Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Compromised user credentials are among the most common targets for hackers to gain entry into organizations’ networks through malware, phishing, and ransomware attacks. It is therefore vital for enterprises to safeguard their most valuable resources. Many are increasingly turning to Identity and Access Management (IAM) solutions to protect their data and people.

Identity and Access Management (IAM) Definition

A typical IAM definition is a framework of policies, processes, and technologies that enable organizations to manage digital identities and control user access to critical corporate information. IAM's key purpose is to assign users with specific roles and ensure they have the right level of access to corporate resources and networks. As a result, it improves security and enables better business outcomes by improving operations and service levels, reducing costs, and enabling greater agility. 

IAM automates time-intensive, error-prone tasks to ensure granular access control and auditing of all corporate assets, regardless of whether they are in the cloud or on-premises. This enables businesses to embrace the growth of mobile working, remote working, and cloud adoption.

The IAM framework also plays a crucial role in businesses adopting a Zero Trust security model. This model takes the “never trust, always verify” approach to ensure only the right people have the right level of access to the right resources in the right context, with that access being continuously assessed without adding friction for the user. IAM provides access management alongside tools that enhance user experience while keeping the business secure, such as single sign-on (SSO) and multi-factor authentication (MFA). 

How Identity and Access Management Boosts Security

The core objective of an IAM solution is to assign one digital identity to each individual or a device. From there, the solution maintains, modifies, and monitors access levels and privileges through each user’s access life cycle.

The core responsibilities of an IAM system are to:

  1. Verify and authenticate users based on their roles and contextual information such as geography, time of day, or (trusted) networks
  2. Capture and record user login events
  3. Manage and provide visibility of the business’s user identity database
  4. Manage the assignment and removal of users’ access privileges
  5. Enable system administrators to manage and restrict user access and monitor changes in user privileges

IAM frameworks are not only crucial to controlling user access to critical information but also implementing role-based access control. This enables system administrators to regulate access to corporate networks or systems based on individual users’ roles, which are defined by their job title, level of authority, and responsibility within the business.

An IAM solution is also crucial to preventing security risks when employees depart a business. Manually de-provisioning access privileges to the apps and services the former employee used can often take time or even be forgotten entirely, leaving a security gap for hackers. IAM prevents this by automatically de-provisioning access rights once a user leaves the company or as their role within the organization changes. 

Digital identities do not just exist for humans, as IAM also manages the identity of devices and applications. This establishes further trust and provides deeper context around whether a user is who they say they are and the applications that users are entitled to access.

IAM is as equally effective for large enterprises as medium and small businesses. Solutions are available for large organizations and SMEs to pick and choose tools that simplify user access, remove reliance on passwords, and authenticate users wherever they are and on any device.

IAM Tools

An IAM solution consists of various components and systems. The most commonly deployed include:

1. Single Sign-On

Single sign-on is a form of access control that enables users to authenticate with multiple applications or systems using just one login and one set of credentials. The application or site that the user attempts to access relies on a trusted third party to verify that the user is who they say they are. Single sign-on enhances user experience by reducing password fatigue and simplifying password management. It benefits businesses by minimizing security risks for customers, partners, and vendors, limiting credential usage, and improving identity protection.

2. Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication is a crucial security feature of any IAM solution. It verifies a user’s identity by requiring them to enter multiple credentials and provide various factors:

  1. Something the user knows: a password
  2. Something the user has: a token or code sent to the user via email or SMS, to a hardware token generator, or to an authenticator application installed on the user’s smartphone 
  3. Something specific to the user, such as biometric information

3. Privileged Access Management

Privileged access management protects accounts with higher permission levels to critical corporate resources and the ability to make administrator-level changes to applications and systems. These accounts are typically high-value targets for cybercriminals and, as such, high risk for organizations. Privileged access management is therefore a crucial part of any IAM solution as it protects businesses from cyber and insider attacks.

4. Risk-Based Authentication

Risk-based authentication adds further context and insight into each and every user login. When a user attempts to log in to an application, a risk-based authentication solution looks at contextual features such as their current device, IP address, location, or network to assess the risk level. 

Based on this, it will decide whether to allow the user access to the application, prompt them to submit an additional authentication factor, or deny them access. This helps businesses immediately identify potential security risks, gain deeper insight into user context, and increase security with additional authentication factors.

5. Data Governance

Data governance is the process that enables businesses to manage the availability, integrity, security, and usability of their data. This includes the use of data policies and standards around data usage to ensure that data is consistent, trustworthy, and does not get misused. Data governance is important within an IAM solution as artificial intelligence and machine learning tools rely on businesses having quality data.

6. Federated Identity Management

Federated identity management is an authentication-sharing process whereby businesses share digital identities with trusted partners. This enables users to use the services of multiple partners using the same credentials. Single sign-on is an example of this process in practice.

7. Zero Trust

A Zero Trust approach moves businesses away from the traditional idea of trusting everyone or everything that is connected to a network or behind a firewall. This view is no longer acceptable, given the adoption of the cloud and mobile devices extending the workplace beyond the four walls of the office and enabling people to work from anywhere.

Instead, a Zero Trust architecture presumes all network traffic to be untrusted until it is verified using strong authentication and adaptive, risk-based assessments. Therefore, it is no longer about securing the network but the people who access applications and systems. IAM is crucial in this approach, as it allows businesses to constantly assess and verify the people accessing their resources.

Benefits of an Identity and Access Management System

Implementing an IAM solution provides a wide range of benefits to organizations, such as:

  1. Secure access: Opening networks to more employees, new contractors, customers, and partners offers greater efficiency and productivity, but it also increases the risk. AN IAM solution enables businesses to extend access to their apps, networks, and systems without compromising security.
  2. Reduced help desk requests: An IAM solution removes the need for users to submit password resets and help desk requests by automating them. This enables users to quickly and easily verify their identity without bothering system admins, who in turn are able to focus on tasks that add greater business value.
  3. Reduced risk: Greater user access control means reduced risk of internal and external data breaches. This is vital as hackers increasingly target user credentials as a key method for gaining access to corporate networks and resources.
  4. Meeting compliance: An effective IAM system helps a business meet their compliance needs amid a landscape of increasingly stringent data and privacy regulations.

IAM Implementation Guide

IAM systems are vital for businesses to automatically manage the identities and access privileges of users in various locations, computing environments, and on multiple devices. It helps them carry out tasks that simply are not possible manually and embrace a Zero Trust approach to security that allows them to comply with data and privacy regulations, protect their users, and reduce the risk of data breaches.

Common risks associated with implementing IAM are integrating the solution with existing solutions, making the move to the cloud, and employees using products and tools not approved by the organization. These can be avoided by fully embracing the move to IAM, putting the time and effort into establishing a cohesive identity management strategy, and encouraging collaboration across the business.

Critical components of an IAM system that prevent businesses from falling foul of these risks include:

  1. Access management products that identify and manage users' identity and enable tools like single sign-on for cloud, network, and web resources
  2. Authentication processes, such as multi-factor authentication and risk-based authentication, that help users to easily verify their identity
  3. Password tokens that add extra security to simply using passwords alone

Discover the IAM products that will secure your business’s identity and access management. Learn how Fortinet helps businesses with identity and access management use cases.