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You've Got Cloud Security All Wrong: Managing Identity in a Cloud World

In a hybrid and multicloud world, identity is the new perimeter and a critical attack surface for bad actors.

David Mahdi

February 12, 2021

5 Min Read

As organizations prioritize digital transformation, they are moving services to the cloud at a rapid clip. Yet when making this shift, many companies fail to make the necessary updates to their security programs and solutions to protect the new cloud perimeter. Rather than redesigning their security infrastructure for the cloud, many organizations are simply wrapping the cloud around their legacy technologies, relying on legacy network security solutions to protect their data.

In a world of hybrid and multicloud, traditional network security no longer offers the same advantages or protection. Identity is the new perimeter, and it has become a critical attack surface for bad actors.

Cloud is here to stay. As such, efforts need to be made to strengthen users' identities and control access to them. If such measures are not taken to strengthen authentication and access management, user credentials will become increasingly vulnerable. Here are ways that security and risk management leaders can increase their focus on user identities and data in order to build trust and resilience in a cloud-first world.

Cloud Security Requires a Focus on Identity
Time and again, experience demonstrates that information can leak out of clouds. Yet most of the time, it's the consumers of the cloud services, not the cloud providers, who fail to manage controls to protect their data. In fact, Gartner predicts that through 2025, at least 99% of cloud security failures will be the customer's fault.

Bad actors focus on compromising weak credentials, such as passwords. With the cloud enabling users to access software and services from any device, cybercriminals can take advantage of weak authentication and other identity-related mechanics (such as federation tokens) to seek out critical applications and, ultimately, data.

The foundation for the well-managed use of external clouds is identity and access management (IAM). IAM ensures that only the appropriate people are using organizational accounts and only authorized users have permission to access sensitive data. To protect the organization, security and risk management leaders must take responsibility to secure their clouds by ensuring robust identity and access protocols.

Identity is a Multilayered Approach
IAM is not simply knowing who a user is. IAM is the process of ensuring that the right people get the right access to the right resources at the right times for the right reasons, enabling the right business outcomes. Breaking down each of those components requires a multilayered approach.

1. The Right People
The first layer is establishing identity at the security perimeter. This must be done not only for human users but for any entity trying to access a system, including an Internet of Things (IoT) device, bot, or machine. Establishing identity means answering the following questions:

  • Who are they?

  • What is their role or group?

  • Can we tie a device(s) to them?

  • What other contextual information is associated with them (e.g., what is their location, their common work pattern, etc.)? 

Common security tools that can be used to answer these questions include access management products, user authentication solutions (e.g., passwords, biometrics, token authentication), identity governance and administration services, and customer identity and access management.

2. The Right Access to the Right Resources
Once identity is established, the next layer is dictating what resources the specific user can access. Many ancillary products play a role here, including unified endpoint management, endpoint detection and response, cloud access security brokers, and more. All of these products should be tied to a source of trust, which conceptually resides within the identity layer (e.g., LDAP/Active Directory). This layer is also where security leaders should develop protocols for automated elements, as many authorization requests can and should be resolved in real time without user intervention.

3. At the Right Times for the Right Reasons, Enabling the Right Business Outcomes
The last layer is the security of the data and applications. On the application side, determine its criticality and adjust access accordingly. Do users need to be in a trusted location and on a trusted device to be granted access to the application? Or is it of lower sensitivity and can be accessed from anywhere?

Next, look at the data behind that application and what the user has access to. If the data is highly sensitive, an option is to classify access based on specific data elements. Instead of providing users access to an entire application, grant access to certain files and not others. For added context, user behavior should also be taken into account. For example, how much data is a user consuming? If that person accessed a lot of files at once, would that be permitted? This can provide the basis for continuous and adaptive trust assessment.

Using Identity to Secure the Cloud
Putting these three layers together introduces a new security paradigm for organizations. To put this approach into practice, start with the business stakeholders to design the data security and governance framework. Connecting with leaders in business strategy, governance, compliance, and IT will enable security leaders to determine the right balance between business needs and risks.

Only after the data governance strategy and data security policies have been defined is it time to invest in security products. This approach will also help ensure that products are not purchased and implemented in silos, which leaves gaps in the cloud security approach. Be sure to orchestrate your identity and data security policies across all products, new and existing.

Identity is not the only component of cloud security; however, it is one of the most important elements. As the cornerstone of a cloud security program, strong IAM governance can pave the way for more advanced security solutions. By focusing on identity first, organizations will be better equipped to securely carry out a hybrid and multicloud digital transformation.

About the Author(s)

David Mahdi

Gartner Senior Research Director

David Mahdi is a Senior Research Director at Gartner, focusing on identity and access management, authentication, and data security. Mr. Mahdi's area of expertise includes public-key infrastructure (PKI), machine ID management, IAM, blockchain security, decentralized identity, BYOI, IoT, and data security. He has worked in the IT security industry for more than 20 years. Prior to joining Gartner, he worked at various IAM providers, where he focused on digital identity ecosystems, decentralized identity, and device-based authentication. Mr. Mahdi has extensive experience working with industry-leading enterprises, financial institutions, and government agencies on varying topics specific to identity and security.

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