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What is identity and access management? Guide to IAM
Identity and access management (IAM) is a framework of business processes, policies and technologies that facilitates the management of electronic or digital identities. With an IAM framework in place, information technology (IT) managers can control user access to critical information within their organizations. Systems used for IAM include single sign-on systems, two-factor authentication, multifactor authentication and privileged access management. These technologies also provide the ability to securely store identity and profile data as well as data governance functions to ensure that only data that is necessary and relevant is shared. IAM systems can be deployed on premises, provided by a third-party vendor through a cloud-based subscription model or deployed in a hybrid model. On a fundamental level, IAM encompasses the following components: how individuals are identified in a system (understand the difference between identity management and authentication); how roles are identified in a system and how they are assigned to individuals; adding, removing and updating individuals and their roles in a system; assigning levels of access to individuals or groups of individuals; and protecting the sensitive data within the system and securing the system itself.
IAM, which has an ever-increasing list of features — including biometrics, behavior analytics and AI — is well suited to the rigors of the new security landscape. For example, IAM’s tight control of resource access in highly distributed and dynamic environments aligns with the industry’s transition from firewalls to zero-trust models and with the security requirements of IoT. For more information on the future of IoT security, check out this video.
While IT professionals might think IAM is for larger organizations with bigger budgets, in reality, the technology is accessible for companies of all sizes.
Benefits of IAM
IAM technologies can be used to initiate, capture, record and manage user identities and their related access permissions in an automated manner. This brings an organization the following IAM benefits:
Access privileges are granted according to policy, and all individuals and services are properly authenticated, authorized and audited.
Companies that properly manage identities have greater control of user access, which reduces the risk of internal and external data breaches.
Automating IAM systems allows businesses to operate more efficiently by decreasing the effort, time and money that would be required to manually manage access to their networks.
In terms of security, the use of an IAM framework can make it easier to enforce policies around user authentication, validation and privileges, and address issues regarding privilege creep.
IAM systems help companies better comply with government regulations by allowing them to show corporate information is not being misused. Companies can also demonstrate that any data needed for auditing can be made available on demand.
Companies can gain competitive advantages by implementing IAM tools and following related best practices. For example, IAM technologies allow the business to give users outside the organization — like customers, partners, contractors and suppliers — access to its network across mobile applications, on-premises applications and SaaS without compromising security. This enables better collaboration, enhanced productivity, increased efficiency and reduced operating costs.
An IAM framework enables IT to control user access to critical information within their organizations. IAM products offer role-based access control, which lets system administrators regulate access to systems or networks based on the roles of individual users within the enterprise.
In this context, access is the ability of an individual user to perform a specific task, such as view, create or modify a file. Roles are defined according to job, authority and responsibility within the enterprise.
IAM systems should do the following: capture and record user login information, manage the enterprise database of user identities, and orchestrate the assignment and removal of access privileges.
That means systems used for IAM should provide a centralized directory service with oversight and visibility into all aspects of the company user base.
Digital identities are not just for humans; IAM can manage the digital identities of devices and applications to help establish trust.
In the cloud, IAM can be handled by authentication as a service or identity as a service (IDaaS). In both cases, a third-party service provider takes on the burden of authenticating and registering users, as well as managing their information. Read more about these cloud-based IAM options.
IAM technologies are designed to simplify the user provisioning and account setup process. These systems should reduce the time it takes to complete these processes with a controlled workflow that decreases errors and the potential for abuse while allowing automated account fulfillment. An IAM system should also allow administrators to instantly view and change evolving access roles and rights.
These systems should balance the speed and automation of their processes with the control that administrators need to monitor and modify access rights. Consequently, to manage access requests, the central directory needs an access rights system that automatically matches employee job titles, business unit identifiers and locations to their relevant privilege levels.
Multiple review levels can be included as workflows to enable the proper checking of individual requests. This simplifies setting up appropriate review processes for higher-level access as well as easing reviews of existing rights to prevent privilege creep, which is the gradual accumulation of access rights beyond what users need to do their jobs.
IAM systems should be used to provide flexibility to establish groups with specific privileges for specific roles so that access rights based on employee job functions can be uniformly assigned. The system should also provide request and approval processes for modifying privileges because employees with the same title and job location may need customized, or slightly different, access.
With IAM, enterprises can implement a range of digital authentication methods to prove digital identity and authorize access to corporate resources.
Unique passwords. The most common type of digital authentication is the unique password. To make passwords more secure, some organizations require longer or complex passwords that require a combination of letters, symbols and numbers. Unless users can automatically gather their collection of passwords behind a single sign-on entry point, they typically find remembering unique passwords onerous.
Pre-shared key (PSK). PSK is another type of digital authentication where the password is shared among users authorized to access the same resources — think of a branch office Wi-Fi password. This type of authentication is less secure than individual passwords.
A concern with shared passwords like PSK is that frequently changing them can be cumbersome.
Behavioral authentication. When dealing with highly sensitive information and systems, organizations can use behavioral authentication to get far more granular and analyze keystroke dynamics or mouse-use characteristics. By applying artificial intelligence, a trend in IAM systems, organizations can quickly recognize if user or machine behavior falls outside of the norm and can automatically lock down systems.
Biometrics. Modern IAM systems use biometrics for more precise authentication. For instance, they collect a range of biometric characteristics, including fingerprints, irises, faces, palms, gaits, voices and, in some cases, DNA. Biometrics and behavior-based analytics have been found to be more effective than passwords.
When collecting and using biometric characteristics, companies must consider the ethics in the following areas:
data security (accessing, using and storing biometric data);
transparency (implementing easy-to-understand disclosures);
optionality (providing customers a choice to opt in or out); and
biometric data privacy (understanding what constitutes private data and having rules around sharing with partners.
One danger in relying heavily on biometrics is if a company’s biometric data is hacked, then recovery is difficult, as users can’t swap out facial recognition or fingerprints like they can passwords or other non-biometric information.
Another critical technical challenge of biometrics is that it can be expensive to implement at scale, with software, hardware and training costs to consider.