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What is IAM? Identity and Access Management Explained

Posted on in SafetyMarch 05, 2024

Cybersecurity is growing increasingly complex. It's challenging for business owners to account for the countless threats in circulation. The burden worsens when considering the rapid adoption of cloud-based infrastructures and a remote workforce.

While there isn't a cure-all solution for cyberterrorism, there are tools that defend against a vast portion of the field. Identity and Access Management (IAM) falls into that category. These protocols can be managed through various software options and protect against multiple threat types like social engineering scams and insider attacks.

What is Identity and Access Management?

IAM is a simple concept. It's a security framework that regulates an individual's resource permissions without impacting productivity. Basically, IAM ensures all employees have what they need to perform but prohibits access to anything more than that.

Some question the need for IAM protocols. They may believe it's an inefficient IT sink and opt for different security measures. However, the significance of IAM cannot be understated in modern cybersecurity.

In most cases, hackers work by attacking employee credentials. They sneak into an organization's network, steal customer data, destroy assets, and spread malware. If the victim's account has full access to the network, nothing is blocking that attacker from moving deeper.

IAM prevents this worst-case scenario and barricades intruders into a controlled segment of your network. This allows security professionals the time to react, protecting your online privacy and the organization’s interests.

Challenges in Managing User Identities and Access Rights

Balancing each position's responsibilities and access rights is a complex problem. Employees frequently get promoted or let go, or the responsibilities of a role can change at any time. Companies' constantly evolving nature forces continuous IAM management.

Additionally, the rapid integration of cloud-based SaaS and the move to decentralized workstations presents new challenges. These trends have substantially increased the number of accounts employees maintain for their work. Each must be configured individually because they aren't managed through a centralized hub.

Single sign-on services like Auth0 mitigate these issues, allowing IT to centralize accounts.

Key Components of IAM


IAM is comprised of four systems:

  • User Directories
  • Authentication Methods
  • Access Controls
  • Monitoring

User Directories

The user directory is where IT teams manage identities and assign roles. It creates a database that other IAM systems refer to. The user directory dictates who can access data resources and includes tools for addressing changes within the company, including:

  • Assigning roles for new employees
  • Removing employees when they leave
  • Altering permissions when an employee changes roles

Authentication Methods

Authentication permits employees access to their assigned profile after it's registered in the user directory. More specifically, authentication separates Employee A's access rights from Employee B's for IAM.

Traditionally, organizations authenticate with usernames and passwords, but that model contains many exploitable weaknesses. Supporting security methods like multi-factor authentication, single sign-on, biometrics, and tokenized logins are becoming the new norm.

Access Controls

Modern IAM systems utilize role-based access controls (RBAC). This protocol groups positions with similar responsibilities and needs into "roles." Each employee is assigned a role in the user directory and gains the associated access privileges.

For example, a marketing associate would have access to services regarding ad campaign analytics, customer acquisition, and marketing automation. These associates wouldn't have access to accounting services like Intuit QuickBooks or Xero.

Additionally, higher-level positions in the same department usually have greater permissions than their lower-level counterparts. They may be able to reconfigure specific tools better to fit the company's and employees' needs.

Monitoring Processes

No system is perfect from the start. IAM must be continuously reconfigured to meet the organization's unique operations. Monitoring tracks user activity and ensures that hackers aren't using resources outside the intended purpose.

Consistently checking how often users engage with resources allows IT teams to revoke or instate new permissions. A role may require resources that weren't considered in the creation process.

IAM Solutions and Their Role

Real-time authentication and monitoring must be automated. Modern identity and access management solutions are complete platforms where IT teams can create roles, authenticate users, enforce policies, and manage identity lifecycles.

Most IAM tools provide similar features, with their primary differences in user experience and security practices. Across industries, IAM solution shoppers should search for the following functions:

  • Least Privilege Access
  • Session Recording
  • Employee Provisioning and De-Provisioning
  • Single Sign On
  • Multi-Factor Authentication

Administrators should also choose the IAM solution that best fits their existing infrastructure. Some branded services like AWS and Google Cloud have accompanying IAM tools they work best with.

IAM in Different Industries

IAM practices aren't uniform across industries due to each sector's differing roles and security threats. The tools must be purposefully configured to meet the challenges of the field.

Healthcare requires immediate access to patient data to provide timely treatment. This emphasizes quick authentication methods, such as tokenized badges, rather than manually typing a username and password.

Other areas must accommodate users who fit into multiple roles, such as in higher education. Students often take staff or faculty roles, which creates numerous profiles in the user directory for one person. Applicable IAM solutions will detect these users and automatically merge the permissions into one place.

IAM Security and Cybersecurity

IAM is meant to defend digital assets, ensuring only authorized personnel can access specific resources. It integrates modern security measures like additional authentication mechanisms but is differentiated by its ability to mitigate damage in the event of a breach.

IAM creates a segmented infrastructure of access points that prevents a successful attack from damaging the entire network. It's a proactive approach that significantly contributes to any organization's cybersecurity.

Least Privilege

IAM adheres to the principle of least privilege (POLP), allowing users only the most basic levels of access required for their duties. POLP minimizes the attack surface, meaning there are fewer pathways into the network.

It also prevents malware propagation. Least privilege isn't restricted to what applications and resources a user may access. Robust IAM protocols will also block the user from installing third-party applications, reducing the chances of installing malicious programs.

Continuous Monitoring

IAM solutions include built-in monitoring features to track user activities. Monitoring helps organizations comply with data encryption and privacy laws like the UK's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

However, it also enormously aids cybersecurity by identifying potential security threats through changes in user behavior. With a consistent stream of user data, analysts can quickly flag when people act outside the norm and prevent a data breach.

IAM is not static; new ideas and technologies are rapidly introduced. Emerging trends like adaptive authentication, artificial intelligence, and zero-trust security models are becoming increasingly important to future protection.

Adaptive Authentication

Rather than relying on unchanging security credentials, adaptive authentication leverages contextual information to dynamically adjust the level of access required. It accounts for various factors, including location, device model, and user behavior, to measure the risk associated with a login attempt.

Zero Trust Protocols

Zero Trust security is a response to the limited abilities of perimeter-based security. Rather than trusting users implicitly after authentication, Zero Trust requires further authentication whenever the user moves across a network.

This usually means users are connecting directly to the services, bypassing the network completely. This also decreases the potential attack surface and prevents the spread of malware through connected devices.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

IAM is incorporating machine learning to enhance threat detection. It studies a pool of standard user behavior analytics and detects indicators of future attacks. By locating users' bad habits ahead of time, machine learning allows IAM to preempt security threats.


Identity and access management provides the protection needed to face modern cybersecurity threats. However, implementing it within an organization requires practical knowledge of each role's needs and responsibilities.

Graphic designers require separate permissions from accountants, and the same holds true for varying levels of seniority within a position. While setup can be complex, the result is a multi-layered cybersecurity suite of authentication models and segmented networks that minimizes damage even if an attack succeeds.

It's a fine line between restricting user access and hampering their productivity. It's best to involve people of various roles and gain their input on what they need to perform. Also, understand that IAM is an evolving and learning system. Studying user performance is necessary to ensure you're maintaining the right balance.

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