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Permission Management & the Goldilocks Conundrum
In today's COVID-19 era, managing access has become even more difficult, especially for large organizations. Here's how to get it "just right."
Dotan Bar Noy
September 22, 2020
6 Min Read
Legendary boxer Mike Tyson used to say that "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I think that it's also fair to say that everyone in security had plenty of plans for 2020, and most of us have ended up with some pretty sore jaws. For many organizations, one of those disrupted plans was likely a cloud transition road map that abruptly pivoted from a three-year marathon to a three-month sprint.
While many companies have been opening up to remote work in the wake of COVID-19, almost nobody was prepared for a shift of this scale. Commonly referred to as "the new normal," we are rapidly moving away from our old ways toward a much more fluid system of new platforms and modes of working.
With work from the office and its clearly defined on-premises infrastructure no longer a reliable option, IT teams have been diligently getting employees access to the cloud-based resources they need to do their jobs. At the same time, some experts are expressing concerns that security is being left by the wayside and not enough attention is given to the potential negative implications to IT operations.
I get it. Organizations have to prioritize their time and resources, and the primary mission is just to make things work, even if that means everything is held together by popsicle sticks and chewing gum. But by being rushed, organizations open themselves up to poorly configuring access permissions and other mistakes which attackers will capitalize on. You can strike the right balance by addressing these key issues.
The Goldilocks Problem
Even before COVID-19, adoption of cloud services like software-, platform, and infrastructure-as-a-service (SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS) were already on the rise with 73% of organizations indicating that nearly all their apps will be SaaS by 2021. The pandemic has only kicked this trend into overdrive as the on-premises model loses relevance. With more and more applications, managing access and permissions becomes even more difficult, especially for larger organizations.
IT teams need to coordinate with various departments to understand which people need which access and permissions. They then have to get approvals for the access, adding more time onto the process. The good news is that access management has improved significantly over the past five years or so. The bad news: Permission management has fallen behind, creating plenty of friction for the users and making it incredibly difficult to manage.
The challenge that they face is a bit of a Goldilocks problem. Like in the famous children's story, organizations do not want to provide more permissions than necessary because it increases the risk to security. At the same time, granting too few permissions limits access and harms productivity. The trick is getting it just right, or close enough.
Ideally, security teams would likely follow the principle of least privilege. This is the idea that we want to grant the least amount of access possible for people to do their job. However, we know from experience that need is a constantly moving target. Just because someone had access to one set of tools or data while they were working on a specific project does not mean that they should hold onto it in perpetuity just because it may come in handy down the line. Who needs more keys to an office building, the CEO or the janitor?
Your goal is to find ways of speeding up the process of granting permissions while also sticking to the principle of least privilege. You should begin by building profiles of your organization members regarding which kinds of roles are likely to require permissions to various applications, platforms, etc.
Think about what access to which specific applications employees from will need. The sales and marketing departments will likely need access to HubSpot and Salesforce, but not AWS or Azure. Developers need access to computing resources and repositories, but probably not customer data. This can be a very difficult process that will involve many different managers providing feedback along the way.
Add to this that each department will want their own level of (near absolute) autonomy, which may lead to conflicts with the IT team. In the past, IT and security teams played a much more significant role in managing applications and services. But now in the SaaS age, products have been designed to be far more user-friendly, requiring far less intervention from IT and security. Overall, this "democratization" is a good thing. The challenge is to create a new dynamic that allows each department to be the "master of their domain" without cutting IT and security out of the loop.
Once you define the profiles based on needs for their role, you can get approval to grant permissions ahead of time. A certain number of tweaks will still be needed, but much of the heavy lifting can be handled without too much fuss or muss.
It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Permission granting and revoking is something that happens not only when someone joins or leaves an organization. Events such as changing departments, working on different projects, or other similar changes in roles and responsibilities can all require a change in what an individual within the organization needs access to. How you set up the process of identity life-cycle management matters. An effective process:
Lays out how permission requests are made,
Answers which IT service management tools (ITSM) are used, and
Defines who makes the changes in the different applications.
There is no "one size fits all" answer here and you should expect to mix and match your solutions. An IaaS ticket might be managed with Jira while ServiceNow is used for Salesforce. It is best if you can move your permission request to one category within a single ITSM platform. That way, you can control it properly, monitor the overhead, and generate appropriate audit reports.
Your organization is also likely to change apps that you are using from time to time. A report from March of this year showed that the typical midsize company churned more than 30% of their SaaS apps in 2019. Every switch will demand a new round of onboarding.
Recertification of access and privileges is another challenge that demands leadership. Managers are required to approve users' existing access and privileges, and this can easily become a time and energy black hole. Starting with a basic idea of which permissions go with which groups or roles can clear most of the to-do's off the table, allowing you to focus on the cases that really require a manager-level response. Getting this process right is important because you will have to repeat it again later when it comes time to recertify again.
About the Author(s)
Co-Founder and CEO, Authomize
Dotan Bar Noy serves as Authomize's co-founder and CEO. Prior to co-founding Authomize, Dotan was product management leader of the "Infinity Next" platform at Check Point Software, following the successful acquisition of ForceNock Security, where he served as Co-Founder and CEO. He also founded and served as CEO at ReSec Tech, provider of Content Disarm & Reconstruct ('CDR') security solutions. Dotan serves as an investor and advisor to several startups.
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