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What is Identity Access Management?

7 min read
Published June 17, 2020
Last updated January 19, 2022

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a core discipline for any information technology operational group. The first element is identity, which means verifying that a user is the person they claim to be. The second is access, which involves determining which users can access which resources inside a network.

Both of these responsibilities usually fall to IT departments to manage, because they act as administrators across all systems and servers. But proper IAM processes require more than just human labor. These days, you can use smart products to make the activity more feasible and flexible. Below, we’ll explore IAM and its relation to your data security solutions and practices.

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How IAM Works

identity access management (IAM) illustration of a computer monitor and a list of IAM functions

The goal of any IAM practice or tool is to promote better cybersecurity within an organization. If you ignore the IAM discipline entirely, it will only be a matter of time before something goes wrong within your digital systems. Hackers and other cybercriminals are automatons who never stop hunting for common vulnerabilities in access controls. A product like Varonis Data Security Platform will help to identify where your biggest risks are located.

When setting your IAM strategy, you must first decide how individuals will be identified within your network. This could be by employee number, name, or other criteria. From there, you can begin sorting individuals and teams into different roles that will dictate their access permission levels to different areas of technology, including share drives and NTFS locations. IT groups must be able to set and change these permissions quickly and easily.

Many organizations are following an idea known as the principle of least privilege (POLP). This means that when setting your security policies, you grant each user and role the minimal level of access required for them to do their job and let them propagate down. Following the POLP approach lowers your organization’s risk and reduces the chance of a catastrophic data breach.

Key IAM Terms

The process of IAM can be overwhelming at first because of all the jargon associated with it. To help, we’ll run through some of the key terminologies that you’ll encounter.

  • Principal – The source of the request that is asking for permission to access a resource. The principal can be a human person or an automated system.
  • Entity – The identity used to authorize access. This typically comes through either a role grouping or an individual user account.
  • Authentication – The first step of the login process, where a user enters credentials to have their identity and entity verified. Users can still exist on your network without being authenticated.
  • Authorization – A backend step of the login process, where systems talk to each other and determine whether the authenticated user has permission to perform the action they have requested.
  • Managed Policy – A set of rules that your IAM system follows. It documents what users, groups, and roles have access to which resources.
  • Service Account – An account used by a system and not by a human user. These accounts are still controlled by IAM policies.

IAM Tools and Solutions

At the enterprise level, being responsible for IAM is a large, complex task. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of products designed to make it easier and integrate with your existing Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tools. Here we’ll highlight some of the main functions included in these tools.

  • User Provisioning – Automated systems that allow you to quickly create new enterprise accounts for users and assign them to roles and groups through a front-end interface.
  • Single Sign-On – Solutions that reduce the need for multiple usernames and passwords, instead, allowing users to log on through a central portal and be authenticated to all other internal systems and applications automatically.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication – Using a secondary tool, like a smartphone or security token, to add another layer of authentication. Users log in with their primary account and then receive a unique code to verify their identity.
  • Risk-Based Authentication – A dynamic solution that runs an algorithm to calculate the given risk of a user performing a specific action. If the risk score is too high, the action is blocked and the IT team is notified.
  • Identity Analytics – Repositories that capture authentication and authorization events to log activities and help troubleshoot issues. Running regular Windows audits will help to ensure your system stability.

Why IAM is Important

identity access management (IAM) illustration of a clipboard and list of benefits

For small companies, especially those trying to break into a competitive industry, it can be tempting to put IT activities like IAM on the back burner. Following proper IAM protocols is time-consuming, requires a dedicated IT staff, and usually involves an up-front and ongoing financial investment.

However, overlooking IAM will always come back and haunt you. It all comes down to risk when considering the long-term benefits of IAM. By lowering its priority at the organization level, you are guaranteed to expose your enterprise to more cyberattacks and data breaches, because your digital resources are not as tightly controlled as they could be.

Also, keep in mind that IAM protects you from both external and internal attacks. A large percentage of hacking incidents come about because of insider threats. The potential for damage gets exponentially worse if you are not practicing good IAM discipline, because individual users may have more widespread access than you even realize.

IAM and Compliance

IAM activities are about more than just keeping your organization secure from online threats. In fact, depending on what industry you operate in and what region you are located in, your enterprise may be legally required to follow certain regulations when it comes to how user accounts are stored and managed. Here are some of the main compliance standards that you may encounter.

