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Identity and Access Management

July 1, 2021
Schools and universities need to ensure only the right people and devices have access to the right applications, resources, and systems at the right time.

Identity and access management (IAM) is a framework that enables organizations to ensure only the right people and devices have access to the right applications, resources, and systems at the right time.

IAM encompasses the various policies, services, and technologies that enable organizations to verify every user’s identity and level of access. To effectively manage access, organizations need to authenticate that a user is trustworthy and then authorize the level of access they should have.

Authentication and authorization explained

Authentication is the process of confirming that a user is who they say they are. A user’s identity is most commonly verified through authentication factors like:

  • Something they know: A knowledge factor that only the user should recall, such as login credentials, a PIN code, or mother’s maiden name.
  • Something they have: A possession factor that only the user should have, such as a code on a verification mobile app or a security token.
  • Something they are: A biometric factor that only the user could supply, such as a fingerprint, retina scan, or voice recognition.

Authorization is the process of providing a user with permission to access a specific function or resource. Users must first authenticate their identity before they can then be authorized to access further resources, depending on the permissions granted to them.

Who are the typical IAM users?

  • Employees: Organizations’ direct employees need to be authenticated when they request to access an application, network, or server. An employee’s level of access is typically determined by their role and department. 
  • Contractors: Individuals who are working with an organization for a short period of time or on a one-off project can be granted access to specific applications or resources. These users typically have more restricted access than a traditional employee and should be offboarded as soon as their contract or project comes to an end.
  • Customers: Organizations can manage their customers’ identities and profiles through customer identity and access management (CIAM) while connecting them to the applications and services they need. Proper CIAM ensures a seamless and secure customer experience across all channels.
  • Partners: To streamline the work being done by multiple companies, organizations can give their partners’ users access to relevant applications or resources.

IAM tools and processes 

IAM systems consist of multiple tools and processes that simplify the task of provisioning and deprovisioning users, managing and monitoring evolving access rights, and preventing “privilege creep” and other unauthorized access. Typical IAM tools include:

Single sign-on (SSO): SSO solutions enable a user to use just one set of credentials to securely authenticate themselves across an organization’s infrastructure, without having to log in to individual apps or resources. It removes the need for users to remember multiple passwords, which in turn reduces the risk of credentials being lost or stolen.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA gives organizations the ability to verify with increased certainty that users are who they claim to be. It requires a user to provide multiple pieces of authentication, which are typically combinations of knowledge, possession, and biometric factors.

Lifecycle management (LCM): LCM lets organizations simplify the task of managing their growing user landscape of employees, contractors, customers, and partners. It moves away from manual provisioning in favor of an automated, contextual, policy-driven approach that provides a centralized view into which users have access to which systems and files. LCM can save information technology and human resources departments huge amounts of time while ensuring employees have access to the tools and applications they need to work effectively.

Centralized User and Device Directory: Consolidating users and devices within one central directory that connects to all applications does away with the complexity of managing vast numbers of user passwords and multiple authentication policies across on-premises and cloud resources. It mitigates emerging identity attack risks, ensures that users and passwords are secure, and takes control of password management by consolidating various password policies. This helps businesses to launch apps more quickly while reducing technology costs, increasing security, and meeting user demands.

Access Gateways: With access gateways, organizations can apply modern security tools like SSO and MFA to their on-premises infrastructure. This extends cloud-based protection to on-premises apps without changing how they work.

IAM for servers: Extending IAM to an organization’s infrastructure centralizes access control, providing seamless access to on-premises, hybrid, and cloud infrastructures while reducing the risk of credential theft and account takeover.

What makes for a successful IAM strategy?

IAM research from Forrester in 2019 states that organizations need to manage users’ access to sensitive applications and data without affecting business agility, user experience, or compliance requirements.

To meet these goals, a successful IAM strategy:

  • Takes into account the roles of artificial intelligence, behavior analytics, and biometrics to better equip organizations to meet the demands of the modern security landscape.
  • Provides for tighter control of resource access across modern environments like the cloud and the Internet of Things to prevent data compromise and leakage.
  • Maintains compliance, productivity, and security, including securing user identities regardless of when, where, and what device they use to access apps, networks, and systems. This is crucial to organizations rolling out remote work and dynamic workforce policies and embarking on digital transformation.

Using the tools and processes of an IAM solution helps organizations to define clear and comprehensive access and audit policies. Having this structure in place reduces the risk of internal and external data theft and cyberattacks, which in turn helps organizations comply with increasingly strict and stringent data regulations.

IAM challenges

IAM is not without its challenges, especially if it is carried out poorly. Organizations must check that their IAM solution doesn’t leave holes and vulnerabilities in their security defenses through issues like incomplete provisioning or weak automation processes.

Provisioning and deprovisioning users and their access rights can become difficult for organizations with sprawling workforces, too many admin accounts, and a large number of inactive users. This is where lifecycle management is crucial to closely monitor access levels and immediately remove inactive users.

Relying on passwords alone is increasingly dangerous; users often deploy weak passwords or don’t protect their login credentials effectively.

Biometrics, while being inherently secure, also pose challenges when information is stolen through data theft. It’s therefore important for organizations to not only know what biometric data they store on file, but also understand the biometric data they have, how and where it’s stored, and how to delete data they no longer require.

Pamela Armstead is a Content Marketing Manager with Okta.

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