Since the dawn of the internet era, username and password combinations have remained the primary means of access control for digital systems of all kinds. That means they’re the biggest target for hackers to exploit, as well. And all that’s standing in their way is the identity and access management (IAM) technology businesses rely on to defend their systems and data.

But the fight’s been one-sided so far. That’s because there are countless ways for organizations to leave inadvertent gaps in their credential management policies. And even well-run organizations can fall victim to credential theft. The result is that almost 90% of data breaches now stem from stolen credentials – making unassailable identity and access management a mission-critical task for every business.

To help them in that task, here is an overview of modern identity and access management. We’ll cover what it is, the technologies involved in it, and why it’s so challenging. Then, we’ll discuss eight identity and access management best practices every business should follow to stay safe. Let’s dive in.

What is Identity and Access Management?

Identity and access management (IAM) refers to a combination of technologies, processes, and business policies designed to control access to digital systems and data. It seeks to identify users to grant or deny access to such systems and control what they can do once inside.

On the technology front, IAM typically includes the use of:

  • Single Sign-On (SSO) Systems – centralized authentication to multiple secured systems via a single login credential
  • Two-Factor and Multifactor Authentication – the use of a multi-level login process that includes two or more distinct credential types, like SMS code verification or biometric markers
  • Privileged Access Management (PAM) – control of accounts with elevated access to critical systems, such as administrative accounts and machine accounts

IAM also includes the ways that organizations deploy the above technologies and design processes to support them. These may include things like employee onboarding and deboarding and policies surrounding access rights for staff.

And the number of factors involved in IAM is what makes it challenging. Businesses have to maintain control over several moving parts, and work hard to avoid mistakes. And there’s endless potential for those mistakes. A single failure to remove an unused credential or an accidental granting of inappropriate privilege could lead to a data breach.

IAM Best Practices that Every Business Should Follow

With the cost of errors being so high, no business can afford to have a misstep with its IAM policies and procedures. And getting things right means creating an IAM strategy from the ground up that leaves nothing to chance. Here are eight IAM best practices that go a long way toward achieving that.

1. Define Your Workforce

Any identity and access management effort must first begin with a complete picture of who will need access to company systems and data. And the best place to get that information is from the business’s human resources department. They should have a complete employee roster and detailed information on any third parties the company does business with who require access to company systems.

In an ideal situation, all of that data should be within whatever digital system the HR department uses to do their work. That should make exporting, manipulating, and validating that data a trivial exercise and allow for the creation of individual user accounts for each worker. The process should also form the basis for ongoing data sharing between the business’s HR staff and its IT staff to track changes to the workforce.

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2. Define Identities

The next thing to do is choose an identity and access management platform to serve as the central point of user management. This critical step reduces the complexity of ongoing user management. With the right system in place, user access and provisioning happen through a single interface. This eliminates duplicative work and increases efficiency.

It also makes user automation possible. Most IAM platforms can automate user creation with pre-defined rights sets. That helps maintain proper access controls and reduces the chance of overprovisioning. It also makes removing users easier when necessary. That means less chance of unused credentials lingering to create trouble.

3. Manage Roles

With users defined and managed, the next step is to assign rights to users. This may be done on an individual basis or at the group level. By defining user roles, business data owners gain visibility into users’ access rights to that data. That serves as a second check against overprovisioning. When stakeholders see and can control access to the data they’re responsible for, there’s less chance of errors.

Defined user roles also make ongoing management easier. Managers can assign new rights by adding users to a role and remove those rights by taking that role away. Otherwise, they’d have to manage rights sets on a per-user basis. And in an environment that includes multiple business systems with separate management interfaces, that’s never an easy task.

4. Implement a Workflow

Because business needs change, user access rights do too. And managing that change is a key to maintaining data security. It means granting new access where needed and removing it when necessary. And the only way to do it well is to create a workflow to manage it.

The best way to do this is via a self-service model through a single interface. That way, users have one place to request access, and data owners respond there as well. It also removes the business’s IT staff from the process. Their only role is to maintain the interface itself rather than playing middleman between users and data owners.

5. Automate Provisioning

One of the most time-consuming parts of the IAM workflow is the provisioning of users. In a manual process, creating a new user may involve setting up multiple accounts on separate services and platforms. And each manual account creation carries the risk of a costly mistake. That should make automation a high priority.

With the right identity and access management system in place, it’s possible to automate the whole user provisioning process. With a single click, managers can create users with all the right access rights. And they can alter or remove them just as easily. This removes the element of chance from the process and makes it more efficient, too.

6. Ensure Compliance

These days, businesses often have legal or regulatory requirements connected to the data they control. And that means they have to report on their data access and use processes and remain in compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Failure to do so may be costly.

But the IAM process is the perfect place to deploy compliance measures. The best way is to define audit responsibilities for each user role and assign them to the appropriate data owner. Then, create a schedule for them to review each role periodically. The idea is to make sure there’s no inappropriate access allowed. That works to ensure compliance as well as oversight into data access.

7. Create Checks and Balances

Even a permission system based on user roles leaves open the possibility of inappropriate access rights. This can happen if the needs of a given role change but the role definition does not. Or, it can result from data owners assigning individual permissions rather than following proper procedures. That’s an all-too-common occurrence that can undermine even the best IAM practices.

The solution is to implement a system of periodic top-to-bottom permission reviews. This means having data owners review the roles that grant access to their data. If the roles have changed, the definition must change too. And, it means creating a process to identify and remedy inappropriately assigned permissions. The idea is to identify data owners who aren’t following proper procedures and take steps to see that they don’t continue to skirt them.

8. Create an Ongoing Role-Definition Process

Maintaining existing role definitions is important. But as needs change, new roles may be necessary. And old roles may need retiring. That’s why it’s critical to set up an ongoing role-definition process. A collaborative process between data owners, IT staff, and HR is the best way to handle this.

Data owners should provide insight into the work each role handles and what access it needs. HR can determine which (and how many) employees fall into each role. And IT staff can handle the definitions, including role creation and role removal, as necessary. And as long as that process repeats at regular intervals, all of the business’s user roles should remain up-to-date.

The Bottom Line

As the preceding IAM best practices should make clear, there’s quite a bit for businesses to manage. And it should also be clear that they should seek any advantage they can find. We here at Teamstack kept that in mind when we built our identity and access management solution.

It integrates with over 1000 of today’s most popular business platforms and services. And it’s built to enable businesses to create a process in keeping with every one of the IAM best practices discussed here. It takes a difficult mission-critical need and makes it manageable.

And it’s a need that businesses shouldn’t ignore. Not while the incidents of data breaches and theft continue to multiply. And certainly not while the consequences of those incidents are so extreme. But with the right approach and the technology to back it up, no business has to take that chance ever again.