Identity and Access Management explained
When people find out that Identity and Access Management (IAM) is such a fundamental part of the way digital systems and security work, some of the first questions they have include “What is identity management?”, or “What does IAM mean?”. IAM refers to the security discipline that makes it possible for a digital system to only take in the right users. This includes tracking the data that a company takes in, the specific users and people logging in and keeping a thorough list of the people with permission to access specific software and file stores. Companies use the right resources and data through a series of proper checks and administration.
IAM provides support for individual devices and user verification, further limiting the risk of illegitimate access to an organization’s resources and information. The main intention of any IAM system is a greater degree of security throughout the company, so effective implementation is the difference between a more effective organization and one that struggles with implementing its policies thanks to gaps in security systems.
Why is IAM important?
If you’re setting up an organization’s security systems, you may ask yourself “Why is IAM important?”. After all, security systems worked reasonably effectively before the implementation of IAM. Several factors make IAM an important aspect of the way that companies and organizations protect themselves from third-party access, including:
IAM allows for thorough monitoring of a series of different events and threads of data, including the dates of people logging into the system and how many times a person logs in. This means that organizations can keep track of the people on the system at any one time, monitoring their access to specific resources and understanding how many people are working at a given moment.
This is an especially important resource for a section of a company such as procurement. Understanding an organization’s specific needs in terms of software licensing and resource allocation is a necessity. Having effective IAM means tracking the access that individual users have to software and the company’s requirements for the foreseeable future.
Provide access to external partners
When learning about why IAM is important, many people exclusively consider the internal aspects of a company. However, the way that clients and vendors interact with a company is equally important. If a client or a vendor visits the premises and requires access to your software and services, IAM systems enable you to offer them an account. You tailor this account to the requirements of the visitor, providing access to whatever software they require.
An example of these systems at work is common in universities, in which universities take on visiting lecturers and professors that teach specific modules for a short period. In these instances, administrators generate an account for the academic in question, providing access to all the necessary systems and services. This enables plenty of flexibility for guest access and means there is no need for permanent account provision, keeping the organization more secure.
Limit compromises of user credentials
An effective IAM system offers protection beyond a standard username and password sign-on system. This includes the implementation of a single sign-on, reducing the requirement for users to have lots of passwords for different systems, and the use of multi-factor authentication. Multi-factor Authentication refers to the use of a phone or email confirmation of logins, with the user ensuring that the right person is signing in with their credentials.
This increases the levels of certainty that every login within a system is legitimate. Getting a password and a username is one thing, but gaining access to a user’s email address, mobile phone or even biometric information is a greater challenge. The use of MFA is a further level of protection for an organization’s systems, preventing the risk of cyberattacks or social engineering leading to malicious parties accessing important and valuable information.
Greater levels of productivity
Having access to organizational systems quickly and easily is a must in major companies. This allows a greater level of flexibility and is especially useful in a hotdesking environment when people work on devices all across the organization. By picking up devices and logging on with ease, companies increase the flexibility of their employees with people working wherever they are, whenever the organization needs.
This is also true for working at industry conferences. Attendees complete their work when on the road and attending talks. By using IAM, companies have the assurance that their employees are who they say they are. People work immediately on the information they learn at the conference, implementing new policies and changes as soon as they are at a capable device.
Enabling remote working
Using IAM makes working remotely simpler. Having a greater degree of system security means that employees make use of devices outside the workplace ecosystem, such as using personal mobile phones and laptops. Multi-factor authentication provides companies with the knowledge that there is security throughout the system regardless of where and when a person signs on.
As central management knows that the infrastructure is sound, there is an opportunity for a decentralisation of the rest of the employees in the company. Entry points are secure and employees have access to all of the right software and storage folders that they require for their work thanks to an accurate provision system. People working from home have a greater level of efficiency than those that have extended commutes, increasing both the morale of employees and the general productivity of the organization.
Effective licence allocation
Large companies and complex organizations use equally complex licensing agreements for their software and services. This includes having a licence that permits a certain number of installs on a limited number of devices, a limit on the number of people using the software simultaneously and, in some cases, licence limits depending on whether the use of the software is commercial, educational or personal.
