Identity Access Management (IAM)

Narendran Vaideeswaran - November 17, 2023

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Identity and access management (IAM) is a cybersecurity framework in which the IT team controls access to computer systems, cloud applications, networks, and assets based on each user or device’s digital identity.

An IAM tool’s core functions are to:

  • Assign a single digital identity to each user
  • Authenticate the user
  • Authorize appropriate access to relevant resources
  • Monitor and manage identities to align with changes within the organization

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IAM consists of two main components that work together to keep your data safe:

  1. Identity management: Establishes a user’s identity and collects every unique user’s information, including names, titles, and employee numbers. Identity management verifies the identity of the user based on existing information in an identity management database.
  2. Access management: Uses the requester’s identity to confirm their access rights to different systems, applications, data, devices, and other resources.

Why is IAM important?

In the digital landscape, organizations are under significant pressure to ensure their corporate infrastructure and assets — including data — are secure. At the same time, they must also provide a frictionless user experience to authorized users who need access to a wide variety of digital resources — including those in the cloud and on-premises — to perform their jobs.

As the IT environment becomes more complex due to a proliferation of connected devices and the acceleration of the “work from anywhere” trend, organizations must ensure they provide the right level of access to all users in a seamless and efficient way.

IAM tools help organizations streamline and automate identity and access management tasks and enable more granular access controls and privileges. With an IAM solution, IT teams no longer need to manually assign access controls, monitor and update privileges, or deprovision accounts. Organizations can also enable a single sign-on (SSO) to authenticate a user’s identity and allow access to multiple applications and websites with just one set of credentials.

IAM and compliance

Organizations have to abide by industry, local, and international standards and regulations meant to protect sensitive data from being exposed. Because staying compliant is a fundamental part of operations, many choose to incorporate solutions that automatically integrate compliance into their processes, such as identity and access management solutions.

Otherwise, regular processes required by these regulations (like audits) would have to be done manually for each individual entity accessing data, which can be time-consuming. IAM solutions grant limited but sufficient access to each entity based on the resources or data they need to operate. These solutions help organizations adhere to the most common compliance frameworks, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

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CrowdStrike recognizes that compliance and certification frameworks are critical to your organization and can help you meet these requirements, enabling the smooth operation of your business.  Stay Compliant With CrowdStrike

How is IAM different from identity security?

Technically speaking, IAM tools are management solutions, not security solutions. Though IAM can help restrict access to resources by managing digital identities, IAM policies, programs, and technologies typically are not designed primarily for security.

For example, IAM technologies that store and manage identities to provide SSO or multi-factor authentication (MFA) capabilities cannot detect and prevent identity-driven attacks in real time. Likewise, IAM solutions are an important part of the overall identity strategy, but they typically lack deep visibility into endpoints, devices, and workloads in addition to identities and user behavior.

At the same time, identity protection does not replace IAM policies, programs, and technologies. Rather, identity protection serves to complement and enhance IAM with advanced threat detection and prevention capabilities. It adds much-needed security for every user — be it a human, service account, or privileged account — to help negate security risks within Active Directory, which is widely considered to be the weakest link in an organization’s cyber defense.

Finally, though identity security and IAM are critical capabilities within the security architecture, it is important to remember these are just two components within a broader security platform. To ensure the strongest protection, organizations must develop a comprehensive cyber defense strategy that includes endpoint security, IT security, cloud workload protection, and container security. The identity security solution and IAM tool should also integrate with the organization’s Zero Trust architecture.

Expert Tip

Read this blog to learn five reasons why you should NOT get identity and access management solutions and identity security solutions from the same vendor. 3 Reasons Not To Get IAM and Identity Security from the Same Vendor

IAM benefits

When organizations implement an identity and access management solution, they get to enjoy the following benefits:

  • Optimal access and authentication customized for individual entities
  • Improved productivity by providing users with SSO solutions that prevent them from having to memorize multiple passwords
  • Reduced risk of data breaches thanks to the right users having the right amount of access to the right assets
  • Increased collaboration among different teams and vendors because security is implemented throughout all processes
  • Compliance regulations and standards baked into the tool

IAM methods and technologies

IAM systems leverage a variety of methods and technologies to authenticate a user’s identity.

