Identity and Access Management: What Is It, and Why Is It Important?
Adopting Identity and Access Management (IAM) best practices is an important part of proactive defense against ransomware and other cyber threats, allowing you to quickly and effectively control – and limit – who has access to the files and data within your company. Identity and Access Management focuses on verifying user identities, computers, Internet of Things (IoTs), and other devices that want or need to be able to access data, information, and systems. Once verification is complete, IAM only grants access to resources the user (or device) needs to perform their tasks and rejects unauthorized or unrecognized requests. IAM also is helpful for regulatory compliance for standards like GDPR and HIPPA and can be an essential part of digital transformation initiatives.
With the rise in remote work, multi-cloud environments, IoT devices and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), IAM can help centralize access to all these environments and keep things both secure and simple.
Foundational to Identity and Access Management and an organization’s security posture is Zero Trust, an approach that protects people devices, apps, data wherever they are located, whether it be on-prem, in the cloud, or hybrid by challenging the traditional idea of implicit trust. Rather than assuming that everything inside and outside of your digital landscape is safe, Zero Trust operates on three “never trust, always verify” key principles:
- Assume Breach. This principle begins with the assumption that your network has already been compromised or could be compromised at any time, encouraging organizations to shift toward proactive security measures.
- Verify Explicitly. Before being granted access to resources, users and devices must prove their identity beyond traditional username and password combinations. This often includes multi-factor authentication and other advanced measures.
- Enforce Least Privileged Access. Only the minimum level of access should be given for users and systems to perform their tasks, reducing the potential damage in the event of a compromise.
The Key Components of IAM
The four pillars of Identity and Access Management are: authentication, authorization, administration, and auditing.
- Authentication: Requires users to provide unique identifiers and credentials during login, ensuring that users are who they say they are.
- Authorization: Makes sure that the right person can access the right resources at the right time
- Administration: Sets administrative policies and manages user groups, roles, and permissions.
- Auditing: Monitors user behavior and logs user activity, including how they use their access privileges and the data, files, and systems they access. This helps administrators determine user roles and policies, supports regulatory compliance, and creates security alerts when unauthorized activity is detected.
IAM Best Practices
With the rapid growth across the digital landscape, organizations are focused not just on employee productivity from anywhere at any time, but also minimizing risk and continuously finding ways to ensure they can stay secure and protected as they grow their business. More than ever, it has become necessary to devise more effective approaches to IAM. Requiring long and complex passwords and changing them frequently is no longer enough. A robust IAM policy is an important component of strengthening an organizations security posture and protecting against a cybersecurity incident or attack.
Identity Best Practices
Here are some identity best practices that can provide significantly higher levels of protection against malicious activity and can help improve your identity and access management approach:
- Passwordless: Using other authentication methods, including knowledge, possession, and inherent factors. Knowledge proves identity through user-specific questions, whereas physical items like key fobs or smart cards can authenticate users through possession and scannable biological characteristics like eyes or fingerprints can serve as inherent factors.
- Passkey: As type of passwordless authentication, a passkey serves as a digital credential that is used as an authentication method for a website or application. These are normally stored on your devices and works with your biometrics or screen lock.
- MFA: Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) requires two or more identity credentials. In its simplest form, this process requires a one-time password or passkey in addition to a password.
- SSO and: Single Sign-on (SSO) is a third-party service that allows users to access multiple applications with just one set of credentials. Credentials are secured by a trusted third party, called an identity federation. This simplifies the authentication and login process.
- SSPR: Self-service Password Reset (SSPR) allows users who forgot their passwords to reset it themselves without calling a help desk. SSPR is more secure since it typically uses another form of authentication to allow for a password reset (i.e., hardware tokens, biometric samples, notification emails, etc.)
