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Authentication Token

What Is an Authentication Token?

An authentication token securely transmits information about user identities between applications and websites. They enable organizations to strengthen their authentication processes for such services.

An authentication token allows internet users to access applications, services, websites, and application programming interfaces (APIs) without having to enter their login credentials each time they visit. Instead, the user logs in once, and a unique token is generated and shared with connected applications or websites to verify their identity.

These tokens are the digital version of a stamped ticket to an event. The user or bearer of the token is provided with an access token to a website until they log out or close the service.

An authentication token is formed of three key components: the header, payload, and signature.

Cabeçalho

The header defines the token type being used, as well as the signing algorithm involved.

Carga

The payload is responsible for defining the token issuer and the token’s expiration details. It also provides information about the user plus other metadata.

Assinatura

The signature verifies the authenticity of a message and that a message has not changed while in transit.

What Is Token-based Authentication?

Token-based authentication is a protocol that generates encrypted security tokens. It enables users to verify their identity to websites, which then generates a unique encrypted authentication token. That token provides users with access to protected pages and resources for a limited period of time without having to re-enter their username and password.

Token-based authentication works through this five-step process:

  1. Request: The user logs in to a service using their login credentials, which issues an access request to a server or protected resource.
  2. Verification: The server verifies the login information to determine that the user should have access. This involves checking the password entered against the username provided.
  3. Token submission: The server generates a secure, signed authentication token for the user for a specific period of time.
  4.  Storage: The token is transmitted back to the user’s browser, which stores it for access to future website visits. When the user moves on to access a new website, the authentication token is decoded and verified. If there is a match, the user will be allowed to proceed.
  5. Expiration: The token will remain active until the user logs out or closes the server.

This token-based process proves that the user has been provided access to applications, websites, and resources without having to verify their identity every time they navigate to a new site. Websites can add additional layers of security beyond traditional passwords without forcing users to repeatedly prove their identity, which improves both user experience and security.

Token-based authentication is also a huge step up from relying on traditional passwords, which is inherently insecure. Passwords are human-generated, which makes them weak and easy for hackers to crack. For example, people tend to recycle passwords across accounts because it helps to remember their login details. 

Furthermore, password-based systems require users to repeatedly enter their login credentials, which wastes time and can be frustrating, especially if they forget their password. With a token-based approach, a user only needs to remember one password, which is quicker and simpler and encourages them to use a stronger password.

5-Step Process of Token-based Authentication

  1. Request: The user logs in to a service using their login credentials, which issues an access request to a server or protected resource.
  2. Verification: The server verifies the login information to determine that the user should have access. This involves checking the password entered against the username provided.
  3. Token submission: The server generates a secure, signed authentication token for the user for a specific period of time.
  4.  Storage: The token is transmitted back to the user’s browser, which stores it for access to future website visits. When the user moves on to access a new website, the token is decoded and verified. If there is a match, the user will be allowed to proceed.
  5. Expiration: The token will remain active until the user logs out or closes the server.

This token-based process proves that the user has been provided access to applications, websites, and resources without having to verify their identity every time they navigate to a new site. Websites can add additional layers of security beyond traditional passwords without forcing users to repeatedly prove their identity, which improves both user experience and security.

Token-based authentication is also a huge step up from relying on traditional passwords, which is inherently insecure. Passwords are human-generated, which makes them weak and easy for hackers to crack. For example, people tend to recycle passwords across accounts because it helps to remember their login details. 

Furthermore, password-based systems require users to repeatedly enter their login credentials, which wastes time and can be frustrating, especially if they forget their password. With a token-based approach, a user only needs to remember one password, which is quicker and simpler and encourages them to use a stronger password.

How Does Token-based Authentication Work?

Most people have used token-based process in some form. For example, gaining access to an online account by entering a code sent as a one-time password, using a fingerprint to unlock a mobile phone, and accessing a website through a Facebook login are all common examples.