Using IAM systems means that managing these licences effectively is a far simpler process. For example, a university with a significant commercial wing uses both commercial and academic licences, so IT management creates user groups for each of these purposes. This accurately keeps track of how many accounts the organization is using for each of the purposes, keeping costs down by paying the right amount for the services the institution receives.
Simplify user groups
Categorising users into specific groups is the process of separating the users in a system by their functions, such as an office employee being in a data entry group or an IT manager being a part of an administration group. These groups define the systems that a user has access to, the read/write privileges available for specific files and even physical aspects such as the areas that a user has access to.
The benefit of using these user groups is that they significantly simplify the process of providing users with the access they need for completing their roles. If a user has a change in their circumstances or requires bespoke permissions, simply combine user groups in a way that offers the services that they require. This is a far simpler process for an administrator than juggling dozens, or even thousands, of accounts and the individual permissions that each requires. In some instances, administrators use automation as a method of simplifying the process of creating new accounts further.
Types of user authentication
IAM authentication is a fundamental part of the way that organizations use IAM. An effective identity authentication service reduces the risk of malicious parties affecting a network or system whilst still supporting a smooth and seamless sign-on for the user. There are several options available for someone seeking an identity authentication solution, including:
Single sign-on (SSO)
Single sign-on, or SSO, refers to a system that organizations use to enable employees to log in to the company’s systems using a single simple username and password combination. This reduces the risk of confusion surrounding passwords, significantly shrinking the proportion of users making simple errors such as writing down their passwords for later reference.
Using SSO also includes providing users with access to Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms through a series of integrations. Rather than logging in through the piece of software itself, users simply enter their username and password in a recognisable pop-up. The user experience is far more seamless in these instances.
Multi-factor authentication (MFA)
MFA refers to cases in which the user enters their standard login details before confirming the login through another means. This is increasingly the case in pieces of software such as banking apps and other important confidential data, as organizations secure confirmation of the fact that a user is who they say they are. The separation between a login device and someone’s email account or biometric information is enough to verify the user’s identity.
Some organizations use MFA as a means of simplifying logins rather than adding another layer to the process. For example, signing into a smart TV involves scanning a QR code, a far simpler process than signing on through a TV remote and on-screen keyboard. Using MFA in this manner also provides insights, with MFA device preferences informing administrators of the devices that customers and staff use. This helps with tailoring future systems.
Adaptive authentication is a form of authentication that varies depending on the specific context of the situation. This includes using machine learning that accounts for the location of the login, the device that is in use and the history of the user’s logins in the past. Each of these factors combines into a simple risk summary, with administrators defining how the system resolves issues at differing levels of risk. Some of the available options include blocking the device, prompting multi-factor authentication and simply allowing the login.
This form of authentication is especially useful when resolving issues such as phishing attacks. These are remote attacks in which a malicious party gains a username and password from a victim, using these credentials and stealing data from the organization. When this occurs, adaptive authentication notices the change in location and brand new device, prompting further securing measures or blocking the account until further verification checks take place successfully.
IAM implementation is a major challenge that organizations around the world face. After all, implementing identity management and verification is a very thorough process that covers the entirety of a company, which is something of a daunting task. The first step in the process of IAM implementation is analysis and assessment. This involves stepping back and examining access systems as they are in their current state. Auditing the systems provides a comprehensive understanding of where the strengths and weaknesses are in the system, some of the necessary adjustments and any legacy services that require replacement as the IAM implementation process takes place.
Following this audit, organizations develop more coherent strategies for approaching the IAM implementation process. This includes writing down clear notes of the structural weaknesses that the system has, working in close collaboration with stakeholders and IAM providers and strategising by devising a series of feasible scenarios for the organization to respond to. The strategisation process means that you benefit from responding quickly to emerging issues as the organization is already aware of them.
