Access Management

What Is Access Management? Risks, Technology, and Best Practices

Access management is a security practice that focuses on controlling and monitoring access to data, resources, and systems within an organization. It helps make sure that only explicitly authorized individuals have appropriate permissions to access specific information or perform certain tasks. 

Access management typically involves user authentication, role-based access control, and the enforcement of access policies. By implementing an effective access management system, organizations can reduce unauthorized access risks, data breaches.

In this article:

Why Is Access Management Important? 

Access management is important for several reasons. Here are a few:

  • Security: Access management is critical for maintaining the security and integrity of an organization’s resources and information. By controlling access to resources and information, organizations can minimize data breach risks, protect confidential and sensitive information, and ensure that resources are being used appropriately.
  • Operational efficiency: Access management helps organizations manage user accounts and permissions more efficiently, while also reducing the risk of errors or inconsistencies that can arise from manual processes. This can help organizations save time and resources, and minimize the risk of data breaches caused by human error.
  • Collaboration: Access management can help organizations facilitate collaboration and information sharing between users, while still maintaining appropriate access controls. By managing user accounts and permissions, organizations can ensure that users have access to the resources they need to perform their jobs, without compromising security or data privacy.
  • Compliance: Many industries and organizations are subject to regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA or GDPR, that mandate strict access controls and data protection. Access management helps organizations comply with these regulations and avoid potential legal or financial penalties.

Access Management Security Risks 

Here are the main risks associated with improper access management.

Misconfiguration Issues

Misconfigurations are improper settings or incorrect configurations within systems, applications, or network devices, often resulting from human error or a lack of understanding of best practices. They pose a significant problem for security controls because they can create vulnerabilities, allowing attackers to bypass security measures, gain unauthorized access, and compromise sensitive data. 

Misconfigurations can lead to data breaches, system downtime, and reputational damage. Regular security audits, automated configuration management, and employee training help mitigate the risks associated with misconfigurations.

Learn more in our detailed guide to security misconfiguration

External Data Sharing 

Sharing data externally through the cloud presents a security risk because it increases potential exposure to cyber threats. Storing data on remote servers operated by third-party providers can make it more susceptible to unauthorized access, data breaches, and cyberattacks. 

Additionally, data transmitted between users and cloud services might be intercepted or tampered with during transit. To mitigate these risks, organizations must implement robust security measures like encryption, access control, and continuous monitoring of cloud-based resources.

Excessive Access Permissions

Excessive access permissions refer to granting users more access rights to systems, resources, or data than they actually need to perform their job duties. These overly permissive access rights can increase security risks and insider threats. To minimize risks, organizations should follow the principle of least privilege, which limits user permissions to the minimum necessary for their specific roles and responsibilities.

Inadequate Visibility

Insufficient visibility over access is a problem because it makes it difficult for organizations to effectively monitor and control user access to resources, systems, and data. Without proper visibility, detecting unauthorized access, policy violations, and potential security threats becomes challenging. 

This can lead to increased risks of data breaches, insider threats, and compliance issues. Adequate visibility in access management is crucial for implementing proactive security measures, ensuring policy adherence, and maintaining a strong security posture.

Employee Offboarding 

Offboarding employees can present a security threat if their access to systems, resources, and data is not properly revoked or managed. Inadequate offboarding processes may leave dormant accounts and access privileges, which can be exploited by malicious actors or former employees with malicious intent. 

These security risks can lead to data breaches, unauthorized access, or intellectual property theft. Proper offboarding procedures, including timely deactivation of accounts and access removal, are essential for maintaining a secure environment.

Privileged Access 

Privileged access can pose significant risks for access management in an organization:

  • Increased risk of data breaches: Privileged users often have access to sensitive information, systems, and applications, and therefore pose a greater risk of data breaches if their access is not properly managed. If a privileged user’s account is compromised, the attacker can gain access to sensitive information and systems, potentially leading to data loss, financial loss, and reputational damage.
  • Insider threats: Privileged users may be more likely to engage in malicious activity because of their access to sensitive resources. This could include stealing confidential information, altering data, or causing damage to systems. Proper access management is necessary to prevent such insider threats.
  • Difficulty in managing access: Managing privileged access can be challenging, as there are often multiple users with varying levels of access, and access controls may need to be frequently updated. It can be difficult to track who has access to what resources and to manage access changes effectively.

