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Authentication vs. digital identity: What's the difference?

Andrew Froehlich breaks down how authentication and digital identity differ and how each of them are intrinsic to identity and access management.

At first glance, authentication and digital identity sound as if they describe the same thing. In fact, one is a subset of the other larger concept. Let's look at the meaning of each term and investigate the differences between authentication and digital identity and how they overlap.

The information and processes by which a person, device, organization or application can be differentiated from all others at a computing level is known as a digital identity. Proving digital identity is critical to properly assigning access levels for applications, service and data. Networks, applications and other computing resources are segmented, and each has details about when specific access is granted or denied for security reasons. Only allowing access to sensitive information to those that need it significantly reduces the risk of data loss or theft. Thus, digital identities are critically important to correctly identify users and apply the appropriate security access to company data. This is known as authorization.

While authentication and digital identities are both involved in assigning the appropriate access level to digital resources, they are far from the same.

In order to authorize people and devices, the tools and processes used to authorize digital identities must trust that the information presented is valid. Authentication is the process of proving the digital identity of a person, device or other entity in order to grant the appropriate level of authorization. In order to be authenticated, a user may employ, for example, a secret password or PIN; biometrics, such as a fingerprint; and/or hardware- or software-based tokens. Many organizations have implemented multifactor authentication in their security programs, using two or more authentication mechanisms in order to prove a digital identity.

While authentication and digital identities are both involved in identity and access management -- a framework of policies and technology that assigns the appropriate access level to digital resources -- they are far from the same. A digital identity consists of authentication, authorization and well-defined criteria that the digital identity can be trusted. Using this method, businesses can feel safe that only those that need access to sensitive data and applications will be able to obtain that access.

This was last published in January 2020

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