Undergoing thorough IAM testing after the initial implementation period is a necessity. This involves a large-scale test, with users of all kinds going through all of the systems and services that the organization uses. Use a range of devices in this process, as the more devices that are in use, the more strenuous the test. Testing in such a thorough manner means that the majority of issues that users have are present in a testing context rather than in the active IAM environment. Organizations complete a transition to IAM more effectively after working through a beta test period and making significant adjustments.
IAM access management is one of the major benefits of using these systems, with access management tools adding a greater degree of flexibility to the way that organizations provide access to each of their systems. However, some professionals ask “What is access management?” when applying these skills. Access management tools refer to the systems and services that companies use when controlling the way that employees interact with and access an organization’s files, programs and software.
Many companies follow a policy of “least privilege”. This means understanding the tools that a user requires for completing their tasks, assigning these resources to the user and limiting the time that the user has this access to strictly the amount of time necessary. Functioning this way reduces the cost to the customer by limiting the number of concurrent licences that the company requires, in addition to reducing the risk of users accessing something they shouldn’t. Depending on the specific context of the business, other organizations use different strategies that supply additional access to the user. There are several methods of assigning access privileges, including:
Privileged access management
Privileged access management, or PAM, is a method of managing access for people with a high level of privileges in the organization. This refers to senior members of management staff in an organization, developers that make changes to applications and technical support staff that resolve issues for users in the organization. These accounts have a lot of access across the entire organization, with the right to access user account information and make changes on the backend of systems and servers.
Thanks to the importance of PAM accounts, compromises in these accounts cause significant damage to the organization. These employees have a significant amount of training in data security as a result, with solutions for these accounts focusing on the comprehensive use of MFA, adaptive authentication and active monitoring as a means of keeping these accounts secure. Being proactive in these instances stops malicious acts as soon as they occur, protecting the wider system with centrally managed policies very few accounts have control over.
Role-based access management
Role-based management (RBAC) refers to a method of assigning privileges to individuals in an organization depending on their specific job role. Administrators supply people with privileges depending on the specific nature of their work, the systems that they use in the organization and when they use these software packages. This method reduces the amount of time a company spends administrating each individual account, instead applying a plethora of rules and permissions to individual accounts depending on the requirements of the role. RBAC makes access management security a much simpler task, so administrators spend their time on more important tasks.
An underlying benefit of this form of automation is that it is highly scalable. As an organization grows, the process for applying permissions to each employee remains simple, a matter of simply applying the right roles to a new user and explaining to them the permissions that they have. RBAC is especially useful in a setting with clear distinctions between all of the classifications in the organization, such as a university having clear distinctions between students, support staff, teaching staff and management. Each of these levels requires differing software and services, so controlling these by changing the settings of a user group is a faster and simpler process than changing every single user’s access individually.
How IAM and other security facets interact
Identity and access management interacts with a range of other aspects of digital security on a regular basis, including:
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a fundamental part of many IT developments over the past few years, thanks to its role as one of the most interesting technologies available to users. By using artificial intelligence, administrators have tools that assess incredibly small details of an account and a user, examining login patterns and noticing differences from standard logins when finding suspicious activity. AI tools flag these issues to administrators who then take the relevant action according to company policy. With AI and machine learning examining login requests in real-time, companies have immediate knowledge of an attempted hack taking place and act on it in a timely manner.
Identity as a Service
Identity as a Service, or IDaaS, is an IAM system that vendors deliver from the cloud rather than coming from the local network. Vendors deliver these services on a subscription basis, with companies benefiting from the services to different extents depending on their plan of choice. While some companies use an IDaaS system independently, others use these systems as a means of supporting IAM, providing another layer of security for the company’s digital systems. This is an ideal solution for smaller companies, as it removes the need for a dedicated IAM team. Larger organizations benefit from a transition towards an internal team.
As artificial intelligence is an underpinning concept in modern IT, the cloud previously held the role of the most talked-about technological prospect in the digital domain. Enterprises are increasingly holding information off-site, transitioning away from servers that cost a lot of money in overheads and initial investment and towards cloud storage, which hosts company information off-site for a subscription cost. IAM effectively supports connections to cloud services, using SSO features to make the process between the user and the cloud service as seamless as possible. This combines with MFA logins, which ensure that the organization’s systems remain secure whilst verified users have quick and easy access from anywhere they find themselves working. Cloud systems are an increasingly flexible method of working, and this is especially the case when the cloud uses reliable IAM support.