Improper Role Design 

Improper role design can create significant risks for access management in an organization. Here are a few examples:

  • Over-privileged access: Improper role design can lead to over-privileged access, where users have more access than they need to perform their job duties. This can create a significant risk of data breaches, as users with excessive access may be able to access sensitive information or systems that they should not have access to.
  • Under-privileged access: On the other hand, improper provisioning can lead to under-privileged access, where users do not have the access they need to perform their job duties. This can lead to a lack of productivity, frustration among employees, and delays in critical business processes.
  • Compliance violations: Improper role design or provisioning can lead to compliance violations, where access controls don’t meet regulatory requirements, such as GDPR, CCPA, and HIPAA. Compliance violations can lead to legal and financial consequences for the organization.

How an Access Management System Works 

Access management is a process that involves several key steps:

Authentication

Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user, typically through a username and password, or through more advanced methods such as biometrics or multi-factor authentication. The goal of authentication is to ensure that the users are who they claim to be, and to prevent unauthorized access.

Authorization

Authorization is the process of determining what resources and information a user is authorized to access, based on their role, permissions, and access levels. This involves checking the user’s credentials against a database of authorized users, and verifying that the user has the necessary permissions to access the requested resources.

Access Control

Access control is the process of granting or denying access to resources and information based on the user’s authorization. Access control mechanisms may include access control lists (ACLs), role-based access control (RBAC), or attribute-based access control (ABAC). Access control ensures that users are only granted access to resources that they are authorized to access.

User Management

User management involves creating, modifying, and deleting user accounts, and managing user attributes such as roles, permissions, and access levels. User management also involves enforcing policies for password management, account lockout, and user account maintenance.

Preventing Unauthorized Access 

There are several ways to prevent unwanted access to valuable resources and information, such as implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA), maintaining physical security measures, monitoring user access, and conducting periodic behavioral analysis. Monitoring user access and conducting behavioral analysis can also help detect and prevent unauthorized access, as suspicious behavior can be flagged and investigated.

Access Management Methods and Protocols 

Here’s a breakdown of the main methods used in access management, followed by popular authentication protocols.

RBAC

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a method of restricting access within the network, based on the roles of each user within an enterprise.

RBAC ensures employees access only information they need to do their jobs and prevents them from accessing information that doesn’t pertain to them.

In the role-based access control data model, roles are based on several factors, including authorization, responsibility and job competency. As such, companies can designate whether a user is an end user, an administrator or a specialist user. In addition, access to computer resources can be limited to specific tasks, such as the ability to view, create or modify files.

ABAC

Attribute-based access control (ABAC) is a more flexible and dynamic access control model that grants access rights based on user attributes, resource attributes, environmental factors, and access policies. Attributes can include user characteristics (e.g., department, job title), resource properties (e.g., data classification), and contextual information (e.g., time, location). In ABAC, access decisions are determined by evaluating policies that define the relationships between attributes, often using Boolean logic and other operators.

While RBAC relies on static, predefined roles, ABAC provides more fine-grained control, allowing for complex access scenarios and dynamic permission changes. ABAC can accommodate a wide range of use cases and adapt to changing business requirements, making it suitable for organizations with diverse and evolving access needs. However, ABAC can be more complex to implement and manage due to the need for comprehensive attribute and policy management.

PBAC

Policy-based access control determines access rights by evaluating policies governing user actions on resources. PBAC provides a more flexible and dynamic approach to access management by allowing administrators to define access rules based on a variety of factors, including user attributes, resource properties, and contextual information.

Mandatory access control (MAC) is an access control model where access decisions are enforced by a central authority, based on predefined security policies. Discretionary access control (DAC) is a more flexible access control model where resource owners have discretion to grant or deny access permissions to other users.

PBAC can encompass elements of both MAC and DAC, enabling organizations to define access policies that strike a balance between the rigidity of mandatory access control and the flexibility of discretionary access control.

