When you do some “login stuff” nowadays you may stumble upon the terms AuthN and AuthZ. Maybe you have wondered what the letters “N” and “Z” mean? The short answer:
- AuthN stands for Authentication, and
- AuthZ stands for Authorization.
That’s easy right? I guess we’re done for this blog post 🙃
Authentication vs. Authorization
But what is the difference between these two terms? Are they not the same? The short answer: No, they aren’t!
Authentication is all about who you are.A simple example is when you type a username and password somewhere. A more complex scenario would be when you buy a TLS certificate or when you go to a notary to show your identity card.
So, authentication is the process of verifying that you are the person you are claiming to be.
Authorization is all about what you are allowed to do. A simple example would be that you are allowed to clone a Git repository and push into it, but you are not authorized to delete branches in that repository. Authorization must be granted by an entity which has more rights (is privileged) than you. For example, when you want to buy a new laptop you ask your boss and she authorizes this by granting or declining your request.
So, authorization is the process of verifying what you are allowed to do.
Authentication can be used without authorization but vice versa is not possible. To authorize someone or something – not only natural persons may be authenticated or authorized, but also entities like computers, servers, APIs, etc. – it is required to first authenticate first in order to know who you can grant or decline access to (authorize). For example, when you walk around in a large factory there may be restricted areas with a security guard protecting it. You must show him your corporate identity card for authentication. Then the guard looks up in some system if you are allowed to access that area (authorization) and grants or declines you entry.
UPDATE In the article above, I wrote that you can’t do authorization without authentication. On further reflection, I think that may not be completely true. This may actually be feasible with some zero knowledge protocols, but this is a topic I need to look into further.
Cover image by Zachary Lisko from Unsplash.