All authentication tokens provide users with access to a device or application. However, there are several different types of tokens that can be used to verify a user’s identity, from software tokens to physical tokens.

Connected Tokens

Connected tokens are physical devices that users can plug in to their computer or system. This includes devices like smart cards and Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices, as well as discs, drives, and keys.

Contactless Tokens

Contactless tokens work by connecting to and communicating with a nearby computer without being physically connected to a server. A good example of this is Microsoft’s ring device Token, which is a wearable ring that enables users to quickly and seamlessly log in to their Windows 10 device without entering a password.

Disconnected Tokens

Disconnected tokens enable users to verify their identity by issuing a code they then need to enter manually to gain access to a service. A good example of this is entering a code on a mobile phone for two-factor authentication (2FA)

Software Tokens

Software tokens are typically mobile applications that enable users to quickly and easily provide a form of 2FA. Traditionally, tokens came in the form of hardware, such as smart cards, one-time password key fobs, or USB devices. These physical devices are expensive, easily lost, and demand IT support, in addition to being vulnerable to theft and man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. 

But software tokens are easy to use, cannot be lost, update automatically, and do not require IT assistance. They can be integrated with security tools like single sign-on (SSO), and they protect users’ passwords even if their token is compromised. 

JSON Web Token (JWT)

With users increasingly accessing corporate resources and systems via mobile and web applications, developers need to be able to authenticate them in a way that is appropriate for the platform. 

JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) enable secure communication between two parties through an open industry standard, Request For Comments 7519 (RFC 7519). The data shared is verified by a digital signature using an algorithm and public and private key pairing, which ensures optimal security. Furthermore, if the data is sent via Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), then it is kept secure by encryption.

Why Use Authentication Tokens?

There are many reasons why authentication tokens offer a beneficial alternative to server-based authentication and relying on traditional password-based logins.

Key Advantages of Authentication Tokens

  1. Tokens are stateless: Authentication tokens are created by an authentication service and contain information that enables a user to verify their identity without entering login credentials.
  2. Tokens expire: When a user finishes their browsing session and logs out of the service, the token they were granted is destroyed. This ensures that users’ accounts are protected and are not at risk of cyberattacks.
  3. Tokens are encrypted and machine-generated: Token-based authentication uses encrypted, machine-generated codes to verify a user’s identity. Each token is unique to a user’s session and is protected by an algorithm, which ensures servers can identify a token that has been tampered with and block it. Encryption offers a vastly more secure option than relying on passwords.
  4. Tokens streamline the login process: Authentication tokens ensure that users do not have to re-enter their login credentials every time they visit a website. This makes the process quicker and more user-friendly, which keeps people on websites longer and encourages them to visit again in the future.
  5. Tokens add a barrier to prevent hackers: A 2FA barrier to prevent hackers from accessing user data and corporate resources. Using passwords alone makes it easier for hackers to intercept user accounts, but with tokens, users can verify their identity through physical tokens and smartphone applications. This adds an extra layer of security, preventing a hacker from gaining access to an account even if they manage to steal a user’s login credentials.

Learn How Tokens Can Improve Your Access Control

Authentication tokens and 2FA play a key role in establishing zero-trust network access control. This approach is crucial as users increasingly access corporate resources from remote locations and due to the increase in unknown devices accessing networks. The risk of stolen credentials means businesses must establish trust that a user is who they claim to be before providing access to their resources. Secure authentication enables organizations to identify users entering their networks and block devices or people that are not authorized. 

The Fortinet identity and access management (IAM) solution enables organizations to identify devices and users as they enter their networks. They can then control and manage identities to ensure only the right users gain the right level of access to the appropriate resources. The IAM solution includes various products, such as FortiAuthenticator, which prevents unauthorized access through certificate management, guest access management, and SSO services, and FortiToken, which offers further confirmation of user identities by requesting users to provide a second factor of authentication through mobile applications and physical tokens.