Bring your own device
Communication throughout the world grows more and more complex by the day, with transferring data from home to the office becoming increasingly simple. This provides employees with the potential to work from anywhere around the world, requiring personal devices for work purposes. IAM is a method of taking this trend and converting it into safe working practices for a security-conscious business. IAM combines closely with unified endpoint management, unifying the access experience for the end-user and making the process of accessing an organization’s systems as simple as possible.
Internet of things
The internet of things refers to anything with a network connection that is a part of your digital infrastructure. This covers anything from a smart speaker in a boardroom to the security cameras that monitor a company’s property from a series of vantage points. Each of these connections is a potential point of vulnerability in a network, an opportunity for a hacker. By implementing effective IAM systems there is a much lower chance of a third-party breaking into a network through the back door, with identification taking place before people gain access to these important systems.
The future of IAM
IAM is an area with plenty of potential for development, as companies keep looking for opportunities to improve their levels of security and ensure long-term stability for their platforms. As with any area of technology, developers will continue to look for opportunities in the IAM space as hackers and cybercriminals look for weaknesses.
One of the main areas of improvement and development in the future is artificial intelligence. Combining artificial intelligence and machine learning means that IAM clients have a system that constantly adapts to new information, learning about the context of each individual user and why that user commits to certain actions. With an AI system that changes as it learns more about its users, IAM increasingly becomes an automated process without the need for human intervention at any point. This includes understanding the smallest microinteractions and metrics surrounding the user, with ideal systems learning from data points that human administrators may not even notice. This intricate level of detail is the opportunity that IAM offers over exclusively human IT support.
In some instances, an intelligent IAM system works closely in tandem with the rest of an organization’s digital infrastructure. Organizations require absolute security, and this means blocking links that risk harming accounts in the company and blacklisting domains that have a history of doing harm. Not only is the IAM system of the future more intelligent, but it has far more integrations with other administrative tools that create a cohesive security system throughout the company.
There are several IAM solutions available to organizations, depending on the specific needs of the enterprise. Some of the useful IAM solutions available to companies include:
Hybrid access management systems
This refers to access management when an organization is undergoing a transition from one form of IAM to another. Companies use this when going from an existing IAM system to another, such as transferring IAM information and systems to a cloud service that is entirely new to the company. By focusing on a hybrid system rather than undergoing an immediate transition, members of staff retain the skills that they developed within the first system for a time and have the opportunity to gradually transition to the new way of doing things. By the time the change is complete, employees know the new system inside and out, which prevents disruption.
Cloud access management/authentication
Many organizations use the cloud as a tool for storage and information hosting, missing out on the IAM opportunities available for companies. By hosting these services on the cloud, calculations take place more quickly and AI is a more effective presence in the system. The cloud also enables a greater degree of automation and means that the system handles requests from all around the world, with users signing in from different countries and having the opportunity to work remotely. Cloud access management is also a means of futureproofing the organization from ageing servers and hardware.
Identity governance and administration
Identity governance goes beyond the use of IAM for identity management and makes use of a selection of analytics. Companies track the rate at which people sign in, where people sign in from and the devices they use for signing in. This provides opportunities for developers looking to tailor their provision to the users that they serve, in addition to offering an advanced warning of when there are cyber-attacks through the early assessment of patterns in the system. This prepares the organization for any dangerous activity ahead of time, protecting the company from cyberattacks and preventing the loss of data.
CIAM – Customer/Consumer Identity and Access Management
Security is a must for any customer, with a more secure platform providing users with the certainty that their information is as safe as possible. The perfect CIAM solution strikes a balance between security and the optimal customer journey. Doing so means that customers don’t become frustrated by layers of verification and security, getting through the login process quickly whilst still being safe in the knowledge that their data is only accessible to them. Companies using effective CIAM solutions boost customer confidence and ultimately sales.