Access Management Best Practices
The following are techniques used to determine user access privileges in corporate and cloud-based computer systems. Access management is a separate function that follows identity verification. These best practices include:
- Conditional access: Manages access to types of data and information like users and groups, network locations, apps, and devices. once access has been authenticated thru methods like block access, required MFA, compliant device, or forced password change. This process brings various identity driven signals together to make decisions and enforce organizational policies. For example, if an employee wants to access Microsoft365 and information on the company’s Sharepoint, they need to VPN and authenticate using MFA to gain access to the apps and information.
- RBAC: Role-based Access Control (RBAC) uses an individual’s role within the organization to determine their level of access to corporate systems and information. This limits access to the level of information employees need to perform their jobs. RBAC also determines whether a user has data read, write or modification privileges for company collateral and data.
- Least-privileged access: The concept of least-privilege limits a users’ access to only the data, information, and systems required to complete their work. This process compartmentalizes work, and user boundaries can be vertical or horizontal.
- Permissions management: This is when a third-party service extends permissions and visibility across different platforms and clouds. Permissions management allows you to identify anomalies, enforce access policies, and identify permission changes over time.
A Robust IAM Strategy
A robust IAM strategy is crucial in protecting your organization from both external and internal malicious threats. This protection comes from clearly defining employee and device roles and placing restrictions on who can access what. This ensures that the right person or device will have the right access to the right information at the right time.
Choosing the Best IAM Strategy
If you’re looking at IAM, chances are that you already have some applications in the cloud. A key step is to define your cloud or hybrid cloud security and compliance needs. This will help you determine the best authentication and identification management systems for your specific environment. Another factor to consider is scalability and whether IAM will grow with your organization and work for your environment as it evolves — whatever form that may take. You should also consider whether you can effectively integrate your IAM strategy into your current systems.
Benefits of IAM
The benefits of having a robust IAM strategy include:
- Enhanced data security: Your data is more protected from malicious attacks, like ransomware, and unauthorized manipulation. User role segmentation means that users have limited access to company data, making it more difficult for cybercriminals to steal information.
- Improved compliance: With robust IAM policies in place, you can more readily meet compliance and data safety requirements.
- Streamlined user management: IAM systems streamline and reduce workloads and simplify access management.
- Cost reduction and efficiency: Solutions likes self-service password reset features reduce call center workloads, and SSO policies improve employee efficiency too.
Challenges and Pitfalls to Avoid
You can save significant time and headaches by being aware of these challenges and pitfalls ahead of time:
- Overly complex policies: Avoid overly complex IAM strategies, such as having too many user roles or conflicting policies.
- Balancing security and usability: It’s vital to balance your security needs against unnecessarily limiting user roles. You don’t want to cause inefficiency and frustration in your workforce either.
- Inadequate user training: An IAM policy may be a major departure from previous practices, so it’s essential to thoroughly train users and administrators in the new processes and systems.
- Neglecting regular updates: Periodically review and update policies to reflect changes in your system and organization.
- Handling forgotten passwords: Lost credentials cause inefficiency and user frustration. You should implement semi-automated solutions that allow users to self-manage their lost or forgotten credentials.
- Managing privileged access: Poor management of privileged user access can create loopholes for cybercriminals to exploit. Reduce this risk by continually monitoring privileged account activity.
- Handling employee departures: Unless you have a system in place to promptly remove departed employees’ access to your systems, you run the risk of data theft from those employees and create an opportunity for bad actors to steal credentials.
IAM and Ransomware Protection
IAM is a key factor in preventing breaches that result in malware attacks, like ransomware. The 2023 Thales Data Threat Report noted that human error was responsible for 55% of the ransomware attacks experienced by respondents. A significant percentage of those surveyed said that an effective IAM layer is the best defense against those cyberattacks.
A strong IAM policy that uses robust identity management techniques makes it far more difficult for cybercriminals to steal and exploit your company’s credentials. As a further protective step, use temporary credentials that have a limited period of validity. This means that even if a hacker steals someone’s login credentials, they won’t have much time to exploit them.
