6 Best Practices for Identity and Access Management

6 Best Practices for Identity and Access Management


7 min read

If you’re hosting, you want your guests to feel at home but not quite comfortable enough to start rummaging through your bedroom drawers. Identity and Access Management (IAM) used to be this simple - giving employees and third parties access to only the resources they need but still keeping an eye on their activity and restricting permissions where possible.

The move to the cloud and subsequent identity silos, proliferation of remote working, and rising cyber threats made IAM a complex and multifaceted market facing explosive growth. And there’s no stopping it: the IAM market is projected to double over the next five years, hitting $32.6 billion by 2028.

If you don’t get a handle on the intricacies of IAM now, you risk your organizational infrastructure becoming too complicated to manage without significant overhauls. This article outlines six best practices for creating an ironclad IAM strategy that is efficient, compliant, and secure.

The Low Down on IAM

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a framework that controls who can access what within an organization. It's not just about identifying users and machines - it also involves defining their roles and establishing an Identity Governance, which details which permissions you should give and why you should give them in your policies.

These three elements work together to ensure that only authorized individuals have access to specific resources:

  • Policies – These rules govern user access and can be highly granular, detailing who can access what resources and when and how. Automation tools such as Slauth can assist in creating these policies based on your identities’ actual activity (API calls) to improve accuracy and security.

  • Roles – These are predefined permission sets that simplify access management. Roles like "HR Manager" or "Employee" outline what a user can do within the system. Automation can quickly assign or update functions, which is especially useful for onboarding new employees.

  • Identities - These are unique digital markers for users and machines linked to roles and policies. Automated systems can enforce these identity-based access controls in real-time. Features like multi-factor authentication (MFA) and time-based restrictions ensure that users access only the resources they are authorized to use.

Now, setting up IAM and integrating IAM tools into your DevOps toolchain has its challenges. You might run into issues like inconsistent policies, complex hybrid IT environments, resistance to new authentication methods, or even the risk of insider threats. But with the right strategy and tools, you can navigate these hurdles.

6 Best Practices for Identity and Access Management (IAM)

1. Define Action-Level Permissions Based on Real Activity

Traditional IAM solutions usually offer a set of predefined roles and permissions that are applied broadly across different users, departments, and machines. These generalized permissions can sometimes be too permissive or restrictive, leading to security risks or operational inefficiencies.

A different approach to this challenge is to create IAM policies based on actual activity. In this model, the system would monitor the actions that machines or users perform within the network and then automatically adjust their permissions accordingly. By tailoring IAM access permissions to actual usage patterns, you can ensure that users and machines have exactly the access they need—no more, no less.

Slauth’s IAM Policy Copilot tracks the activity of machine identities by monitoring real-time API calls from end-to-end tests to AWS before the software goes into production. Based on this data, Slauth automatically determines what access each machine identity needs to specific resources, codifying this into Least-Privilege IAM policies. Once you put the software into production, engineers automatically receive a pull request containing the suggested policies for review.

2. Certificate Management

Certificates authenticate the identity of users, devices, or services and establish secure communication channels. However, these certificates have a finite lifespan and must be renewed before they expire to maintain the system's integrity. A lapse in certificate validity could interrupt secure communications and increase the risk of a security breach.

  • Automate the renewal process to eliminate the risk of human error in forgetting to renew certificates, thereby maintaining continuous security.

  • Utilize robust cryptographic algorithms like RSA or ECC when generating certificate key pairs. These algorithms are popular among industries dealing with sensitive or classified information, such as government agencies or defense contractors.

  • Choose a well-known and trusted Certificate Authority (CA) for issuing your certificates.

3. Add Conditions and Context to Policies

Contextual policies are dynamic rules that adapt to real-time conditions or environmental factors. Unlike static policies, which are fixed and unchanging, contextual policies can adjust permissions based on various factors such as location, time, device type, and even user behavior.

For instance, you could set a policy that allows access to a particular service only when accessed from a specific IP address. Even if someone has the correct login credentials, they wouldn’t be able to access the service unless they are connecting from the approved location. This restriction helps secure sensitive services that should only be accessed from known locations.

4. Encrypt Identities In Transit and At Rest

To minimize the risk of unauthorized access and prevent data loss or security breaches – it's crucial to encrypt both machine and human identities, including API keys, certificates, and tokens for machines, as well as usernames, passwords, biometrics, and phone numbers for humans. You should encrypt these identities securely during network transmission and when stored at rest.

  • Identities in transit across the network should be encrypted using secure protocols like TLS (Transport Layer Security) to prevent eavesdropping or man-in-the-middle attacks.

  • When at rest, aka when stored, identities should be encrypted using robust encryption algorithms such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) to protect against unauthorized access to storage systems.

Many organizations depend on IAM policy simulators that overlook machine identities, resulting in a significant blind spot in their security strategy.

The encryption keys should be securely managed, preferably in a dedicated key management system separate from the data storage, so that even if the storage is compromised, the data remains inaccessible without the keys.

5. Logging and Auditing

The stakes for effective Identity and Access Management (IAM) are high in maximum-security environments. Logging and auditing are critical layers of defense against internal and external threats.

  • Event Correlation and Anomaly Detection – Go beyond simple logging to correlate events across multiple systems. Use machine learning algorithms to detect real-time anomalies, such as login attempts from new locations or after-hours access to sensitive data.

  • Immutable Audit Trails – Implement write-once-read-many (WORM) storage solutions to create firm audit trails. These solutions ensure that once an event is logged, it can't be altered or deleted, providing a reliable historical record for forensic analysis.

  • Context-Aware Logging – Capture not just the 'what' but also the 'why' and 'how.' Context-aware logs include metadata like IP addresses, device types, and even the specific commands executed, offering a fuller picture during audits.

Slauth elevates your IAM strategy by offering 24/7, 360-degree monitoring and analytics, capturing every singular event and behavior across various stages of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). This comprehensive visibility can help your organization swiftly detect and act on anomalies like unexpected IAM access changes, preventing them from escalating into security breaches. Slauth also captures granular logs, which are invaluable for compliance with stringent regulations like SOC, PCI, HIPAA, and GDPR.

6. Define the Entire Machine Identity Lifecycle

Managing machine identities is as mission-critical as overseeing human identities. The lifecycle of a machine identity, from its inception during provisioning to its sunset during de-provisioning, demands rigorous planning and governance.

  • Automated Provisioning – As soon as you add a new machine to the network, its identity should be automatically provisioned, ensuring immediate secure access to necessary resources.

  • Scheduled Identity Renewal and Cryptographic Rotation – Automation can renew machine identities before their certificates expire. Additionally, cryptographic keys should be rotated at regular, predefined intervals. This practice is particularly crucial in sectors like finance and healthcare, where stale or compromised identities can lead to significant security risks.

  • De-Provisioning – When a machine is retired or decommissioned, its identity should be automatically de-provisioned to prevent potential misuse. This step should include revoking all access permissions and deleting the identity from the system.

Elevate Your IAM Game

It’s easy to think of IAM as a quick add-on to your security strategy. But the truth is that IAM is a lot more intricate than that, and you can’t just implement a “trust all” policy in your organization, either. The good news is that most of the heavy work is done at the beginning - choosing which IAM tools to use and implementing your strategy.

Policies are the foundation of your IAM strategy. They help you achieve zero-trust security and streamline operations by enabling employees to access what they need to perform their tasks and close existing access gaps. If you want to make IAM policy creation more straightforward and secure, Slauth can automate the entire policy development and management process based on the least privilege principle and your specific needs. Explore more here.