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IAM x PAM – The Difference Between Identity & Access Management and Privileged Access Management

by | Sep 9, 2019 | BLOG

The importance of having an identity is undeniable. Not only do personal documents define our identity in society, but any feature that might portray who we are and what we do. 

Name, personality, physical appearance, and other features together create a unique image of each person, which define their identity. Considering that planet Earth has 7.7 billion registered human beings, not having an identity makes the task of recognizing an individual among all of them virtually impossible. 

Imagine a system where all users have the same identity: Bob logs in and has access to the company’s customer information database, just as Alice does every day to perform her tasks, but Bob works in the Human Resources department and does not require customer information. With users who have the same identity, how do you know if the access is authentic? Or if the user has authorization for their request?  

The most likely answer is that this kind of unauthorized access cannot be prevented. A system needs to have visibility that makes it possible to know who the system’s users are and what they do, so each must have their own identity within the system. 

Due to this concern, the concept of Identity & Access Management (IAM) emerges, a system that allows managing identities and their access to the organization’s resources (devices, applications, environments, network files, etc.), which means one can manage and define what each user is and can do in the system. 

These users may be customers who somehow need access to information on the organization, employees, third-party employees or even applications. Regardless of the user type, IAM systems follow the idea that each user must have their own digital identity, which needs to be individual, maintained and monitored according to its lifecycle (creation, handling, and deletion). A digital identity includes username, password, and online activities.  

IAM has some application models, but perhaps the most common is the system used as a service. This is called Identity as a Service (IDaaS). This is when the authentication infrastructure is supported and managed by a third party. 

In general, there are many application models, but every IAM system must have tools that can enable and disable accounts, databases for storing user information, and means for granting and revoking access rights. 

Organizational infrastructures are always evolving; cloud environments, bring your own device (BYOD), IoT, and many other technologies can be a set of factors that can make identity management difficult, whose number is growing with such evolution. Therefore, not having an effective identity management system can lead to very serious security issues and risks.

IAM x PAM

In short, IAM systems manage digital identities, trying to ensure that access is granted to those who has, in fact, the right, and for many this definition may resemble Privileged Access Management (PAM) solutions, which are contextualized as solutions that manage access through the control, storage, segregation and tracking of all privileged credentials.

Commonly, the two terms are easy to confuse if the word “privilege” is ignored. IAM manages identities for common accesses that occur in routine activities; PAM controls access of privileged and active users in critical system environments.  

PAM solutions are a step further from IAM systems as they protect critical data from privileged users who may overuse their benefits and misuse the data they handle. IAM systems can enable and disable access, but do not provide the same functions as PAM solutions, such as:

  • Password vault: management and protection of critical credentials through session monitoring. 
  • Usage limit: Limiting account usage based on a specific time, or a certain approval extent. 
  • Discovery: auto-discovery of privileged credentials that may be on the system without the administrator’s knowledge.  
  • Visibility: view of what happens when an access is requested, approved and performed. 
  • Audit: recording of evidence from accesses performed correctly or not.

Among other features, while IAM defines what Bob and Alice will be able to see or do on the system, the PAM solution ensures that Alice will not be able to delete, copy or modify any information from the critical system without being monitored or blocked if her actions are considered malicious. 

A PAM solution is part of an IAM system, as are multi-factor authentication and single sign-on functions, as these features and tools enable more secure authentication and cautious use of identities and profiles. Therefore, IAM and PAM can work together, and by the way, this is highly suggested.

IAM systems give administrators the ability to modify a user, create usage reports, and reinforce policies, but fail to manage privileged accounts. PAM solutions deliver information about what is being done, sessions started, and how credentials are being used. 

IAM + PAM

The first management battlefront should be IAM, which defines and manages existing system identities, followed by PAM, which controls and monitors the use of privileged credentials. 

The two solutions meet each other’s needs. IAM creates, modifies, and deletes privileged accounts; Changes in policies and procedures will be automatically assigned to PAM solutions through IAM.   

Gaining control of system users and accounts is the security goal of many organizations. Implementing IAM and PAM solutions is a great start, but when done independently, they may not be as effective. When otherwise integrated, they can actually cover important access issues. IAM solutions manage all digital identities and their access, and PAM solutions go a step further by bringing security and compliance to these accesses, protecting critical data and controlling privileged accounts. 

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