Single Sign-On (SSO)

Single sign-on (SSO) is a user authentication method that allows users to access multiple applications or systems with a single set of login credentials. SSO simplifies the user experience by eliminating the need for multiple passwords, reducing the risk of password fatigue and forgotten credentials. It also streamlines access management and enhances security by centralizing authentication and providing better control over user access.

Open Authorization (OAuth)

OAuth is an open standard for access delegation, allowing users to grant third-party applications limited access to their resources without sharing their credentials. OAuth 2.0, the most widely used version, is a framework that specifies a process for resource owners (e.g., end-users) to authorize third-party applications by providing them with access tokens. 

These tokens, typically short-lived, are used by applications to access resources on behalf of the user from a resource server, with the authorization being granted by an authorization server. OAuth is commonly used for API access control and social media login integrations, enabling seamless user experiences and reducing the need for additional authentication steps.

OpenID Connect (OIDC)

OIDC is an identity layer built on top of the OAuth 2.0 protocol. It enables clients to verify users’ identities based on the authentication performed by an authorization server. OIDC uses JSON Web Tokens (JWT) to encode user information (called claims) and provide an ID token to the client application upon successful authentication. 

This ID token allows the client to obtain basic user profile information in a standardized and secure manner. OIDC is widely used for single sign-on (SSO) solutions and modern web applications, simplifying authentication and reducing the need for multiple account registrations.

Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)

LDAP is a client-server protocol for accessing and managing directory information services over an IP network. It is primarily used for organizing and querying user, group, and device information within an organization’s directory service, such as Microsoft Active Directory (learn more about Microsoft security solutions) or Novell eDirectory. 

LDAP allows applications to authenticate and authorize users by checking their credentials against the directory and retrieving their associated attributes, roles, or group memberships. LDAP is known for its speed, flexibility, and scalability, making it a popular choice for managing large directories and integrating with various SaaS applications and services.

Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML)

SAML is an XML-based standard for exchanging data about authentication and authorization between parties, specifically between an identity provider (IdP) and a service provider (SP). SAML enables single sign-on (SSO) by allowing users to authenticate with an IdP and subsequently access multiple service providers without re-authenticating. 

In a SAML process, the identity provider generates a SAML assertion containing the user’s identity and authorization information, which is then passed to the service provider. The service provider validates the assertion and grants the user access to its resources based on the provided information. SAML is widely used in enterprise settings, enabling seamless access to web applications and services across organizational boundaries.

Web Authentication API (WebAuthn)

WebAuthn is a web standard for passwordless and multi-factor authentication, aiming to make authentication more secure and user-friendly. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the FIDO (Fast Identity Online) Alliance, WebAuthn enables users to authenticate to web applications using public-key cryptography and external authenticators, such as biometrics, security keys, or mobile devices. 

In WebAuthn, the user’s private key is securely stored on the authenticator, while the public key is registered with the web application. During authentication, the authenticator signs a challenge from the web application, proving possession of the private key without revealing it. WebAuthn provides strong resistance to phishing, credential theft, and other common attacks, enhancing the security of user authentication on the web.

Types of Access Management Solutions 

Identity and Access Management (IAM)

IAM is a comprehensive approach to managing and securing user identities, access rights, and authentication within an organization. It encompasses a wide range of processes and technologies that ensure only authorized users have access to systems, applications, and data. IAM solutions typically include:

  • User provisioning and deprovisioning: Creating, updating, and deleting user accounts and access permissions based on job roles and responsibilities.
  • Single sign-on (SSO): Allowing users to access multiple systems or applications with a single set of credentials.
  • Audit and reporting: Monitoring, logging, and reporting on user access and activities to ensure compliance with internal policies and external regulations.

