In 1978, The Who released the rock classic “Who Are You.” The song stands as one of the best songs the band ever released, and has a fundamental meaning in today’s Information Age economy: who are you?
Today, we try to address that “who” question, as well as the accompanying complications and challenges, with Identity and Access Management (IAM) and related solutions. With IAM, we attempt to verify an identity, account, and context to who you really are.
Even with bad puns aside, the question of “who are you” posed a challenge before modern information technology. We still wrestle with positive identification today, even though the moral of the Who song was more about your personality and soul than authentication into a resource. However, if we step back for a moment, we are still asking the same fundamental question: who are you?
Are you who I think you are, and are you whom you claim to be? Not so far-fetched if you are a threat actor with malicious intent, or a person living a life of hypocrisy and lies. Right?
My point is that these types of identity crises long predate modern authentication techniques. Fortunately, we will (most likely) never be subjected to a song called Identity and Access Management—but the topic does make for a good blog, so please read on.
What Is Identity and Access Management, and How Does It Solve the Question of Who?
Identity and Access Management is the ability to take a human person, a carbon-based life form, and have a one-to-one relationship of person to identity. This is who you are.
However, each identity may have multiple aliases (deviations like a nickname) representing it, as well as multiple accounts that represent its credentials used for authentication. So, you can have only one, singular identity, while still having multiple accounts with multiple instantiations representing you.
Next, you have your access.
Each account can have different access controls per resource and per context. For instance, an account can have access to an asset or application, while another account associated with the same identity does not. Enforcement of this practice is typically referred to as privileged access management (PAM)—also called privileged identity management (PIM)—which is a subset of identity and access management.
Finally, there is context.
Either of those aforementioned accounts may be permitted to work from one particular geolocation, time and date, resource, etc., but not another. These access restrictions on the resource can be based on everything from the source of the request to the risk of connection and initiating device.
Network Access Control, Virtual Private Networks, Access Control Lists, and Multifactor Authentication are typically used to contribute context for access decisions. Together, they help provide the backbone of authenticating that who you claim to be is actually who you say you are. Get it?
If not, think for a moment of the old Memorex tape commercial. The key line was, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” It questioned whether the audio was actually a live person or a recording. Using context to help verify access is the same thing. Was that a bot, malware, or a real person I trust from a trusted computer, and at a trusted time? Hopefully, that helps and I did not date myself too badly— which is actually an entirely different problem for identity and access management, stale accounts!
So, how do identity and access management translate for businesses today? I am glad you asked. It is the procedural and policy-driven implementation of technology and workflow to manage the “who” aspect of your identities and accounts. It allows you to automate the creation of an identity, the associated technology accounts (credentials), and to define all aspects of access policy to assets, applications, and other information technology resources.
At any given time, you can query an identity and access management solution who has access to what an identity actually have assigned as access. This is key for regulatory compliance auditing.
The problem with the “who,” in this context, is what the identity and accounts actually did with their access permissions.
This is again where privileged access management comes in. PAM provides the session recording, keystroke logging, application monitoring, and command line filtering to document what the identity and account actually did with a resource. Now you can assess whether or not the actions were appropriate.
…It also takes us back to our song. Identity and access management tells you who you are and what you can do. Privileged access management answers the deeper question of what you really did and whether or not your intentions where honest, truthful, and benign. No identity or account should ever be taken at face value without context and the ability to actually audit and monitor its behavior. So, the next time you hear The Who, or think about identity and access management, remember this relationship!
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored three books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, and Identity Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.