It’s also crucial to have a coherent and comprehensive incident response plan that leverages IAM policies to detect and respond promptly to breaches when they happen. According to the Identity Defined Security Alliance’s 2022 Trends in Digital Identities report, 84% of the 500 companies surveyed experienced at least one identity-related breach during the year. Having an effective plan in place with a robust backup and recovery solution like Veeam Backup & Replication makes it much easier to detect and recover from a ransomware attack.
Compliance and Regulatory Considerations
IAM is also a key factor in meeting data compliance and regulatory requirements. There are many laws related to data residency, access, and retention that you must observe when working in and/or with the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, for example. These include:
- GDPR: Comprehensive data protection rights for the EU
- Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX): For publicly traded companies in the U.S
- HIPAA: For health information in the U.S.
- FERPA: For protection of student data in the U.S.
- CCPA: For Californian requirements like EU GDPR
- PIPEDA: Canadian federal data protection requirements
These regulations set the legal and compliance standards for the handling of sensitive information, and IAM plays a pivotal role in ensuring that organizations adhere to these regulations.
Compliance and regulatory considerations are also important because they all give people power over their own data and personal information. People want to know their data is secure, and making sure your company diligently follows these guidelines strengthens the trust users have in your organization. IAM is one way to improve regulatory compliance, since it can be used to control more strictly who is able to access company, customer, or patient data. This means less data leaks and breaches, which fosters a strong reputation for your company and ensures your organization is compliant with these laws and regulations.
In all instances, robust IAM solutions that govern authorization and auditing go a long way toward ensuring regulatory compliance. Strict IAM policies help organizations that operate within different jurisdictions and countries enforce different privacy and data access requirements that include data security, backups, and long-term data retention policies.
Current and Future Trends in IAM
Present-day trends focus on several tactics that are intended to enhance corporate security. These trends include:
- No passwords: Hackers can easily crack passwords — even long ones with combinations of characters, numbers, and letters. Plus, in reality, users often use word-based passwords, which are easier to crack.
- Enable MFA: MFA adds additional layers of security that are far more difficult to fool, steal, or hack.
- Implement a Zero Trust strategy: A Zero Trust philosophy assumes that all network traffic is (or may become) compromised. To address this, Zero Trust requires authentication for both the user and their devices, and limits access to only the resources required for the task. In addition to assuming a breach will happen, Zero Trust also includes explicitly verifying who’s accessing what data with every login and routinely evaluating access levels and enforcing least-privileged access.
Data security is a moving target. While cyber experts are constantly developing new and better ways to deal with cybersecurity threats, hackers will continue to find new ways to breach your defenses. The number of cyberattacks will continue to increase, as an insight highlighted in Veeam’s 2023 Ransomware Trends Report discovered. In fact, this report found that ransomware attacks increased by over 12% over 2022, when 76% of organizations reported at least one attack. This doesn’t even account for data breaches that happen due to human error or other forms of malware.
This means that IAM strategies must continue to improve. The threat landscape is evolving as fast, if not faster than we are, so it’s important to always be looking forward and constantly look for ways to improve.
One solution that is finding traction is the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve threat detection and provide real-time insights. Pivoting to using AI and machine learning increases detection speed and frees up IT staff for other tasks. Other ways to keep your organization on the cutting edge of cybersecurity is to implement a Zero Trust security model and look out for biometric authentication advancements.
Another future trend is developing user risk profiles into the authentication process and using blockchain methods to protect decentralized identity management systems. IAM can also be used to control user access to company IoT resources.
Strong IAM is the first step toward a truly integrated data security solution. Whether we like it or not, breaches are becoming a fact of life, and you need to be prepared – you don’t want to start thinking about cybersecurity after you’re attacked. IAM policies and implementing Zero Trust principles are the foundation to strengthening your security posture and helping to protect against the most common forms of cyberattacks and ensures that your most sensitive data is kept separate, requires privileged access, and is safe from ransomware. This, coupled with a secure backup platform that has immutable backups and proactive monitoring means you’ll be ready to embrace the breach and bounce forward after an attack.
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