Enterprise organizations and IT departments are under constant pressure to protect sensitive data and corporate assets. Labor-intensive and error-prone manual procedures are no longer viable options for assigning and tracking user privileges. Enter IAM—a data security method that automates tasks and authorizes granular access control.
What is Identity and Access Management (IAM) Anyway?
Identity and access management is an enterprise IT solution for managing the roles and access of network entities.
Examples of individual entities within a network include users and devices. Users could be employees, contractors, partners, customers, and more. Smartphones, computers, servers, sensors, and routers would all be examples of devices.
The primary goal of identity and access management is to establish a single digital identity for each entity. Once established, that digital identity must be maintained and monitored for the complete lifecycle of that user or device.
Essentially, this makes it possible for IT managers to control user access to information and data within the organization. IAM technology allows enterprises to secure and store data while applying data governance protocols, so only relevant and necessary info is available to the right people.
At a conceptual level, identity and access management contain the following elements:
- How users are identified within a system
- How roles are defined and how roles are assigned to users
- How to add, remove, edit, and manage users and roles within a system
- How to assign access levels to individual users or groups
- How to protect sensitive data and secure the entire system
The potential use cases and real-world applications of IAM are vast. We’ll take a closer look at how all of this works as we continue through this guide.
How Identity and Access Management Works
In simple terms, IAM systems must accomplish three crucial tasks—identify, authenticate, and authorize. This means that only certain people will have access to software, hardware, devices, or other resources to accomplish work-related tasks.
Role-based access control (RBAC) is a component of IAM. This allows IT admins to control access to software or network systems based on user role groups within the company.
Some users might have the ability to create or modify a file, while others only have access to view the file. Specific user roles may not be able to access the file at all. When RBAC is applied, each role is defined by the user’s job and core responsibilities—if the resource isn’t related to the job, access isn’t granted.
In addition to access control, IAM systems allow system admins to track user activities, create reports, and enforce data governance policies.
IAM starts with a directory of data that the system uses to identify users. The same system regulates and enforces access based on the directory’s permissions.
For example, when an employee enters login credentials on a network device, their identity is checked against the directory to verify credentials and access levels. Based on their access, they might be able to create a file but may not have the ability to edit, share, or delete someone else’s file.
There are several advantages to applying IAM in the workplace. First and foremost, it helps companies reduce the risk of both internal and external threats related to data security.
IAM also makes it easier for large-scale organizations to operate with a higher efficiency level by automating what would otherwise be a labor-intensive way to manage network access. It’s easier to enforce data security policies with authentication, and organizations can even use IAM to comply with industry or government regulations.
Let’s take a closer look at some real-world identity and access management examples so you have a better understanding of how this works:
Example #1: Amazon Web Services (AWS)
AWS is an industry leader in the cloud computing service space. All AWS accounts come with identity and access management features built-in.
Not every AWS user in your business needs to have access to all of the data and functions of the system. So AWS lets you create and control user roles and the permissions linked to those roles.
You can use IAM in AWS to control shared access, auditing, and conditions, and apply the principle of least privilege.
There’s a really cool feature in AWS called CloudTrail. CloudTrail allows you to constantly monitor and track all account activity within your IT infrastructure. You can even use it for auditing your IAM system and detecting unusual activity in your AWS account.
Example #2: Proof of Regulatory Compliance
Most organizations are bound by specific local, federal, or industry-specific mandates. Examples include:
- Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act
- Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act
- HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability)
- GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation)
- CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act)
All of these laws have specific requirements for data privacy. To remain compliant, you need to automate certain aspects of your workflows and restrict user access.
Here’s an example related to HIPAA compliance. An accountant working for a hospital wouldn’t have access to patient medical records when performing finance-related duties on the network. While they might be able to view an outstanding invoice, the patient’s diagnosis and medical history would remain sealed.
Example #3: Customer Authentication
If you recall, earlier we said that customers could be considered a user for IAM. Here are the highlights of a case study that describes how Gymshark used Auth0 to achieve this.
Gymshark is a fitness apparel brand with over 10 million customers across 170+ countries. In addition to its ecommerce site and retail presence, the company also released a standalone fitness app.
To streamline the user experience, Gymshark needed centralized authentication across all of its platforms. So a user with an ecommerce profile could log into the workout app without any problems, and Gymshark could secure that data.
The process ultimately secured and authenticated logins for 250,000 users per month.
How to Get Started With Identity and Access Management (IAM)
Now that you’ve seen some of the different wants to apply identity and access management, it’s time to implement this data security method for your organization. These are the tactical steps your company must take to get started with IAM:
Step 1: Audit Your Existing Systems
Before you can make changes and add a new access control method to your process, you need to have a firm grasp of your current situation.
