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Understanding and Securing The Triad of Enterprise Identities: Users, Customers, and Workloads

Deep dive into the unique —and shared — challenges, risks, and best practices involving the three primary identity categories within an organization.
Understanding-and-Securing-The-Triad-of-Enterprise-Identities_-Users-Customers-and-Workloads

Identities act as the lifeblood of any enterprise, allowing for the differentiation of access, responsibilities, and capabilities among humans and machines alike. 

As a result, modern enterprise security hinges on robust identity and access management (IAM), as organizations find themselves navigating a cluttered and complex ecosystem of applications, third-party APIs, cloud-based services, remote work, and mobile devices.

IAM ensures that the right people and things have the appropriate level of access to resources, in the process enhancing security, while also enabling productivity and compliance. Indeed, the rapid transition to distributed applications and services has led to a dramatic increase in the number of workload identities that operate within and across organizational boundaries — and they are now far outpacing human identities.

Understanding the three pillars of identity within an enterprise — users, customers, and workloads — becomes essential in crafting an effective security strategy. This triumvirate may have unique individual characteristics but, as you’ll also see, each shares some things in common when it comes to threats and overall risk profile.

This post provides a straightforward breakdown of each of these identity categories, their security implications, and practical best practices for safeguarding how they communicate with and connect to what they need.

The Three Types of Enterprise Identity: Users, Customers, and Workloads

1) Users: Your Workforce

What They Are

Users are generally employees or contractors who have authorized access to internal systems.

Why Secure Users

Users may help form both the first line of defense, but if they fail, can act as the initial entryway for potentially serious attacks, both intentional and inadvertent. 

What Makes User Identities Unique

The primary distinction for users is they carry potentially expansive permissions and access to a multitude of systems within the organization. Unique traits include:

  • Personal Interaction: Unlike automated systems, humans can be unpredictable and unsuspecting, opening up different avenues of risk, such as falling for phishing attacks or committing accidental errors.
  • Adaptability: Human users can be trained to recognize and adapt to new security threats, making education a vital component of any user-focused IAM strategy.
  • Fluid Access Needs: Employees and contractors often need wide-ranging access to various systems, which can change over time due to role changes, promotions, or project requirements. 

User IAM Challenges

  • Modern IT Complexity: With the proliferation of cloud services, remote work, and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, managing access across a wide array of platforms has become increasingly complicated.
  • Frequent Changes in Roles and Permissions: Managing identities and permissions for a large number of users can be cumbersome, leading to errors that could result in security vulnerabilities. Employees frequently change roles, get promoted, or leave the company. 
  • Weak or Varied Policies: Policies that permit simple passwords or lack multi-factor authentication create low-hanging fruit for attackers. Meanwhile, when individual departments craft their own IAM guidelines, the resulting inconsistencies across the organization offer additional points of vulnerability.

User IAM Risks 

  • Phishing Susceptibility: Malicious emails remain the most common cause of data breaches. Attacks are only becoming more sophisticated as your adversaries turn to AI technology, social media and more to realistic-looking impersonations.

Recommendation: Regularly update and conduct user education, keep systems patched, and employ email filtering and anti-spoofing software to detect and weed out phishing attempts.

  • Credential Reuse: Using the same password across multiple systems or applications increases the vulnerability of all connected accounts. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of users employ the same password for multiple accounts.

Recommendation: Promote the creation of strong-yet-memorable passwords that are unique to each service or system.

  • Insider Threats: Individuals who already have authorized access to company systems and data can create both intentional threats, as in the case of malicious employees, or unintentional, like employees inadvertently leaking sensitive information. 

Recommendation: Implement strict access controls and utilize behavior analytics to flag unusual activities that could indicate any type of employee misuse.

User IAM Solutions and Capabilities That Can Help

  • Identity Providers: Vendors like Okta help streamline user IAM by offering features like single sign-on (SSO) and multi-factor authentication (MFA), making it easier to manage complex user permissions and reduce password fatigue.
  • Password Managers: Tools like LastPass or 1Password aid in the secure generation and storage of complex passwords, helping users manage their credentials safely.
  • Security Awareness Programs: Training courses and exercises can help users recognize phishing attempts and other social engineering tactics.

2) Customers: Your External Users

What They Are

These individuals interact with your company’s products or services from the outside.

Why Secure Them

A security breach affecting customer data is a significant business risk. Eroded consumer trust can have long-lasting repercussions, both in terms of churn and public perception.

What Makes Customer Identities Unique

Customers, as external entities, come with a separate set of challenges. They interact mostly with public-facing applications and services, which brings different layers of complexity, especially concerning scale and user experience. Unique traits include:

  • Volume: The sheer number of customer identities typically far outweighs the number of internal users, making scalability a prime concern.
  • Data Sensitivity: Customers provide personal and sometimes sensitive information, mandating strict data privacy regulations and requirements that must be adhered to.
  • Beyond the Login: Managing customer identities extends far beyond the initial login. It involves safeguarding every interaction the customer has with the service, which in turn helps in attracting new customers and retaining existing ones. 

