Glossary

Common Terms in the Order They’re Experienced in Enterprise Authorization Use Cases

TopPrincipal

An entity for which identity information is stored and managed by a system.

Example

Jane Smith is an employee of BigCorp.

TopIdentity

The representation of a principal in a system.

Example

A user may be represented in a system by storing their attributes in a database such as first name, last name, email address, etc. E.g. BigCorp's database stores Jane Smith's name, email, employee Id, etc.

TopIdentity verification

The process of establishing that identity information associated with a particular entity is correct.

Example

HR has verified the evidence that proves the user in the HR database with the name Jane Smith and personal email address of j***@gm**l.com is a person born on MM/DD/YYYY, with a social security number of XXX-XX-XXXX, having a California Driver's License number: XXXXXX and a physical address of 123 Main St. Somewhere, CA USA.

TopAuthentication (AuthN)

The act of securely associating a principal's identity to an app, a browser or a device upon request by the principal. The user agents could include APIs that are used by one system to communicate with another.

Example

The user jsmith@bigcorp.com is now associated with the web browser session as identified by a cookie.

TopAuthentication mechanism

In order to prevent impersonation of one principal by another, this requires the principal to prove their identity using a combination of mechanisms such as passwords, SMS-based verification, biometric proofs, security keys containing one-time-passwords or cryptographic private keys.

Example

User jsmith@mycompany.com is authenticated using a password and a Yubikey hardware security token.

TopIdentity Directory

A central storage of identities in an organization. This is typically organized as a hierarchy, where each identity is uniquely identified by a path from the root of the hierarchy to the specific identity.

Example

Jane Smith's directory entry in BigCorp's “Active Directory” is identified by “CN=JSmith,OU=Support,OU=Users,DC=BigCorp,DC=com”

This would generally mean that Jane Smith has an entry in the directory as a user in the support organization of BigCorp.

TopOrganizational Unit

A hierarchical unit of directory organization. Principals (e.g. users or computers) belong in exactly one OU, but OUs may be nested within other OUs. An OU may be used as a principal in many situations such as applying policies.

Example

As seen in the previous example, BigCorp's support employees are all stored in the OU named “support”. The “support” OU is stored in the OU named “Users”.

TopRoles or Groups

Users in a directory that may or may not belong in the same OU are grouped together in a “free form” group. In the context of authorization, a group is referred to as a role. A group may be used as a principal in many situations such as applying policies.

Example

Jane Smith is a member of the group “Tiger Team”, along with select members of engineering, product management and the leadership team.

TopAuthorization (AuthZ)

The privilege granted to a principal to access specific resources in specific ways.

Example

Jane Smith has authorization to update a discount percentage in an invoice record of the customer SuperCo. In Role-based access control (see below), the authorization could be something like: Tiger team has authorization to update customer billing information.

TopFederated identity

A mechanism, typically based on open, standards-based protocols, in which an independent provider (the identity provider) can authenticate a user in order for them to be authenticated at another system (the service provider or relying party). Also known as federated authentication

Example

BigCorp uses SAML (popular federated identity protocol) to login employees such as Jane to their 401(k) provider using their employee authentication.

Or Jane uses an expenses app on their mobile phone to authenticate themselves using OpenID Connect (another popular federated identity protocol) to authenticate as a BigCorp employee and enter their expenses.

TopIdentity Provider (IdP)

The authenticating service or software in a federated identity system.

Example

Okta, Microsoft Azure AD, Sign-in with Google.

TopService Provider (SP)

In the context of federated identity, this is the system that consumes the authentication token from the identity provider so that the principal may be authenticated without separately authenticating them at the service provider. A service provider is also known as a Relying Party.

Example

Cloud SaaS platforms such as Salesforce, ServiceNow, Workday can be configured to rely on identity providers for user authentication.

TopSAML

Security Assertion Markup Language. A federated identity protocol that is popular with enterprise services. It is used mainly for single sign-on between independent web-based services, such as SaaS providers. It also has the capability to provision new accounts at the service provider and to logout the user from multiple websites where they are signed in using SAML. However, the provisioning and single logout features are not commonly used.

Example

SAML Identity providers include Microsoft Azure AD, Okta and Google

SAML service providers include Salesforce, ServiceNow and Workday.

TopOpenID Connect (OIDC)

A federated identity protocol that leverages the Open Authorization 2.0 protocol (OAuth 2.0) to implement single sign-on and optionally, authorization. It is more often used where the interaction is client application based rather than web-based, but many websites also use OIDC as a federated identity sign-in mechanism.

