters, numbers, and characters. It is impractical for users to remember so many passwords, so many users resort to recording their passwords in an insecure manner, selecting simple or easily guessable passwords, or reusing passwords across different services.
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a method of authentication that requires two or more non-related ways to recognize a user. For example, CAPTCHA tests, voice biometrics, codes created from the smartphone of the user, fingerprints, or facial recognition.
MFA authentication technologies and methods help boost confidence in authentication by creating several security layers. Even if an attacker manages to compromise one layer, for example by obtaining the user’s password, they will likely be stopped by the other layers.
Certificate-based authentication technologies use digital certificates to identify devices, machines, or users. A digital certificate is an electronic document that can be verified using cryptographic algorithms.
The certificate has the user’s digital identity as well as a public key, and the certification of a signing authority. Digital certificates show the ownership of a public key and only a certified authority can issue them.
Individuals give their digital certificates whenever they need to sign in to a given server. The server authenticates authority of the certificate and the reliability of the digital signature. Cryptography is then used by the server to make sure that the individual has the private key connected with the certificate.
This authentication process relies on the original biological characteristics of an individual to verify their identity. The biometric data of the user is gathered and then kept in the database. One of the key advantages of biometric data is that users cannot lose or forget it.
The following are common types of biometric authentication:
- Finger vein identification—this is a very common type of authentication, which is used by many digital devices
- Face identification—scans and identifies an individual’s face by comparing geometric patterns in a stored image of the same face
- Voice identification—relies on certain characteristics generated by the shape of the mouth and throat of the speaker
- Finger scanning—similar to the ink-and-paper process of fingerprinting
- Iris recognition—the aim of this authentication process is to identify individuals according to the unique patterns in the ring-shaped part around the eye’s pupil
Related content: Read our guide to photo ID verification
Token-based authentication technologies let users put in their credentials one time and get a unique string of characters, which are encrypted and random. They may then use the token to gain access to systems that are protected, rather than providing full credentials again.
The digital token shows that the user previously gained access permission. Use cases of this form of authentication are for example RESTful APIs, which are employed by many clients and frameworks.
User Authentication Challenges and Solutions
User authentication methods are the “front door” of any computing system, and are under constant threat of cyber attack.
Passwords—which are the most common but also the most unsafe type of authentication—are highly vulnerable, as hackers can generally crack or guess them. Billions of user credentials have been compromised and shared by cyber criminals on the dark web, meaning that even strong passwords selected by your users may already be in the hands of attackers.
The prevalence of cloud computing and mobile devices today has also impacted how organizations put in place authentication. Because cloud-based systems can be accessed from any location and device, they are at higher risk, and many organizations enforce authentication processes with more than one factor to prevent unauthorized access.
Related content: Read our guide to ID check online
Although MFA offers additional means of security for confirming the identity of a user, it is also essential not to impose too many complicated authentication rules on users—this may limit productivity for employees using an organization’s systems, and in case of systems used by customers and third parties, can cause attrition and customer dissatisfaction.
Biometric authentication is generally regarded as the solution to vulnerabilities in passwords. Yet, this method of authentication is not without issues. Cyber criminals have discovered several ways to compromise biometric authentication and steal the identities of individuals.
The solution is a defense in depth approach—organizations should enforce strong password policies, and provide several other authentication methods, ensuring that even if one security layer is breached, the attacker will be stopped by the others.
In addition, a modern zero trust approach involves checking the context of an authentication request—which specific user and device is accessing what service, at which time, from which location, and which action they are trying to perform. More stringent authentication measures can be required for authentication requests that are unusual or involve sensitive systems and information.
Identity Verification with BlueCheck
BlueCheck’s industry leading identity verification infrastructure enables merchants to grow their business faster. Serving a wide variety of industries, our solutions are custom tailored to the unique needs of our customers, including PACT Act and eCommerce compliant offerings.