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – This was recently instituted by the European Union and dictates how companies must store and protect online user accounts, along with rules about notifying individuals after a data breach.
  • California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – This follows a similar model to GDPR by stipulating how the privacy of user data must be managed in the state of California.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) – This is primarily a set of financial regulations for corporate disclosures, but it does include an IT aspect of compliance which sets a standard for how financial data must be stored electronically.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) – With so much of the healthcare industry going digital, HIPAA has become a pivotal piece of legislation, as it dictates how patient records are stored and transferred to maximize privacy.
  • ISO 27001 – This is an IT standard that describes how an organization should maintain an information security management system (ISMS). IAM is a vital component of any well-run ISMS.

Additional IAM Benefits

In some instances, corporate leadership may still push back on the idea of investing a lot of money in an IAM solution. To help justify the cost, consider the following additional benefits of adopting IAM practices across the enterprise.

  • Location Flexibility – These days, employees expect to have the ability to work from home and other remote locations. Without following IAM protocols, doing so will put IT resources at risk.
  • Encouraging Integration – IAM solutions are all focused on simplifying the authentication and authorization processes and tying those into other systems and applications. Having a strong IAM strategy allows your company to grow quickly and expand in new directions.
  • Competitive Advantage – Customers notice when IAM security practices are being followed. This can boost your organization’s reputation and differentiate you from the competition in the marketplace.

IAM Best Practices

identity access management (IAM) illustration of IAM tips to prepare, implement and maintain IAM standards

If you have never implemented an IAM system before, the range of options can be overwhelming. However, there is a set of basic best practices that you should aim to follow. When shopping for IAM products, make sure to select ones that foster these practices and allow them to be easily implemented.

To help you along in the process, we’ll break down IAM best practices into three separate phases. Be aware that even cloud-based IAM solutions like Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASB) still require work to be done before the implementation of the product, during its rollout, and after the IAM system has gone live.

Before Establishing IAM

Rushing into an IAM implementation will often cause more headaches than it will solve. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead and set a clear strategy for how IAM will be run within your organization.

  • Define the IAM implementation team and determine what individuals and teams will have which responsibilities in the process. Although IAM tasks usually fall to IT groups, make sure to have stakeholders involved from across the organization.
  • Consider various IAM solutions from different vendors and put together a package that suits your needs best.
  • Perform a survey of your organization that captures information about every unique human being and technology resource, including hardware, software, and networking systems. A tool like Varonis Data Classification Engine can help to automate this process.

Implementing Identity and Access Management

Depending on what IAM solution you choose, implementation can take up to several weeks to complete. Make sure your resources have the bandwidth to focus on these tasks without being distracted by other issues.

  • Set up automated user feeds that will import data from your HR or personnel repositories so that your IAM system always has the latest information and records.
  • Mimic your organizational structure in your IAM role policies and ensure you are following the principle of least privilege (POLP).
  • Turn on multi-factor authentication for high-profile users and resources that contain sensitive data. This activity is part of Privileged Access Management (PAM).

IAM System Upkeep

  • Create automated alerts from the IAM logs to notify you if any security threats are detected.
  • Establish an IAM governance group that will monitor the policies in place and recommend changes when needed.
  • Check for updates from your IAM vendor so that your systems are always using the most up-to-date versions.

Identity and Access Management FAQs

IAM solutions are often complex and need to be customized for every individual organization using them. Let’s run through some of the common questions you may have when kicking off an effort to implement IAM.

Q: What is the IAM role?

A: An IAM role is a category or grouping of people that all need to perform the same set of business functions. Roles are given different access within an IAM system.

Q: What is an IAM policy?

A: An IAM policy is the set of rules for what a role or user can access. It can be configured at a very low-level to block or allow access to any application or piece of infrastructure.

Q: What is the difference between an IAM role and an IAM user?

A: IAM users are placed into one or more IAM roles, which are then linked to IAM policies to determine the full set of access privileges. A role can only have a single policy, but a user can be a part of multiple roles depending on what their job requires.

An IAM solution will boost your organization’s cybersecurity profile and streamline all of your integrated systems. One of the challenges that remains after implementing an IAM solution, however, is how to apply its principles to unstructured data. IAM may be able to help you manage group memberships in Active Directory, but can’t tell you which data each group gives access to. It’s like managing the keys on a keyring without knowing which doors they unlock.

Varonis helps you keep your company compliant to regulations while easily managing all of your users’ access levels. Data is likely one of your enterprise’s most valuable assets, so it’s important to take proactive measures to keep it safe and secure.

Check out the webinar 7 Common IAM Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them to learn more about implementing IAM solutions. If you’re looking to improve your cybersecurity expertise, take one of our free security training courses and earn CPE credit along the way!

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to reducing data risk at your company:

  1. Schedule a demo session with us, where we can show you around, answer your questions, and help you see if Varonis is right for you.
  2. Download our free report and learn the risks associated with SaaS data exposure.
  3. Share this blog post with someone you know who'd enjoy reading it. Share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Reddit, or Facebook.
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