Single sign-on (SSO)

Single sign-on (SSO), is a user authentication process that permits a user to enter one username and password in order to access multiple applications.

Back to glossary

Single sign-on, commonly abbreviated as SSO, is a user authentication process that permits a user to enter one username and password in order to access multiple applications or websites. The process authenticates the user for all the applications they have been given rights to and eliminates further prompts when the user switches applications during the same session. In this glossary entry, we will delve into the intricate details of SSO, its benefits, how it works, and its potential drawbacks.

SSO is a critical component in the realm of cybersecurity. It simplifies the user experience by reducing password fatigue from different user name and password combinations. It also increases IT efficiency due to lower number of IT help desk calls about passwords. However, SSO also presents potential risks, such as the possibility of unauthorized access if the primary login credentials are compromised.

Understanding SSO

Single sign-on is a session and user authentication service that permits a user to use one set of login credentials (e.g., name and password) to access multiple applications. The service authenticates the end user for all the applications the user has been given rights to and eliminates further prompts when the user switches applications during the same session.

On the backend, SSO is helpful for logging user activities as well as monitoring user accounts. In the next sections, we will look at the different types of SSO, how SSO works, and the technologies that enable SSO.

Types of SSO

There are several types of SSO, including enterprise (internal) SSO, web (external) SSO, and mobile SSO. Each of these types has its own unique characteristics and uses.

Enterprise SSO works within a corporate firewall and uses a single password to log in. Web SSO works over the internet and uses a single password to access websites. Mobile SSO is specifically designed for mobile applications, allowing a user to authenticate once to access all mobile apps they have rights to.

How SSO works

SSO works based upon a trusted relationship set up between an application, known as the service provider, and an identity provider, like a directory service. When a user tries to access the application, rather than prompting the user to enter credentials, the application redirects the user to the SSO solution.

The SSO solution requests authentication from the identity provider. If the user has already been authenticated, the identity provider sends a token to the SSO solution, which passes it back to the application, and the user is granted access. If the user has not been authenticated, they are prompted to log in, and the process is repeated.

Benefits of SSO

SSO offers several benefits, both from a user perspective and from an IT perspective. For users, SSO means fewer passwords to remember, which can lead to less password fatigue and frustration. It also means faster access to applications, as users don't have to spend time logging in to each application individually.

From an IT perspective, SSO can lead to fewer requests for password resets, which can save time and resources. It can also make it easier to track user activities and enforce policies across multiple applications.

Reduced password fatigue

One of the main benefits of SSO is that it can significantly reduce password fatigue. Users only need to remember one set of credentials, which can make it easier to maintain strong, unique passwords. This can lead to improved security, as users are less likely to resort to insecure practices like writing down passwords or using the same password for multiple accounts.

Furthermore, because users don't have to spend time entering credentials for each application, they can get to work faster. This can lead to increased productivity and user satisfaction.

Improved IT efficiency

SSO can also improve IT efficiency. With fewer password reset requests to handle, IT staff can focus on more important tasks. Additionally, because SSO provides a centralized point of authentication, it can make it easier to track user activities and enforce security policies.

For example, if a user leaves the organization, IT can immediately revoke their access to all applications through the SSO system. This can help to prevent unauthorized access and protect sensitive data.

Drawbacks of SSO

While SSO has many benefits, it also has potential drawbacks. The main drawback is that if a user's primary login credentials are compromised, an attacker could gain access to all of the user's applications and data. This is sometimes referred to as a "keys to the kingdom" problem.

Another potential drawback is that SSO can be complex to implement, especially in a large organization with many different applications. It may require significant time and resources to set up and maintain.

Security risks

The primary security risk associated with SSO is that it creates a single point of failure. If an attacker is able to compromise a user's SSO credentials, they could potentially gain access to all of the user's applications and data. This could lead to significant data loss and damage.

To mitigate this risk, it's important to use strong authentication methods, such as two-factor authentication, and to monitor for suspicious activity. It's also important to educate users about the importance of protecting their login credentials.

Implementation challenges

Implementing SSO can be a complex process, especially in a large organization with many different applications. Each application may require its own unique integration with the SSO system, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

Furthermore, not all applications support SSO, which can lead to a fragmented user experience. Users may have to remember multiple sets of credentials for different applications, which can negate some of the benefits of SSO.

Conclusion

Single sign-on is a powerful tool that can improve user experience and IT efficiency, but it also comes with potential risks and challenges. It's important to carefully consider these factors when deciding whether to implement SSO in your organization.

With the right planning and implementation, SSO can provide significant benefits, including reduced password fatigue, improved IT efficiency, and enhanced security. However, it's also crucial to educate users about the importance of protecting their login credentials and to use strong authentication methods to protect against potential security risks.

This post has been updated on 17-11-2023 by Sofie Meyer.

Author Sofie Meyer

About the author

Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.

Similar definitions

Decoupled OpenDNS Nonce Botnet Query Bespoke software Characterization Circuit Visitor location register (VLR) Internet protocol television (IPTV) Legacy system Obsolete Proxy Transmission control protocol (TCP) The Pirate Bay (TPB)