Making sense of popular methods of authentication

Maciej Bartłomiej Sikora
Content Writer
Authentication Methods

They: Authenticate yourself! — You: But how?

Every time you log in to an account, you must first prove that you are who you say you are. It’s like entering a military base: no pass, no entry. But that’s what authentication is essentially about — verifying a user’s identity so that no unauthorized parties can get on the inside.

Depending on the platform, the methods used for authentication vary in complexity. Sometimes, a single password is enough to gain access. Other times, you must provide additional codes, click a link sent to you via email, or stare at your device’s camera so it can scan your face.

With so many methods of authentication available, we aim to help you navigate this landscape and understand why it's important to authenticate and how to do so safely and conveniently. Let's start with the “why.”

Why is user authentication important?

While we've already touched on the importance of authentication in the previous section, let's delve deeper into why it's so crucial.

Authentication serves as the gatekeeper to your online accounts and services. Its primary role is to ensure that only you — and authorized individuals — can access your financial records, personal messages, and other sensitive information.

Moreover, authentication helps prevent attempts to misuse your accounts for fraudulent transactions or nefarious activities under false identities. In other words, it ensures that you have control of your accounts and that no deceitful actions can be made in your name.

Needless to say, as a user, you are also more likely to engage with online services, share personal information, and conduct transactions when user authentication methods are in place. So, in a way, it is also a way to form and nurture trust between you, the user, and the service provider.

Types of authentication methods

Among the array of user authentication methods available today, six stand out as the most popular and crucial for cybersecurity. These include:

Token authentication

This form of authentication involves the use of a physical device, such as a USB token or smart card, to generate a one-time password or cryptographic key for accessing systems or services. The token authentication method provides an additional layer of security as the token must be in your possession.

Password authentication

Passwords are the most widely used method for user authentication, requiring individuals to provide unique combinations of characters to access their accounts or systems. Strong passwords should be complex and unique, incorporating a mix of letters, symbols, and numbers arranged randomly to thwart cybercriminals' attempts at guessing them.

Biometric authentication

Biometric authentication utilizes unique physical or behavioral characteristics of individuals to verify their identity. This can include fingerprint recognition, facial recognition, iris scanning, or voice recognition. Biometric authentication offers a high level of security as it is difficult to replicate or fake these biological traits.

Multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) combines two or more authentication factors, such as something you know (password), something you have (token), or something you are (biometric), to verify a user's identity. By requiring users to provide multiple identity proofs, MFA adds an extra layer of security, reducing the risk of unauthorized access — even if one factor is compromised.

A common implementation of MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA), which requires users to provide two different types of authentication factors before accessing their accounts

Certificate-based authentication

This method involves the use of digital certificates issued by a trusted authority to verify the identity of users or devices. The certificates are used in combination with public-key cryptography to authenticate users and encrypt data during transmission, ensuring secure communication between parties.

Passkey authentication

Passkeys are a new form of authentication where users are granted access without providing their password. Passkey technology combines biometric verification with cryptographic keys for a safer and easier way to log in. Each user has a unique pair of keys: a public one stored on the server and a private one on their device. When logging in, the server asks for the private key, which the device provides. If they match, you’re granted access.

Which authentication method is the safest one?

Naming just one of the secure authentication methods described above as the safest is not easy, especially since each method has its own strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation. For instance, while biometric authentication methods are highly effective, they are not immune to theft. So, if a cybercriminal gains access to someone’s fingerprint, that authentication method becomes compromised. After all, unlike a password, you cannot change your fingerprint.

So, if we were pushed to choose just one, we would say that passkeys are the safest authentication method because they help eliminate the risk of phishing, cannot be easily stolen or guessed (unlike weak passwords), and utilize strong cryptographic techniques to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of user credentials. Passkeys also avoid the pitfalls of traditional methods as they do not rely on something you need to remember, like a password, or something that can be physically stolen, like a security token.

In reality, however, the best approach is to use a combination of different methods tailored to the specific situation and required level of security. The best part is that you only need one tool to make this possible.

You don’t have to settle for just one authentication method

If you use NordPass, an advanced yet intuitive password manager designed by the team behind NordVPN, you gain immediate access to many of the best authentication methods available, allowing you to mix and match them for optimal security. How so?

First, NordPass can generate strong passwords on the spot and allows you to store your credentials safely in an encrypted vault that only you can access. It also enables you to implement multi-factor authentication for your online accounts, using the NordPass app as your authenticator to provide TOTP codes. Additionally, NordPass supports passkey technology, empowering you to effectively protect your accounts without passwords and access them instantly through methods such as biometric authentication.

With NordPass, authentication management becomes seamless and secure — get the 14-day free trial and see for yourself.

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