9 min read

What you need to know about user authentication and advanced security

July 10, 2024


Getting authentication right goes a long way toward protecting essential data and systems from unauthorized access. 

Authentication is the process for validating that a user is who they say they are before granting access. When implemented properly, user authentication improves security, supports compliance, and protects an organization against unauthorized access. 

The most popular methods of authentication are still two-factor authentication and multi-factorUser authentication. However, evolving security trends, emerging threats, and the rise of AI continue to bring change to the industry.


So, what does effective user authentication look like? And what steps can your organization take to master user authentication for advanced security?

What is user authentication? 


User authentication is a security process that businesses use to verify and confirm the identity of users before they access a system or application. Whether it's customers accessing services or employees accessing their workspace, verifying that people are who they say they are is critical. After all, you don’t want unauthorized parties accessing sensitive systems and data. 


There's a reason that 91% percent of cyberattacks begin with a phishing email. Bypassing authentication using stolen credentials is one of the easiest ways for a bad actor to gain access to something they shouldn't. 


Authentication is also essential to a positive customer experience. It's what allows apps and services to identify individual clients and deliver a personalized experience. An effective authentication process also makes things more convenient for the client, allowing them to quickly access their account while also keeping their information safe. 



How user authentication works


There are three main steps in the authentication process — identification, authentication, and authorization. Here’s a quick recap of how these work:




Identification determines a user's identity using some form of ID credentials. These credentials typically fall into one of three categories: something the user knows (passwords or PINs), something the user has (security tokens or smartphones), and something the user is (biometrics like fingerprints or facial recognition).





The authentication step verifies the user's identity and validates that they are who they claim to be. Authentication is accomplished by comparing a user’s credentials with those stored in a secure database. If they match, access is granted.





This step consists of predetermined rules and policies an IT department typically creates. These policies assign the user's privileges and access rights for a specific system. Some popular authorization solutions include Okta, Google Identity Services, OneLogin Workforce Identity, and others.



Identification: Who are you? 

Determines a user's identity using some form of ID credentials



Authentication: Can you prove who you are?

Verifies the user's identity and validates that they are who they appear to be



Authorization: What are you allowed to do? 

Authorization assigns the user's privileges and access rights for the specific system



Different user authentication methods


There are many different user authentication methods. The most popular authentication methods include knowledge-based, possession-based, inherence-based, location-based, and time-based.



Knowledge Factors


Knowledge-based authentication is the most widely used authentication technique. For example, 59 percent of employees say they rely on usernames and passwords as their primary authentication method — and that's a problem. This category includes:


  • Usernames and passwords
  • Security questions
  • Personal identification numbers



Simplistic authentication methods like passwords and security questions have long been the standard of security because of how established and accessible they are. This simplicity often comes with a price.



Limitations of knowledge-based authentication


Knowledge-based authentication isn’t perfect. According to a 2023 Bitwarden survey, 68 percent of people manage passwords for more than 10 sites. A startling 85 percent of respondents even admitted to reusing passwords while 52 percent of people use easily identifiable information such as song lyrics, pet names, or the names of loved ones.



Did you know: A staggering 19 percent of people use "password" as their password.



The simpler and more commonly used the password, the easier it is to compromise an account through brute force. Unfortunately, complicated passwords are far more difficult to remember, especially if you're juggling logins for 10 or more sites. The good news? With a password manager, you don't need to.


But password managers aren’t perfect — there's always a chance that the company behind the software experiences a breach. For example, what if a bad actor gains access to source code and technical information to target an employee's credentials, which they then use to decrypt sensitive information in the cloud? Breaches like these can and do happen.


Stronger password standards and better password hygiene aren't enough, either. Not only are passwords unsecure, they also tend to be time-consuming and expensive to manage, costing large businesses an average of $5.2 million a year. And, according to a study by Beyond Identity, 39 percent of Americans experience a high level of password fatigue. That’s why companies like Google have been making an active effort to do away with traditional passwords in favor of other, more modern authentication methods.



Possession factors


Possession-based authentication uses physical items or devices on your person. This could include:


  • Smartphones or laptops
  • Employee ID cards
  • One-time access tokens or even key fobs — programmable devices used to grant physical access to a system or location. 



These were all popular and familiar choices when in-office work was the norm. An employee’s ID card or phone was seen as a protected and personal item only they would have access to. This made granting authorization far easier. 


Despite this, possession factors tend to be challenging to implement in remote and hybrid workplaces and are generally better suited to the physical office. Smart cards, for instance, typically require a key reader to authenticate their holder. 





Inherence-based authentication leverages factors that are unique to each user, such as retina scanning, fingerprint scans, voice authentication, and facial recognition. While these factors theoretically could be spoofed by a bad actor, this would require stealing and compromising these unique identifiers, which is rarely worth the effort.



Where you are: location


Verification with location-based authentication combines factors such as a smartphone's built-in GPS and the network to which a user is connected. Location factors are typically used in combination with one or more other authentication methods, existing as an additional layer of defense against compromised accounts.  For example, imagine a remote employee who always logs into their account from their home in Vancouver. Now, imagine the very next day, your system flags them as logging in from Russia. That's a clear departure from the user's previous behavior, so your system immediately locks them out. 



