What is Single Sign-On: The Benefits and Importance of Implementing SSO

  • By Steven
  • Published: Apr 16, 2024
  • Last Updated: Apr 24, 2024


Every day, more people get online - most do it for leisure, but organizations are increasingly moving into the digital environment. The increasing number of these new end-point users makes it clear that the cyber world must evolve. No longer can experts argue for unique platform passwords when password fatigue is prominent, nor can cybersecurity defenders protect all the various attack junctures across multiple platforms and tools.

There is an ever-increasing need for seamless, secure accessibility - especially where applications, platforms, and web tools are concerned. Single sign-on (SSO) grants these benefits and solves the issues of fatigue and security for those who utilize it. This content describes the benefits of SSO, its functional advantages, potential drawbacks, and a comprehensive overview of what makes it essential in the developing digital environment.

Single Sign-On (SSO)

What is Single Sign-On (SSO)

So, what is SSO, and how does it differ from regular login procedures? Suppose an individual has found employment in the digital environment. Their day may start by opening their email, accessing their task or communication platform, entering their employer’s secure application, and finally, clocking in using the approved platform. That’s four unique logins, each with unique and strong passwords, assuming no technical issues prevent the user’s access.

Single sign on condenses these login procedures, enabling users to authenticate their access once and obtain subsequent access to multiple applications and systems without needing to log in repeatedly. The end-point user submits their credentials once and obtains full (role-based) access to all their necessary digital tools.

Before continuing, it is important to note that single sign on  meaning in this context is specific to single sign-on rather than “same sign-on.” Same sign-ons are logins with the same credentials, but the user is still logging in multiple times with the same information; this does not limit the security issues presented by having multiple access points. It only makes it easier for cybercriminals to take advantage of affiliated platforms. In comparison, single sign on restricts those entry points, better securing organizations’ systems.

How does SSO Works

If single sign on makes it more challenging for criminals to access a system environment and makes it easier for authorized users to access those same areas, how does SSO work? The nuances of how SSO functions differ between providers of the service (more on that later), but there are four fundamental steps:

  • The end-point user opens the application, browser, system, or website they want access to - also called a Service Provider.
  • The Service Provider sends an authorization token to the SSO system as part of the access request.
  • The SSO system either pushes the user through the authorizing process, giving them instant access to their requested area, or the SSO will request an authorization token like a one-time password.
  • The Service Provider authorizes the token via the SSO system and initiates the user’s access.

In other words, a user requests access to something like an application, and that application then corresponds with the single sign on system to authenticate the user’s identity. Upon authorization, the user obtains access across multiple services and environments.

Benefits of Implementing SSO 

SSO requires one login to access multiple systems, digital environments, and platform applications. Consequently, SSO allows users to have an improved experience, reduce the likelihood of password fatigue, and waste less time on password recovery instances. Simultaneously, single sign on also benefits organizations that utilize it, including decreased help desk costs, strengthened security, and reduced financial losses due to technical issues.

User Experience Enhancement

The benefits of single sign-on can be seen immediately with enhanced user experience. On average, 68% of employees within the digital environment switch between ten applications every hour - SSO slashes that time waste down to its most essential costs. Simplifying a user’s login process improves productivity through seamless access across necessary resources.

Improved productivity also leads to increased user satisfaction, and not only for employees. More consumers than ever are moving their shopping needs online due to convenience. Still, when e-commerce platforms make the login and confirmation processes difficult, it results in significant financial losses. An estimated 18.75% of online shoppers abandon their carts following lost or forgotten passwords in the final purchase steps. Depending on the provider, that’s thousands of dollars lost every year. SSO allows users to finalize their purchases faster, easier, and with more confidence than ever.

Strengthened Security Posture

SSO also improves overall cybersecurity despite the misconception that a single password could lead to security vulnerabilities. Those who oppose single sign on argue that because a user only has one password, the theft of that password could immediately expose all affiliated systems; this is a significant part of the “every account needs a unique password” argument. Secure passwords will always be a significant part of online life, but whether users make one or many passwords can significantly impact an organization’s overall security posture.

 When SSO combines with other common-sense cybersecurity features (i.e., MFA, RBA, and employee training), the environment becomes more secure, efficient, and controllable. SSO also improves an organization’s internal cybersecurity by reducing the possible attack and entry points of a system, allowing nuanced management of access controls, and enabling IT professionals to update and implement authentication policies faster than ever. 

Less Time Wasted On Password Recovery

Besides increased user experiences and improved security, SSO reduces time-wasting processes for end-point users. SSO providers utilize one password rather than dozens—reducing the chance of password fatigue and subsequent forgetful behaviors. SSO’s single password also reduces the necessity of password recovery because the same credentials get used multiple times—which means less wasted time waiting on new password approvals and more time finishing work.