Single sign-on (SSO)The SSO authentication method establishes a single digital identity for every user. Credentials for this account can be used to access any approved system, software, device, or asset within Active Directory without reentering a username and password specific to that asset. Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) is the most well-known SSO feature. Developed by Microsoft, AD FS provides safe, authenticated, and secure access to any domain, device, web application, or system within the organization’s Active Directory or approved third-party systems.

Though many organizations develop an SSO capability internally, others have turned to identity as a service (IDaaS), which is a cloud-based subscription model for IAM offered by a vendor. As with any as-a-service model, IDaaS is often a viable option because outsourcing IAM services can be more cost-effective, easier to implement, and more efficient to operate than implementing these services in-house.
Multi-factor authenticationMulti-factor authentication is a security feature that grants access to the user only after confirming their identity with one or more credentials in addition to their username and password. This may include a security code delivered via text or email, a security token from an authenticator app, or even a biometric identifier.
Risk-based authentication (Adaptive authentication)Sometimes referred to as adaptive authentication, risk-based authentication (RBA) is a security protocol that only asks a user to confirm their identity via MFA in high-risk or unusual circumstances, such as when logging in from a new device or from a different location.
Zero trustZero Trust is a security framework requiring all users — whether they are inside or outside the organization’s network — to be authenticated, authorized, and continuously validated for security configuration and posture before being granted or keeping access to applications and data.

Execution of this framework combines advanced technologies such as risk-based multi-factor authentication, identity protection, next-generation endpoint security, and robust cloud workload technology to verify a user’s or system’s identity, consider access at that moment in time, and maintain system security. Zero Trust also requires data encryption, securing email, and verifying the hygiene of assets and endpoints before they connect to applications.
The principle of least privilege (POLP)The principle of least privilege (POLP) is a computer security concept and practice that gives users limited access rights based on the tasks necessary to their job. The POLP ensures only authorized users whose identities have been verified have the necessary permissions to execute jobs within certain systems, applications, data, and other assets.

The POLP is widely considered to be one of the most effective practices for strengthening an organization’s cybersecurity posture because it allows organizations to control and monitor network and data access.
Privileged access management (PAM)Privileged access management (PAM) is a cybersecurity strategy that focuses on maintaining the security of administrative accounts.
Identity segmentationIdentity segmentation is a method to restrict user access to applications or resources based on identities.
Role-based access control (RBAC)Role-based access control (RBAC) entails assigning access privileges automatically based on a user’s role within the organization, their level, or their alignment to a certain team or function.

Protect your IAM implementation

IAM is part of the organization’s broader IT environment and cybersecurity architecture. For that reason, implementation must be integrated with other systems and solutions, including an identity security solution and Zero Trust architecture.

Active Directory security

One of the most critical aspects of IAM implementation is Active Directory security. Active Directory security is uniquely important in a business’s overall security posture because the organization’s Active Directory controls all system access. Effective Active Directory management helps protect your business’s credentials, applications, and confidential data from unauthorized access. It’s important to have strong security to prevent malicious users from breaching your network and causing damage.

The best way to monitor for compromises in your Active Directory is to use an event log monitoring system. By monitoring the activity in these logs, organizations can catch any compromises before more damage occurs.

When monitoring your event logs, look for signs of suspicious activity, including the following events:

  • Privileged account activity: Attackers commonly exploit a privilege vulnerability and attempt privilege escalation, increasing the privileges of a compromised user account. Alternatively, you might notice after-hours activity on a privileged user account or a sudden increase in the amount of data accessed by the user account.
  • Login failures: Repeated failures to log in to an account can be a sign that a threat actor is trying to gain access.
  • Remote logins: Malicious users often attempt to access your system remotely. If you notice a login from an IP address in a different country or locale, it could be a sign that your Active Directory is compromised.