When you request access: time-based 


As with location-based authentication, time-based authentication confirms a user's identity based on their behavior. For example, if a user authenticates at 10 a.m. in Seattle, an attempted login from Australia 30 minutes later would be cause for concern. Similarly, if someone is regularly online from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and you see a 4 a.m. login, that account gets flagged as compromised.

You can also use time-based authentication to restrict all access to a system outside a certain timeframe. Like location-based authentication, time-based authentication isn't enough to fully verify someone's identity. Instead, it's typically combined with one or more other authentication methods — a technique known as multi-factor authentication.



The most popular modern authentication strategies


In the early days of computers and the Internet, usernames, and passwords were generally enough to keep user accounts secure. The digital landscape has changed a great deal since then, requiring new techniques and strategies. 


Authentication typically falls into a few broad categories:


Single-factor authentication (SFA) requires just one layer of verification from a user. Once someone has provided a single piece of proof — such as their username and password — it's assumed that they are who they claim to be.  In 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency added SFA to its list of bad practices, noting that it leaves systems more vulnerable to a wide range of cyberattacks, including credential stuffing, brute force hacks, malware, and phishing. 



Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) layers two or more authentication methods. For example, someone logging in to their work email might be required to enter their username and password and then verify their identity through a tool like Google's Authenticator App, while the system also logs their location and the time of day. Research shows MFA can help prevent around 90 percent of cyberattacks. 


MFA can also replace usernames and passwords with authentication methods such as biometric logins, helping organizations address password fatigue while also guarding against the inherent risks of remote work. 


Remember, both these authentication strategies are designed to limit unwanted access. It’s still important to have robust user authorization policies in place to limit the roles and permissions a user is granted after authentication.



Using automation to strike a balance between security and convenience


IT and security teams no longer manage just software and systems in the workplace. Today, users expect their business tools to be as user friendly as the apps and systems they use in their personal lives. This means striking a balance between user experience and security.


Streamlining MFA with automatic processes can help you accomplish this while also providing enhanced security. For example, let's say your business is using knowledge-based authentication with an authenticator app, device registration, and location tracking. If someone wants to log in on a new device, the process can get pretty complicated: 


  • Enter credentials on the new device
  • Open authenticator app for a code
  • Enter the code
  • Receive a notification about an unfamiliar device
  • Enter credentials on the old device
  • Open authenticator app for a code
  • Enter the code
  • Approve the new device


Here’s what this process looks like after we introduce automation: 


  • Scan a specially generated QR code on the new device for authentication
  • Scan a separate QR code to register the new device once authenticated


Assuming the QR codes are properly stored and encrypted, this process is no less secure than if authentication were handled manually — and it's considerably less painful than having to enter credentials on multiple devices. 



Authentication in cloud-based environments


Imagine your firm owns an AWS cloud account to run an analytics platform. It's a pretty standard use case and not very costly, either. Your budget more than covers it. 


Until you wake up one morning with a $45,000 bill. As it turns out, someone accidentally uploaded your credentials to a GitHub repository, and an attacker downloaded them. The attacker then decided to use your account for crypto mining, sending your resource demands and usage costs into the stratosphere. 


This isn't a made-up scenario; it's based on a true story. The problem with the theoretical company we just described, as well as the real-world business that suffered the attack? They relied on SFA. That meant there was only a single point of failure in their security — and all it took for someone to gain unauthorized access was a single oversight. 


MFA provides additional protections for this kind of incident. With multiple layers of authentication, an attacker can't gain full access through a credentials leak. Even with a username and password, they still face additional layers of security. 


Could a clever or persistent threat actor make it past those additional layers? Maybe. But most cybercriminals prefer to follow the path of least resistance.


The moment an adversary realizes they can't get what they're after with login credentials alone, they'll likely jump ship and start looking for a different target — ideally, one that only secures their cloud environment with SFA. 



Are you ready for the future of user authentication?


Today, it seems like everything is online, from legal consultations to bank transactions. It’s a world where someone can log in from anywhere, on any device. This means user authentication and authorization are more important than ever. 


But not all user authentication and authorization processes are equal. Knowledge factors came to be in a very different time — when the Internet was still in its infancy and technologies like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and smartphones did not exist. You can no longer rely solely on usernames, passwords, and PINs to secure your systems, data, and people. 



Instead, you need to embrace MFA and user authorization, layering multiple security methods and techniques to provide as much protection as possible. More importantly, you need to do this while also prioritizing convenience and ease of use. That's where ShareFile comes in.  


Our advanced authentication features provide secure, convenient sign-ins that don't interfere with work, providing compliance and peace of mind while keeping you in full control of user authorizations. Contact us today if you're interested in learning more. 



Frequently asked questions


Why is user authentication important?


User authentication enables organizations to protect their networks and systems from unauthorized users. This helps protect sensitive information, critical resources, and other essential systems.


How to authenticate users?


User authentication can occur using a variety of methods. Some of the most popular ones include usernames and passwords, biometrics, multi-factor authentication, certificates, and tokens.


How do I set up user authentication?


Implementing user authentication requires configuring a system that’s capable of authenticating a user’s identity before access is granted. Configuring these settings will depend on what solution you are using to manage user authentication.