Privileged Access Management (PAM)

PAM focuses specifically on securing and controlling access to highly sensitive systems, resources, and data that require elevated permissions, often referred to as “privileged” access. Privileged users, such as system administrators, IT staff, and other high-level personnel, have the potential to cause significant harm if their accounts are compromised or misused. PAM solutions typically provide:

  • Privileged account discovery: Identifying and inventorying privileged accounts across an organization’s eco-system.
  • Session management: Granting, revoking, and monitoring privileged access, often including real-time session monitoring and recording for auditing purposes.
  • Credential management: Securely storing, rotating, and managing privileged account passwords and access keys to reduce the risk of credential theft or misuse.
  • Activity monitoring and auditing: Tracking and analyzing privileged user activities to detect potential security threats and policy violations.

Customer Identity and Access Management (CIAM)

CIAM is a specialized IAM solution designed to manage and secure the digital identities, access rights, and customer data of external users, such as customers, partners, or clients. CIAM solutions are tailored to address the unique challenges of customer-facing applications, including scalability, user experience, and data privacy. Key features of CIAM solutions include:

  • Registration and authentication: Simplifying and securing customer account creation and login processes, often with support for social media logins or SSO.
  • Self-service account management: Enabling customers to manage their own account information, preferences, and consent settings.
  • Consent and privacy management: Ensuring compliance with data protection regulations and managing customer consent for data processing and sharing.
  • Customer profiling and analytics: Collecting and analyzing customer data to enable personalized experiences and targeted marketing efforts.

Identity Governance and Administration (IGA)

IGA solutions focus on the management, governance, and compliance aspects of access management. They provide a centralized framework for defining, implementing, and enforcing access policies and processes across an organization’s systems and applications. Key components of IGA solutions include:

  • Role management: Defining and managing roles, permissions, and access policies to ensure a consistent and compliant approach to access control.
  • Access request and approval workflows: Streamlining the process for users to request, approve, or deny access to resources based on established policies and procedures.
  • Access certification and attestation: Periodically reviewing and confirming user access rights to ensure adherence to the principle of least privilege and compliance with regulations.
  • Compliance and risk management: Identifying and mitigating access-related risks and ensuring compliance with internal policies and external regulations through monitoring, reporting, and auditing capabilities.

Examples of Access Management Solutions 

Frontegg

Frontegg is a user management platform tailored for SaaS application developers pursuing product-led growth (PLG) strategies across various languages and frameworks through SDKs. It assists developers in establishing authentication processes, intricate organizational structures via multi-tenancy frameworks, granular authorization, API token management, and seamless integration for user infrastructure to accommodate contemporary use cases.

Upon activation as a UI layer within the user’s app, Frontegg transforms into a customer-oriented console and management interface. It offers end-users a personalized self-service administrative portal, enabling them to implement access limitations, configure user permissions, manage subscription plans and payment methods, and streamline team-wide access utilizing single sign-on (SSO) flows.

Learn more about Frontegg’s all-in-one user management platform

Microsoft Azure Active Directory

Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) is Microsoft’s cloud-based identity and access management (IAM) service, providing a comprehensive solution for managing and securing user identities, access rights, and authentication in the Azure ecosystem and other connected applications. Azure AD supports a wide range of applications, including both on-premises and cloud-based applications. 

Key features of Azure AD include single sign-on (SSO), multi-factor authentication (MFA), conditional access, allowing administrators to define and enforce granular access policies, and identity protection, using machine learning algorithms to detect and block suspicious activities.

AWS IAM

AWS IAM is Amazon Web Services’ access management solution, designed to control and secure access to AWS resources and services. AWS IAM allows administrators to create and manage users, groups, and permissions, ensuring that only authorized users have access to the necessary AWS resources. Key features of AWS IAM include fine-grained access control, policy-based permissions, temporary security credentials, and integration with AWS services.

Key features of AWS IAM include multi-factor authentication (MFA), the ability to create and apply permissions to users, groups, or roles at a granular level, controlling access to specific resources and actions within AWS services, and the ability to define policies that define permissions for users, groups, and roles.

Technologies and Tools to Support Access Management

In a modern IT environment, there is a need for several different technologies to support access management. This includes solutions for segmenting the network to improve security and performance, remote access management, and security solutions that can help mitigate unauthorized access attempts.