SSO Security Risks

Single sign on is not secure when used by itself; risks are associated with it, mainly when implemented without additional authorization features. Three of the most significant risks include the possibility of credential stuffing, online attack vectors, and potential session hijacking. Developers must address these risks to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of an end-point user. Cybersecurity experts can easily mitigate these risks with common-sense security features and policies.

SSO Security Risks

Credential Theft and Phishing Attacks

Where end-point users are concerned, the most significant risks of SSO are credential theft and phishing incidents. SSO’s use of one password is a potential issue—expressly, when no other authorization methods confirm a user’s identity before granting access. The theft of an SSO password could allow a threat actor to stroll through connected digital environments without issue, which is why additional identity authorization is necessary. Further, additional authorization is vital to mitigating phishing attacks because although a threat actor may uncover a single sign on password, they still need to prove their identity.

Notice that the same threats are prevalent with multiple unique passwords; the only difference is that SSO isolates the potential risks to one password. However, these risks are primarily mitigated with secondary and tertiary identity authorizations. Further, even with additional authentication processes, end-point users must remain cautious of sharing their information; cybercriminals are always looking for a way into a secure environment, and users must always look for signs of fake login pages, deceptive email campaigns, and social engineering schemes.

Single Point of Failure

SSO implementation also has risks when the internal environment of an organization is not protected from single-point failures. Single-point failures are potential threats created by the infrastructure of a digital environment; these are vulnerabilities that an online threat can use to manipulate and breach an otherwise secure application. For example, service outages, data breaches, and third-party vulnerabilities (i.e., vendors and providers) can all contribute to the success of a threat attack. If an attacker were to obtain access to one of these vulnerable systems, they could use the exposed SSO credentials to access other environments that share the same SSO credentials.

As with potential credential theft and phishing attacks, single-point failures are also an issue with traditional password management. Subsequently, the same processes for mitigation apply where users are concerned (i.e., multiple authentication processes and increased caution when sharing information). Moreover, the mitigation of single-point failures like data breaches rests on the shoulders of infrastructure and cybersecurity developers—because they are the only parties that can prepare for and defend against these possibilities.

Session Hijacking and Replay Attacks

Infrastructure developers also have a role in technology security beyond preparing for incident responses. Some threat actors hide within vulnerable systems rather than breaching and stealing information from them outright. There are many ways to achieve this, from side-channel attacks to passive data sniffing technology; when the actor finally obtains the information they need, they might use it to hijack a connection or “replay” the connection process. In either case, the malicious agent impersonates the legitimate user, obtaining open access to an otherwise secure environment.

SSO can be problematic for these incidents because once a device is authorized as “authentic,” the defense portions of a system may not necessarily return to “check” the authentication. However, SSO poses no unique or additional risks during these attacks—significantly, when cybersecurity experts can add more security features to make these potentials nearly non-existent. Additional authorization gateways, segmented pathways, role-based accesses, time-limited session identifiers, and multiple authentication tokens reduce these threats.

Key Considerations When Implementing SSO

Understanding the nuances of each identity provider's interoperability is critical to a successful SSO implementation. Below you can find key considerations to help your organization prepare well for this integration.

Choose an Identity Provider

Of course, not all SSOs are the same. The right SSO provider will have all the features necessary to defend an organization’s access points, but how they achieve that differs between industries. For example, browser-based organizations might consider web SSO, which allows consumers to access secured areas (i.e., payment and checkout pages) without the need to log in multiple times.

In comparison, organizations primarily doing business in mobile applications might consider a mobile SSO, allowing consumers to access multiple affiliates using one session token (i.e., bank, e-commerce, and social media applications).

In other words, the right SSO service will have multiple aspects, each serving the organization and end-point user differently. These considerations could include:

  • Compatibility with existing systems
  •  Support for standard authentication processes
  • Reliability and scalability for future growth
  • Regulatory compliance with GDPR and HIPPA

Integration Challenges

Some organizations may also face challenges with SSO integration, especially those systems that use legacy architecture and custom application builds. SSO is a tool that usually requires connections to have at least some matching connections between systems, making integration challenging for old and unique tech. However, there are SSO providers that support these infrastructures - such as SSO vendors with open standards and unique integration solutions.

SSO is massively beneficial to those systems that implement it. It allows end-point users enhanced experiences while restricting the potential for wasteful downtimes. Moreover, organizations that use SSO also benefit from it, mainly when used with other security features like additional identity authorizations. When appropriately used, SSO solutions enhance security, efficiency, user experience, and system accessibility

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