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COVID-19's Acceleration of Cloud Migration & Identity-Centric Security

Here are some tips for updating access control methods that accommodate new remote working norms without sacrificing security.

For years, organizations have been moving to the cloud. The benefits are overwhelming, from cost, to flexibility, to the availability of newer and more advanced applications. The speed at which organizations migrate varies based on industry, budget, and size. The issue for a while now has been not if but when they will complete their migration. 

The rush to accommodate remote work through cloud migration solved several on-premises network shortcomings, but it also exposed organizations to new faults in cloud-based environments. The main issues stem from traditional access, which is ever more important when employees' workplaces are dispersed. It has become clear that existing access control methods — whether for data centers or for SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS — must be reconsidered to accommodate new remote working norms without sacrificing security. How can this be done? The answer lies in how we prioritize our security.

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New Architecture, New Principles
A successful cloud migration is not simply a one-and-done project. It requires a shift in mentality, since traditional practices — including rigid access controls or even the use of help desks — can stunt the potential benefits that decentralized, cloud-based environments offer. As such, organizations need to approach these challenges with a new set of principles:

  • The cloud is the data center: When businesses move their infrastructure from individual data centers or server rooms to the cloud, they increase their agility in adopting services, improve their disaster recovery, and ease their scalability.
  • Every device is a work device: Even before COVID-19 transformed work structure, companies were already shifting away from the hard line between professional and personal devices. Bring-your-own-device policies allow for increased flexibility and productivity, since employees and contractors are able to access the services they need from any location or device.
  • The Internet is the network: Users and employees are separate from the cloud or data center, and are using zero-trust technologies to access the services they need to work.

An Identity-Based Perimeter Offers New Opportunities
A natural result of those three architectural principles, and the most important principle to address, is establishing identity as the perimeter. As businesses shift to remote work and as abnormalities and anomalies traditionally perceived as red flags become part of the new normal, the old definition of a perimeter begins to erode. Enabled by cloud technology, employees are accessing information from new places, on new devices, and at different times throughout the day. The new perimeter ties access to who you are — your identity — rather than where you are or what network you're connected to.

With this new perimeter, user identities are the new keys to the kingdom, and it's vital for companies to adopt security controls to authenticate users. This requires much more granular indicators than before. If an organization can verify an employee's identity, regardless of their device or location, then the issue of reducing friction while maintaining security eases.

However, securing an identity-based perimeter requires more than just identity verification, especially if a company is looking to establish a zero-trust architecture in adherence with the tenets set forth by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Following zero-trust tenets, both identity and device risk factors must be taken into account as employees request access globally on a session-per-session basis. 

This is where the principle of Internet-as-the-network comes into play. Before cloud migration and remote work, it was easier to verify an employee's identity because they were on their company's on-premises network. Now, organizations must consider Wi-Fi networks, security configurations for devices (firewall, PINs, biometrics, etc.), and locations when determining access levels. Should an employee have access to sensitive documents when that person is using Starbucks Wi-Fi on their mobile device that doesn't require biometrics? A vital component of securing an organization's cloud network is a strong policy engine that can collect the data necessary to make these decisions.

If an organization wants to maintain efficiency while adjusting to the new normal, then flexibility is a must. With this new architecture in place, your visibility and control is at the application and transactional level. What's given up at the coarse, grain level of "work device" is regained with much finer-grain controls, regardless of the device used. This shift in mindset greatly reduces end-user friction for low-risk activities and develops a control at the application and transactional level that can seamlessly escalate up the security ladder when risk demands it.

Jasson Casey is the CTO of Beyond Identity, a passwordless identity management provider. He also serves as a Fellow in CyberSecurity with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the National Security Institute (NSI). Previously, Jasson was CTO of ... View Full Bio

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