Microsegmentation

Microsegmentation is a network security technique that divides a network into smaller, isolated segments (also called microsegments) to improve security and reduce the attack surface. By applying granular access controls and security policies to each microsegment, microsegmentation restricts communication between different parts of the network, limiting unauthorized access and lateral movement of potential attackers within the network.

Microsegmentation is particularly useful in modern, dynamic environments, such as cloud and virtualized infrastructures, where traditional perimeter-based security measures may be less effective. Implementing microsegmentation allows organizations to achieve better visibility and control over their network traffic, enabling them to detect and respond to threats more quickly.

Learn more in the detailed guide to network topology mapping.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN is a technology that creates a secure, encrypted connection between a user’s device and a remote server over the public internet. VPNs are commonly used to protect user privacy, secure sensitive data transmissions, and bypass internet censorship or geographic restrictions.

When a user connects to a VPN, their internet traffic is routed through the VPN server, effectively masking their IP address and making it appear as if the traffic is originating from the server’s location. The encrypted tunnel established between the user’s device and the VPN server ensures that the data remains secure from eavesdropping, hacking, or interception.

VPNs are widely used by businesses to enable secure remote access to corporate networks, as well as by individuals seeking to maintain online privacy and security.

Learn more in our detailed guide to VPN remote access 

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

Zero trust is a security model that requires strict verification of user identities, devices, and contextual information before granting access to network resources, regardless of whether users are within or outside the organization’s perimeter. ZTNA operates under the principle of “never trust, always verify,” which assumes that potential threats exist both inside and outside the network.

ZTNA solutions typically employ technologies such as microsegmentation, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and least-privilege access to enforce granular access controls. This approach helps organizations minimize the attack surface, prevent unauthorized access, and mitigate the risk of lateral movement within the network. ZTNA is particularly relevant for modern, distributed workforces and cloud-based environments, where traditional perimeter-based security measures may be less effective.

Secure Access Service Edge (SASE)

SASE is a cybersecurity framework that converges network and security services into a single, cloud-native solution. It combines software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) and various security functions, such as secure web gateways, cloud access security brokers, firewall as a service, and zero trust network access (ZTNA), into a single, unified service. Delivered as a cloud-based, on-demand offering, SASE provides organizations with consistent security and network policies across all users, devices, and locations.

By integrating network and security services, SASE simplifies management, improves scalability, and enables more effective protection against evolving cyber threats for organizations with remote workforces and multi-cloud environments.

Endpoint Security

Endpoint security refers to the protection of devices, or endpoints, that connect to a network, such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. It involves implementing security measures, including antivirus software, firewalls, and encryption, to defend these devices against cyber threats, unauthorized access, and data breaches. 

Endpoint security helps safeguard an organization’s network by preventing malware infections, detecting vulnerabilities, and ensuring compliance with security policies, thereby reducing the overall risk to the network and its data.

Intrusion Prevention System (IPS)

An Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) is a network security solution designed to detect and block potential security threats in real-time. An IPS monitors network traffic for malicious activities, such as cyberattacks or policy violations, and takes action to prevent them from causing harm to the network or its data. The system relies on predefined rules or signatures, as well as heuristics and anomaly detection, to identify suspicious activities. 

By proactively analyzing and filtering network traffic, an IPS helps organizations maintain the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of their network resources, protecting them against intrusions, malware, and other cyber threats.

6 Access Management and Security Best Practices 

The following best practices can help you create a strong access management strategy.

1. Mapping the Workforce and Assigning Privileges

To effectively manage access within an organization, it’s crucial to map the entire workforce, including employees, contractors, and partners. This process involves identifying each user’s job role, responsibilities, and required access levels to perform their tasks. 

Assigning privileges based on the principle of least privilege helps make sure that users have access only to the resources necessary for their job, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches. Regularly reviewing and updating access permissions, especially during role changes or employee offboarding, is essential for maintaining a secure and compliant access management environment.

2. Creating Individual User Profiles with Clear Role Definitions

Implementing role-based access control (RBAC) or attribute-based access control (ABAC) helps streamline access management by associating users with predefined roles or attributes that determine their access permissions. When creating individual user profiles, it’s important to define roles and attributes intelligently, taking into account factors such as job responsibilities, department, seniority, and location. 

