Cloud Identity and Access Management: Understanding the Chain of Access

Here's where enterprises encounter challenges with cloud IAM and the best practices they should follow to correct these mistakes.

Keith Neilson, Technical Evangelist, CloudSphere

December 10, 2020

5 Min Read

Through 2025, customers will be at fault for 99% of cloud security failures, according to Gartner, and 90% of organizations that don't control public cloud use will share sensitive data in inappropriate ways. This should come as no surprise given the immense complexity of public cloud service offerings and the hybrid and multicloud deployments enterprises gravitate toward.

Organizations must implement cloud ownership guidelines, establish governance policies, and find a way to visualize who has access to their cloud environments to avoid financial loss and data exposure. For example, in a recent event involving a leading search engine, an unsecured server with a removed or expired password gave cybercriminals access to user search queries and location that put customers at risk for fraud. 

This article explores where enterprises encounter challenges with cloud identity and access management (IAM) and best practices they should follow to correct these mistakes.

Why You Can't Apply On-Premises IAM in the Cloud
Many enterprises wrongly assume they can use the same IAM approach for cloud and on-premises, which puts security at risk and opens opportunities for mistakes. Data in cloud environments is highly distributed, whereas data center environments are centralized and well-controlled, so the same rules can't be applied to both. Additionally, the cloud allows users to take advantage of elastic services that can scale up and down dynamically. This means cloud environments experience a rapid rate of change, and old IAM policies that may be suitable for on-premises can't keep up. Therefore, enterprises must acknowledge that they need a new set of policies specifically tailored to their cloud environment.

This is easier said than done, as 81% of organizations use a multicloud approach and public cloud providers' IAM tools typically can't expand beyond their own platform, making it difficult to implement a standardized IAM solution across all cloud platforms. 

How Users Bungle IAM Permissions
A common mistake in cloud IAM is that organizations are too liberal with their permissions, whether they intend to be or not. People in different groups (such as employees and contractors) have access to resources in the cloud and can turn on access and change permissions within cloud environments. Since decision-making is dispersed and owned by people who don't always have the background information needed to make informed access decisions, it's easy to unknowingly grant access to users or resources that should never have been given access in the first place. Since cloud environments are extensive and complex, visibility of which users have access to data becomes increasingly difficult. This lack of visibility can also make enterprises unaware of expired/removed passwords that compromise resources.

Consequences of Failing to Protect Privileged Users and Machines
Stolen or compromised credentials and cloud misconfigurations were the most common causes of a breach for companies in 2019, representing nearly 40% of malicious incidents. In these instances, unauthorized users take advantage of weak IAM policies to gain access to sensitive resources and data. The resulting breach typically costs companies an average of $3.86 million — and it doesn't stop there. Breaches also result in damaged reputation and loss of customer trust, which significantly affects a company's value.   

Best Practices
To avoid breaches and keep data secure, organizations must create IAM governance policies specifically for their cloud environments — and they must be able to enforce these policies. Best practices for cloud IAM governance include:


  • Ensure visibility to understand who, or what, has access to specific cloud resources. Visibility must be the first step and needs to span the entire multicloud environment.

  • Design, implement, and enforce IAM policies to limit access to sensitive resources to only users and machines that truly need it. This includes designing permissions so that users can't change permission settings. This ensures unintentional or inherited access through policies is monitored and secured.

  • Investigate security tools to ensure you're being alerted of changes in policy and subsequent risks. For example, if a password is set to expire, who will be alerted and what will happen if/when the password expired? Unfortunately, the resource is often left completely open without any authentication required.

  • Expose misconfigured cloud resources and human error. Ask the question: What is the "blast radius" if certain resources are exposed? Can that information be leveraged by unauthorized users to gain access to additional resources? Considering the extended attack surface when writing and implementing IAM policies helps ensure the most critical assets are properly secured.

The Future
Through 2024, Gartner predicts, most enterprises will continue to struggle to measure cloud security risks. However, this shouldn't deter organizations from using the cloud to power their workloads and improve efficiency and productivity. Enterprises must have a cloud governance strategy to evaluate risk vs. reward to make informed decisions. By implementing governance and IAM policies for people and machines while improving cloud visibility, enterprises can ensure data stays secure, only authorized users have access to sensitive data, and the blast radius is minimized if a mistake happens. 

About the Author(s)

Keith Neilson

Technical Evangelist, CloudSphere

As CloudSphere's Technical Evangelist, Keith Neilson is responsible for the company's analyst and cloud provider relationships and strategy with a focus on ensuring the wider market understands the business and technical value proposition of the CloudSphere platform. In addition to helping create collateral and messaging that supports the company's go-to-market, Keith ensures that customer use cases are documented back into the various internal teams to ensure product advancements are geared toward real world scenarios and contribute to the company's vision. Prior to CloudSphere, Keith held senior lead pre-sales engineering and management roles at Optibus, Cloudhouse, and Sourcebits with a successful reputation for creating and defining compelling product positioning, advocating product advancements internally, leading strategic partner & customer engagements and creating and executing GTM strategies that attributed to significant growth. He has a broad and strong multi-discipline skillset with a focus on cloud migration, modernization and management.

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