Generate a list of all networks, software, applications, and other systems that need IAM protocols. Understand how the environments differ between these components. For example, how are your cloud servers different from on-premises applications?
Your organization likely has existing data security protocols in place. Even if it’s something as simple as a username and password for each employee, that’s a starting point.
Once those employees log in, do they all currently have access to the same resources? If not, you have a head start.
The idea here is to run an audit that will identify your security gaps related to access control. You’re ultimately going to take that information and apply it to specific users and devices to authenticate based on their identity.
Step 2: Choose a Digital Authentication Method
There are many different ways that a company can authenticate its users with identity and access management.
Whether it be employees, customers, contractors, or partners, here are some of the different authentication methods that you can choose from:
- Passwords — Unique passwords are the most common way to authenticate a user digitally. To enforce stricter passwords, organizations might require users to create long or complex passwords using a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters. The problem with these types of passwords is that they’re difficult to remember, so the way users store their passwords can create a security issue.
- Single Sign-On (SSO) — As the name implies, SSO allows users to sign in once and get authenticated for multiple systems. Users could still have different access levels based on their identity, but the need to constantly verify themselves and keep track of different login info is eliminated.
- Multi-Factor Authentication — Also known as two-factor authentication (2FA), this process combines two verification methods in the system. It combines something the person knows (such as a password) with something they have (like a token or one-time passcode). Requiring users to enter a password and fingerprint would be an example of 2FA.
- Pre-Shared Key (PSK) — PSKs are not very secure, as they are shared with different users who have access to the same resources. A simple example here would be the wifi password to an office. PSK authentications won’t be as secure as a unique password for individual users.
- Behavioral Authentication — Behavioral authentication uses AI to analyze keystrokes, mouse movements, and other complex characteristics to determine if the behavior falls outside of “normal” conditions. If an anomaly is detected, the system will automatically lock down. This type of authentication is used in situations where highly sensitive data or resources need to be protected.
- Biometrics — A fingerprint is the most common and simplest example of using biometrics to authenticate users. Other examples include voice recognition, facial recognition, DNA, retinal scan, signature matching, palms, ear shape, and more.
When choosing digital authentication methods for IAM, it’s important to be practical. For example, requiring customers to show their ear shape to buy something from your ecommerce app isn’t very realistic. But behavioral authentication, voice recognition, or a fingerprint to access highly sensitive data in the workplace could be a viable authentication method.
You should also know that you’re not bound by just one method across the board. It’s common to have multiple authentication methods for different scenarios and different user groups within your identity and access management system.
Step 3: Evaluate IAM Software Options
In many cases, IAM capabilities are built into your existing solutions.
Refer back to the example we discussed earlier with Amazon Web Services. AWS allows IT teams to manage IAM without the need for a third-party tool.
For larger organizations with lots of devices, systems, and users, you’ll likely need to consider a centralized authentication service. An example of this would be Auth0, which Gymshark used in the case study we discussed earlier.
The software you choose is primarily based on the complexity of your needs. While most systems would easily support SSO or 2FA to authenticate user identities, not all of them can support biometrics.
Step 4: Implement the Policy in Stages
IAM implementation can be complicated. This is especially true for businesses that need to create policies for hundreds or potentially thousands of users and devices.
Rather than trying to roll everything out at once, start in your areas of the highest priority.
This could be a system currently lacking security protocols or an area in the organization that exposes you to the most significant loss if a breach occurs. For example, businesses operating in Europe would need to prioritize any data security areas that don’t comply with GDPR to avoid hefty fines.
As part of the policy implementation, identity needs to become the primary security parameter.
Historically, businesses have focused the majority of data security and access control on networks. With the rise of the cloud and remote work, network security isn’t as effective as in the past.
Don’t rush. Depending on your needs, it could take anywhere from six to 24 months to completely roll out your IAM strategy.
Step 5: Establish a Zero-Trust Policy
The zero-trust model is reasonably simple to understand. This policy assumes that every access request is a threat until the identity of the user or device has been verified.
While the actual process should happen fairly quickly, users must be authenticated and authorized before gaining access to any system or permission.
The benefit of using IAM for your zero-trust policy is automation. Without modern technology, trying to verify the identities of hundreds or thousands of users in real-time would be near impossible for any IT security team.
But identity and access management allow this to happen instantly, without any manual requirements on the backend. Once the system has been set up, it essentially runs itself.
You’ll still need to conduct audits regularly to ensure the permissions and access levels are accurate, but the bulk of the work has been done by now.