What is Identity Management?
Identity and access management is a crucial process for business organization and security. Ensuring that access to data is controlled can reduce insider threats and make suspicious activity quicker to intercept.
This beginner identity management training module will explain what identity management is, how it works, and how it relates to access management. We’ll then look at the benefits of the framework and challenges of identity management models.
What is identity management?
Definition: Identity management is a business framework consisting of processes and policies to ensure that digital identities within an organization are sorted and defined.
Once arranged, these identities can be assigned varying levels of access privileges depending on their role, location, and direct need for access to specific data and applications.
Generally, one digital identity is assigned to each person or device. The permissions relating to this unique user can then be assigned, modified, and monitored as the demands of their role require.
Identities can also be grouped, allowing for access permissions to be assigned based on both team and individual requirements. For example, every member of a team will require the same level of access to department-related documents and printers, but management may require additional permissions.
What is the difference between identity management and access management?
While identity management and access management are closely tied together and inform each other, they are two separate processes. Identity management is focused on authenticating users. The information provided when trying to log into an account (a password, biometric identifier, or two-factor authentication) is used to confirm who the user is.
When the user has been identified, access management authorizes the user's permissions in order to determine and assign access to the correct files and accounts, based on the needs of their role.
The combination of these two aspects is known as identity and access management (IAM).
The level of complexity in the implementation and management of these technologies will vary, depending on the size and scale of the business. However, once established, identity management should not require extensive training beyond the management level and is generally scalable to suit changes to the business over time.
What is an identity management system?
Most systems combine the principles of IM and AM. A typical IAM system consists of four basic components:
- Central directory
This contains all of the user and group data, and provides a central view where all users and their active permissions can be reviewed. Depending on the infrastructure, viewing and amending can be conducted remotely using cloud services.
- User management
A selection of tools and applications to track roles and related permissions. This can include features for easily creating new accounts with a selection of default permissions, removing permission from unused accounts (lapsed accounts of former staff or contractors), and updating passwords.
Combining these features with automation elements can significantly simplify the management of users, which otherwise would need to be done manually.
As with all online accounts, authentication is vital to ensure that the user is legitimate and has permission to access the account. This can be done in several ways including encryption, tokens, biometrics, and multi-factor authentication (MFA).
Authentication also covers the management of active sessions, helping to quickly identify suspicious user activity.
The final step is authorization using privileged access management – cross-referencing the directory with user management rules to determine if a particular user or device should be permitted access to certain resources.
Why is identity management needed?
Many data breaches are the result of poorly managed credentials. This can lead to:
- Weak passwords, which make sensitive files more vulnerable to threats like brute force attacks
- Increased risk of successful phishing attacks
- Reduced resistance to ransomware attacks
IAM introduces a layer of protection around important documents by restricting access to only those who directly require it. As people leave the business and roles change, IAM can automate the lifecycle process of removing dormant accounts, restricting the number of access points for cybercriminals.
Close control of data is not only important for security, but also for compliance with data protection rules, which can vary by region.
Challenges of identity management models
A large amount of IAM issues come through ineffective configuration. Automation of processes can only be as effective as the instructions inputted into the system, which highlights the importance of developing a detailed identity management strategy.
An effective strategy requires a clear structure with defined processes and regular reviews to ensure it is configured to the changing specifications of the business. Input from IT, security, and HR departments is essential to ensure that IAM will not impede established workflows.
With Zero Trust as an established starting point, the principle of least privilege (PoLP) should then be implemented so that access is granted as required, ensuring that permissions are never assigned based on anything other than what is needed to complete a specific task.
Over time, hundreds of accounts could be created as people join or leave the company, or change roles. Handling this churn is vital so that the permissions on inactive accounts, which are vulnerable to malicious use, are not abandoned.
More information on establishing and managing identity and access management best practices can be found in the Identity Management Best Practices module.
Identity and access management benefits
- Reduces risk from threats, both internal and from malicious third parties
- Increases efficiency of staff onboarding
- Frees up resources in the IT department to work on other projects due to automation and self-service features
- Easily scalable as the company evolves
- Increases productivity due to time savings, which can support return on investment