IAM implementation

Basic IAM implementation steps include the following:

  • Establish the core set of objectives for the IAM solution
  • Audit existing and legacy systems to identify gaps within the existing architecture
  • Identify core stakeholders to help with identity mapping and defining user access rules
  • Capture all user groups; include as much granularity as necessary
  • Identify all user access scenarios and define corresponding rules; take into account cloud assets and how access within the cloud environment differs from on-premises access
  • Consider any integration points with other security systems or protocols, including the Zero Trust solution or identity security system

2023 Threat Hunting Report

In the 2023 Threat Hunting Report, CrowdStrike’s Counter Adversary Operations team exposes the latest adversary tradecraft and provides knowledge and insights to help stop breaches. 

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The future of IAM

Analysis from the CrowdStrike® Falcon OverWatch™ threat hunting team indicates that 80% of breaches are identity-driven. These modern attacks often bypass the traditional cyber kill chain by directly leveraging compromised credentials to accomplish lateral movements and launch bigger, more catastrophic attacks.

This weakness, coupled with the rapid expansion of a digital workforce, puts organizations at heightened risk for identity-driven attacks, amplifying the need for organizations to activate a strong, flexible identity security solution that includes IAM. Taken together, these solutions are intended to stop adversaries that have managed to circumvent other security measures, such as endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools.

Shrink the identity attack surface with CrowdStrike Falcon® Identity Protection

A security compromise of Active Directory exposes the identity infrastructure and creates a large attack surface that may lead to ransomware, data breaches, and damage to the business and its reputation. The security team and the IAM team should try to secure the Active Directory identity store, but they need to be sure that legacy and deprecated protocols (e.g., versions like NTLMv1) are not being used. They also need to know in real time if a specific service account or a stale account is executing a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to the domain controller or trying to move laterally to critical servers by escalating privileges or using stolen credentials.

The limitations of traditional and siloed Active Directory security tools increase the overall attack surface for identity-based attacks. These challenges are some of the reasons why 80% of attacks are credential-based. Though Active Directory and IAM teams may use several tools to secure Active Directory, organizations must be able to secure both Active Directory and Azure Active Directory from a unified console so they can holistically understand the who, where, when, and why for every authentication and authorization request and risk facing the organization. This capability also enables them to extend risk-based MFA/conditional access to legacy applications to significantly reduce their attack surface.

Since most modern attacks are based on credentials, identity is not only the most important element in Zero Trust — identity is the new perimeter. CrowdStrike Falcon® Identity Protection wraps security around every identity, whether it’s on on-premises Active Directory, cloud Active Directory, or Azure Active Directory.

Falcon Identity Protection, part of the CrowdStrike Falcon® platform, is built around a continuous risk scoring engine that analyzes security indicators present in authentication traffic in real time. Adhering to Zero Trust principles, the risk scores are developed inside-out — around user roles, user-defined authentication policies, and identity stores — instead of being developed from the traditional outside-in sources. Falcon Identity Protection is the only cloud-native Zero Trust solution to protect Active Directory — the weakest link in your cyber defense.

Falcon Identity Protection consists of two main components:

CrowdStrike Falcon Identity Threat Detection

CrowdStrike Falcon® Identity Threat Detection helps organizations achieve deeper visibility for identity-based attacks and anomalies in real time without requiring ingestion of log files. Falcon Identity Threat Detection is ideal for organizations that want identity-based threat incident alerts and threat hunting but not automated prevention of threats.

Falcon Identity Threat Protection

CrowdStrike Falcon® Identity Threat Protection enables hyper-accurate threat detection and real-time prevention of identity-based attacks by combining the power of advanced AI, behavioral analytics, and a flexible policy engine to enforce risk-based conditional access.

To learn more about the Falcon Identity Protection modules, try our free trial or contact us.

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Narendran is a Director of Product Marketing for Identity Protection and Zero Trust at CrowdStrike. He has over 17 years of experience in driving product marketing and GTM strategies at cybersecurity startups and large enterprises such as HP and SolarWinds. He was previously Director of Product Marketing at Preempt Security, which was acquired by CrowdStrike. Narendran holds a M.S. in Computer Science from University of Kiel, Germany.