Example

OIDC Identity providers include: Microsoft Azure AD, Okta, and Google

OIDC relying parties include: Gmail mobile app, Uber mobile app, Dropbox and Expedia.

TopAuthentication token

The result of a federated authentication protocol exchange, which conveys the identity of a user from an identity provider to a relying party (AKA service provider.)

Example

A SAML token is also known as a SAML Assertion. An OIDC token is also known as an ID token.

TopAccess

An action taken by an authenticated principal to interact with objects in a system. Objects with respect to access could be data, applications, computing resources (virtual machines, storage buckets, etc...) or physical resources, e.g. rooms, buildings, etc...

Example

Interactions are dependent on the type of object. E.g. a principal may create, read, modify or delete data. They may start or stop virtual machines, etc.

TopAccess token / Authorization token

A cryptographically un-spoofable data item that represents specific access granted to the possessor of the token.

Example

Sometimes, such a token is just a long, unguessable number. Sometimes it is a digitally signed JSON web token.

TopOAuth (Open Authorization)

An open standard protocol of communication between independent systems that results in an access token being received by the requesting system, which enables them specific access capabilities on behalf of a principal.

The protocol defines scope codes (called just “scopes” in the protocol) understood by the “resource server” (i.e. the system of which the access is requested) that are used limit what the requester has access to

The protocol also defines an optional mechanism for a user principal to provide consent to the specific scopes being requested.

Example

Consumer example: A ride-sharing mobile application uses OAuth to obtain a user's profile picture from Facebook. Facebook requires consent from the user in order to release this information

Enterprise example: An API client from a security company may use OAuth to access an API provided by a smart-devices manufacturer to assign a specific device to a customer user of that company.

TopOAuth authorization server

The authorization server (AS) in an OAuth protocol issues access tokens after authenticating and authorizing the request.

TopOAuth resource server

A service or server that accepts an OAuth token, verifies the scopes and grants access to the possessor of the access token to resources within its service.

Example

Google Drive service

TopAccess control

A system to manage authorization that enable an organization to specify which principals have access to which objects.

TopFine-grained access control or fine-grained authorization

An authorization system wherein access control rules are different for smaller collections of objects rather than broad categories.

TopAccess control list

An authorization system wherein the principals that are either allowed or denied access to a specific object or collection of objects are specified in a list. If the members of the list are allowed access, then the list is called an “allow list” (formerly known as a “whitelist”). If the members of the list are denied access, then the list is called the “deny list” (formerly known as a “blacklist”). The access may be a specific type of access (e.g. create or delete), or a generic access, which could mean any operation on the target object.

Example

“Deshaun@company.com, Mary@company.com and Arun@contractor.com” can update firewall rules.

TopPrivileged access management (PAM)

A system to manage shared credentials to highly sensitive resources. Users are often required to use secure two-factor authentication to login to the PAM system. The PAM system then uses the shared credential to enable the user to access the critical resource, such as a production server.

TopRole-based access control (RBAC)

An authorization system wherein each principal is assigned a role, and access control lists include such roles rather than the principals directly within them.

Example

Managers have access to historical employee performance report files.

TopDynamic authorization

An authorization system wherein the decision to grant access to a principal to a specific object is determined at run-time, based on factors that may change more rapidly than the content of an access control list.

TopAccess posture

Environmental properties that affect a user's access to an organization's resources.

Example

This may include the user's authentication mechanism (e.g. password or two-factor), IP address, time of the day, whether the device they are accessing from is secure or not.

TopAttribute-based access control (ABAC)

A dynamic authorization system wherein policy rules can be specified regarding access to objects or collections of objects. The rules can include roles, but also more dynamic attributes such as the access posture. In some cases, principals and objects / collections are assigned text attributes, and policies can also include such text attributes in determining whether the user has access to a specific object or not.

Example

Example policy: A user accessing from a private location (as indicated by their IP address) may access files that have the attribute “PII” (personally identifiable information) if the user's role is in the access control list of the file being accessed.

TopJustified access management (JAM)

A dynamic authorization system wherein policy rules may include attributes as in ABAC, and specific computations that can determine a business justification for a user to have access to a certain object.

Example

Example policy: A user with the right access posture and role may access a customer's data if they are assigned an open case which includes the customer as an affected entity and the user's jurisdiction is the same as the customer's jurisdiction.

TopID Token

The OpenID standard defines an ID token with specific fields in it.

TopRefresh token

In the OAuth protocol, an access token may be renewed by presenting the refresh token to the authorization server.