This approach enables efficient, granular access management while minimizing the risk of excessive access permissions. Regularly reviewing and updating role definitions can be cumbersome but it ensures that they remain aligned with the organization’s evolving needs and security policies.

3. Enabling Passwordless Login

Traditional password-based authentication has several drawbacks, including susceptibility to brute-force attacks, phishing, and user error. Passwordless login methods, such as email, SMS, social media account, and biometrics, can improve security and enhance the user experience by replacing or augmenting passwords with more secure and convenient authentication options. Some passwordless login methods include:

  • Email: Users receive a unique, time-limited login link via email, eliminating the need to remember and enter a password.
  • SMS: Users receive a one-time passcode (OTP) via SMS, which they enter alongside their username to authenticate.
  • Social: Users can authenticate using their existing social media accounts, such as Facebook or Google, leveraging the platform’s built-in security features.
  • Biometrics: Users authenticate using unique biological characteristics, such as fingerprint, facial recognition, or iris scanning, which are difficult to forge or steal.

Adopting passwordless login methods can help reduce the risk of account compromise, simplify user onboarding, and improve overall security. However, it’s essential to carefully evaluate the security implications and potential trade-offs of each method before implementation, considering factors such as user privacy, device security, and regulatory compliance.

4. Identifying and Securing High-Value Data 

High-value data, such as intellectual property, customer information, and financial records, are attractive targets for cybercriminals. It’s essential to identify and secure these sensitive assets by implementing strict access controls and security measures. 

Data classification, encryption, and secure storage solutions can help protect high-value data from unauthorized access and breaches. Regularly monitoring and auditing access to sensitive data, as well as employing data loss prevention (DLP) solutions, can further enhance data security and ensure compliance with relevant regulations.

5. Conducting Third-Party Risk Management 

Third-party risk management involves assessing and managing the risks associated with the use of third-party vendors and suppliers, including risks related to data privacy, security, and compliance. Third-party vendors and suppliers often require access to an organization’s resources and information in order to perform their services. Therefore, access management plays a key role in third-party risk management by ensuring that third-party vendors and suppliers are granted appropriate access to resources, based on their roles and responsibilities.

To manage third-party risk effectively, organizations must have a clear understanding of the access requirements for each third-party vendor and supplier, and ensure that access is granted and monitored in accordance with organizational policies and industry best practices. This involves implementing strong access management practices, such as identity and access management (IAM), single sign-on (SSO), and multi-factor authentication (MFA), and ensuring that these practices are extended to third-party vendors and suppliers.

Additionally, organizations must conduct regular assessments of third-party vendors and suppliers to ensure that they are meeting their contractual obligations and complying with applicable regulations and industry standards. These assessments should include a review of third-party vendors’ access controls, as well as their policies and procedures for managing access to organizational resources and information.

6. Identifying Access Management Gaps with Penetration Testing 

Penetration testing involves simulating an attack on an organization’s systems and applications to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that could be exploited by malicious actors. Penetration testing is an important part of an organization’s security strategy, as it allows organizations to identify and remediate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers.

Access management and penetration testing are closely linked, because effective access management is critical for preventing and detecting attacks, and penetration testing is critical for identifying and remedying vulnerabilities in access management mechanisms.

By conducting regular penetration testing, organizations can identify vulnerabilities in their access management mechanisms, such as weak passwords, insecure authentication mechanisms, or misconfigured access controls. This information can then be used to improve access management practices, by implementing stronger authentication mechanisms, access control policies, and user account maintenance practices.

Access Management with Frontegg

Frontegg helps empower customers with self-served access management. Team management can now be integrated in minutes with this end-to-end platform that allows the inviting of team members, role and permission management, creating (and revoking) profiles, and other crucial actions. This includes a customer-facing layer that allows end-users to take full control over their account usage.

That’s not all. You also get access to additional capabilities like audit logs, webhooks, API tokens, and subscription management. Frontegg can be implemented with just a few lines of code and there’s no impact on performance. Try it out now.

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