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Authentication vs. Encryption: What’s the Difference?

Authentication vs. Encryption: What’s the Difference?

authentication-vs-encryption-what-is-the-difference
November 9, 2021 | Guest Blogger: Ambler Jackson

Digital Transformation and cloud migration has forced many organizations to rethink the way they protect their data and control who has access to their internal resources. To effectively address security challenges and reduce cyber risks, organizations must understand the difference between authentication and encryption. In this blog, I’ll discuss why both security measures are necessary to protect against unauthorized access to corporate assets.

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User and machine authentication

Authentication is about identity verification and trust. The technology underlying authentication ensures that users or machines are granted access to an organization’s network, after their identity has been verified. Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user or machine to ensure that they are who they say they are. This security measure gives organizations opportunities to determine whether they trust the user or machine to connect to their network, services, accounts and applications.

Before we explore authentication for machines, let’s look at how the process works for users. The process of verifying a user’s identity may involve one of several authentication methods, such as:

  • Biometric authentication
  • Certificate-based authentication
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  • Passwordless authentication
  • Username and password

Each method comes with its own risks. Password-based authentication is the most insecure form of user authentication. MFA, which includes knowledge factors (something you know), possession factors (something you have), and inherence factors (something you are) offers one of the strongest authentication methods. The recent Presidential Executive Order on strengthening the cybersecurity of national infrastructure makes MFA a necessity.

Some authentication methods, such as biometric authentication, requires organizations to consider regulatory compliance issues, such as the ones defined in GDPR and CCPA. Therefore, while biometric authentication is more secure than the traditional username and password model, organizations must consider the pros and cons of using biometric authentication. Although biometrics are extremely difficult to hack, if bad actors compromise this data, it is impossible to recover or replace. People cannot swap out their fingerprints or DNA.

In addition to regulatory compliance considerations, organizations may consider authentication methods that focus on user experience, such as single sign-on (SSO). SSO allows users to use one password to access multiple accounts and applications. This authentication method reduces the number of credentials that an employee may need to access their business applications. It essentially offers users an experience that is fast, easy, and secure.

But authentication is not just to verify the identities of users (i.e., human beings). Authentication also extends beyond traditional users to machines. This includes Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices, containers and microservices. Today, machines connect to an organization’s network and other machines to perform business functions. Similar to the way they authenticate an employee’s user identity, organizations verify the machine’s identity to ensure that the machine seeking a connection or access to their network is a trusted source.

The proliferation of applications and a remote workforce has increased the number of devices that connect to an organization’s network. Organizations need to trust the machines that seek access to their services, resources or applications. Similar to verification of a human’s identity, machine identities must be verified to establish a trusted connection. Verification of machine identities occurs through the use of digital certificates.

Encryption

Encryption protects data and maintains confidentiality. It is used to protect data at rest and data transmitted over the Internet. It protects data from unauthorized access, modification, disclosure and theft. Encryption converts plaintext data to an unintelligible form called ciphertext. When data is decrypted, the ciphertext is converted back to plaintext. We use encryption to secure emails, website sessions, and to send secure messages using messaging applications.

Encryption is categorized as symmetric or asymmetric. Symmetric key encryption refers to those algorithms that make use of the same secret keys for the purpose of both encryptions of plain text and decryption of the ciphertext. Asymmetric or Public Key encryption refers to those algorithms that make use of two pairs of the key for the purpose of encryption. The public key is made available to any random person, whereas the secret, private key is made available only to the receiver of the message. Encryption algorithms have evolved over the years; some algorithms introduce more risks than others. Some encryption algorithms are no longer used or recommended because it is no longer the industry standard for protecting sensitive data.

End-to-end encryption (E2E) is probably the most controversial type of encryption due to government interest. For privacy advocates, the technology underlying E2E encryption is seen as a very powerful tool for data privacy and security. Any compromise of E2E is considered as privacy-invasive and unwarranted surveillance. For some governing bodies, E2E is considered a hindrance to solving crimes and controlling hate speech. An increasing number of governments require “backdoor” access to messages just in case they decide that there is a need to access the encrypted data, for example, in the interest of protecting children from sexual exploitation.

The most secure encryption type is Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). AES encryption is used by the United States government and is the industry standard for organizations who must secure high-value assets. Additionally, it is the only encryption type that is believed to be quantum resistant.

Authentication and encryption methods strengthen security

How are authentication and encryption similar? Authentication and encryption are both used to strengthen an organization’s security and protect corporate assets. They both support the Zero Trust model which assumes that all users and devices are untrustworthy. They both require proper implementation and management. Implementing authentication and encryption require skill and expertise, and consideration of costs, legal requirements, regulatory compliance, and in some cases policies. Their strength is dependent on the protection and storage of the associated cryptographic keys. Without strong authentication and encryption, organizations are left vulnerable to many cyber threats, that can impact the business in many ways—reputational damage, lost revenue, eroded trust, penalties for violating security and privacy regulations.

Conclusion

While authentication and encryption have different purposes, they are both necessary to secure access to information systems and protect the underlying data. Properly implemented authentication and encryption can help organizations reach their business goals. Both are functions of machine identities that help to deliver strong data privacy and security. Authentication and encryption types will need to keep pace with advancing technology and sophisticated bad actors to continue to be effective in identifying and verifying user and machine identities. By using the appropriate type of authentication and encryption methods, organizations can mitigate the risks of costly cyberattacks.

Start your digital transformation today and learn how Venafi’s Trust Protection Platform will protect the associated cryptographic keys.

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About the author

Guest Blogger: Ambler Jackson
Guest Blogger: Ambler Jackson
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