Customer IAM Challenges

  • Scale and Complexity: As your customer base grows, IAM solutions must scale seamlessly without affecting performance or introducing new risks.
  • Consumer Experience: Striking a balance between robust security measures and a frictionless user experience can be difficult.
  • Data Privacy Compliance: With standards like PCI-DSS and HIPAA, ensuring that customer identity data is managed in a compliant manner is essential.

Customer IAM Risks 

  • Data Breaches: Every year billions of customers are impacted by compromises that cost companies millions of dollars. 

Recommendation: The right combination of prevention, detection, response, and remediation is necessary to not only halt breaches, but also mitigate the damage.

  • Account Hijacking: The unauthorized takeover of user accounts can lead to various types of fraud and unauthorized actions, causing both financial loss and reputational damage. 

Recommendation: Methods like credential stuffing, where attackers use stolen credentials on multiple sites, and brute-force attacks, which involve automated attempts to gain access, are on the rise. 

  • Insecure APIs: APIs serve as gateways for data exchange but are also becoming a favored point of entry for cybercriminals.

Recommendation: Regularly review and secure your APIs to prevent unauthorized access to customer data.

Customer IAM Solutions and Capabilities That Can Help

  • OAuth & Single Sign-On (SSO): Simplify and fortify customer access to services by allowing users to authenticate through a single, trusted identity provider. This reduces password fatigue and adds an additional layer of security.
  • Data Encryption: While more of a complementary component to IAM, robust encryption methods, including masking and tokenization, for data at rest and in transit are critical.
  • Web Application and API Protection (WAAP): This class of technology adds an additional layer of security by protecting API interfaces and filtering out bots that could attempt fraudulent activity.

3) Workloads: Your Machines

What They Are

Workloads are, pardon the partial pun, your workhorses. They serve as the digital engines that power your business. More than just automated tasks or batch jobs, they encompass the custom applications and services you develop to solve specific business challenges or to meet your customers’ needs. 

Why Secure Them

Workloads are increasingly becoming a focal point for attackers, not just a background element of your infrastructure. Whether it’s a custom application, off-the-shelf software that you’ve deployed, a microservice, or a third-party API, these components often have extensive access to sensitive data and systems. A compromised workload can be the launching pad for sophisticated attacks, causing not just data exposure but potentially crippling business operations, as multiple organizations have already experienced.

What Makes Workload Identities Unique

Workloads are unique in that they are non-human actors, often automated, which engage with both internal and external systems. Unique traits include:

  • No Human Intuition: Applications and services lack human judgment and can’t identify ‘suspicious’ activities on their own, making them vulnerable if not properly secured.
  • Speed and Volume: Automated processes can request access or perform actions at a speed no human could match. While this is generally good for efficiency, it can rapidly escalate the impacts of a security incident.
  • Complex Interdependencies: Workloads often involve intricate relationships between microservices, APIs, and other applications. This creates a web of data flow and access permissions that can be challenging to secure comprehensively.

Workload IAM Challenges

  • Legacy Practices: If your DevOps and security teams are still sharing keys via email or IM, or copy-pasting them from spreadsheets, it’s time for an overhaul.
  • Tool Fragmentation: Relying on disparate tools for different platforms creates security gaps and management shortfalls.
  • Operational Lag: The pace of IAM advancements for human identities has not been matched for workloads, which still rely on inherently weak secrets managers, which are best at storing secrets but not managing access. 

Workload IAM Risks

Recommendation: Shift from secrets-based to policy- and identity-based access controls to minimize credential exposure.

  • Unauthorized Access: The absence of strong, centralized policies can lead to unauthorized workload communications.

Recommendation: Implement a centralized, policy-based access control system to standardize and enforce authorized interactions between workloads.

  • Audit Gaps: Scattered and inconsistent logging makes compliance and auditing much more manually intensive and time consuming.

Recommendation: Utilize a centralized logging system that standardizes audit trails across workloads and environments for easier compliance checks and enhanced forensic capabilities in the event of a data breach.

Workload IAM Solutions and Capabilities That Can Help

  • Unified Policy Management: Replace fragmented, manual systems with a centralized policy management solution that handles workload authentication, authorization, and logging for you. 
  • Secretless Authentication: Eliminate the need for long-lived secrets that are susceptible to compromise.
  • No-Code Auth: Offload the burden of code-based authorization from developers.
  • Consolidated Logging: Aggregate logs in a consistent format for improved analytics, compliance, auditing and risk reduction.

Conclusion

The enterprise identity landscape is vast and continually evolving, influenced by a variety of human and non-human elements. As we move further into an era marked by cloud-native architectures, integrated and scalable services, and AI-driven processes, the role of mature IAM practices becomes increasingly clear and critical. It is already well underway for users and customers — and is beginning to take hold for workloads.

To learn more how Aembit can help with your Workload IAM, visit aembit.io.

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