Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user or process. There are three main types of authentication: knowledge-based authentication, possession-based authentication, and biometric authentication.
Knowledge-based authentication, also known as knowledge authentication or something you know authentication, relies on the user providing some piece of information or knowledge that the system recognizes. The most common example is a password. To log into an account, the user must provide the correct password. This proves to the system that the user has the correct knowledge to access the account. Other examples of knowledge-based authentication include:
- PIN numbers for bank cards
- Security questions and answers
Knowledge-based authentication has some advantages. It is inexpensive and simple to implement, requiring minimal hardware. Passwords and other knowledge factors are easy for users to understand. However, knowledge-based authentication also has weaknesses. Users often choose weak passwords or write them down where others can access them. They may also share passwords across different accounts. Knowledge factors like security questions can be guessed by hackers using public information. Overall, knowledge-based authentication is vulnerable to theft, guessing, and sharing. Stronger knowledge factors like long passphrases provide better security.
Examples of Knowledge-Based Authentication
Here are some common examples of knowledge-based authentication:
|Passwords||A secret word or string of letters, numbers and symbols|
|PINs||A numeric password, often 4-6 digits|
|Passphrases||A long password sentence or phrase|
|Security questions||Questions set by users during account creation|
Possession-based authentication, also called token-based authentication or something you have authentication, relies on the user possessing some physical object like a key or card. To log in, the user must prove they have the object. Examples include:
- Security tokens – small devices that display changing codes
- Smart cards – plastic cards with embedded microchips
- Key cards
- USB keys
With possession-based authentication, the user must have the physical token as well as know any PIN or password associated with it. This combines “something you have” and “something you know” for stronger two-factor authentication. Possession-based authentication has some advantages. The physical nature of tokens makes them immune to brute force guessing. Loss or theft can also be detected and reported. But there are also disadvantages. Tokens can be expensive to replace if lost or damaged. Users tend to store tokens with their devices, reducing their effectiveness against theft. Overall, possession factors provide better security than knowledge factors alone.
Examples of Possession-Based Authentication
Here are some common examples of possession-based authentication:
|Security tokens||Handheld devices that generate authentication codes|
|Smart cards||Cards with embedded integrated circuits for authentication|
|USB keys||Data storage devices used as authentication tokens|
|Key cards||ID cards that unlock doors when scanned|
Biometric authentication relies on unique biological traits like fingerprints, voices, or faces. To log in, the user provides a biometric factor like a fingerprint scan which is compared to a stored biometric template. If they match, the user’s identity is confirmed. Examples of biometric factors include:
- Fingerprint scans
- Facial recognition
- Iris/retina scans
- Voice recognition
Biometric authentication has significant advantages. Biometric factors are unique to each user, very difficult to steal, and users cannot forget or lose them. This makes biometrics resilient against spoofing, sharing, theft, and loss. However, biometric systems require special hardware like fingerprint scanners. Collecting and storing biometric data also raises privacy concerns. Accuracy can be impacted by changes in user conditions. Overall, biometrics provide very strong authentication, but require careful implementation.
Examples of Biometric Authentication
Here are some common examples of biometric authentication factors:
|Fingerprint scan||Image of a user’s unique fingerprint|
|Facial recognition||Scanning and analyzing facial features|
|Iris scan||Scans the unique patterns of a user’s iris|
|Voice recognition||Analyzes the tone and cadence of the user’s voice|
Comparing the 3 Types of Authentication
Each type of authentication has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here is a comparison of the three main authentication types:
Using Multiple Authentication Factors
Each authentication type has weaknesses that can be exploited. A stronger approach is to combine multiple authentication factors. Multi-factor authentication uses two or more factors across categories. For example:
- A password (knowledge) and a security token (possession)
- A PIN (knowledge) and a fingerprint scan (biometric)
- A security question (knowledge) and facial recognition (biometric)
By requiring multiple factors, compromise of any one factor does not breach authentication. Even if a hacker guesses a user’s password, they cannot log in without also stealing the user’s security token. Multi-factor authentication greatly increases login security and is being widely adopted. However, it can increase cost and complexity.
Examples of Multi-Factor Authentication
Here are some common examples of multi-factor authentication:
|Password + Security token||Bank account login|
|PIN + Fingerprint scan||Smartphone unlock|
|Security questions + Facial recognition||Online account verification|
|Passphrase + Iris scan||Building entry authentication|
The three main types of authentication are knowledge-based authentication, possession-based authentication, and biometric authentication. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages:
- Knowledge-based authentication like passwords is easy to implement but suffers weak security.
- Possession-based authentication like security tokens provides better security but requires physical objects.
- Biometric authentication like fingerprints delivers excellent security but needs special hardware.
Using two-factor or multi-factor authentication combines multiple types for stronger defense. By requiring more than one authentication factor, the weaknesses of any single factor are reduced.