Where you from?

September 14, 2014

Periodically I have a disconnect with a client or a consulting partner. You know, one of those moments when you realize you are on different pages than you thought you were when the conversation started.

I’ve realized that there are typically two types of people working in Identity and Access Management. The first group comes from a security background, while the second has access administration or maybe more general IT on their resume. I’m a graduate from the second school.

This really dawned on me about five years ago. I was talking to a consultant, who was relatively new to IT, about identity management and how my job was to give the right people access to the right resource, yadda, yadda, my normal spiel. He was listening but had a furrowed brow and I realized he was struggling with the ‘allow access’ part of the conversation.

I quickly learned that he was an ex-military police officer with experience in electronic security systems. He was much, much more interested in blocking access and ensuring maximum security. The idea that we could (and should) make access easier was hard for him to understand.

I have learned that there are some in this business that come from a position of wanting to over-secure everything. If that’s who you are working with, it is best to consider that viewpoint because they won’t be able to move forward with an IAM solution until their primary security needs are met.

But there are also those of us that want a really good user experience even if it means managing some additional security risk. We’ll always look for a design that allows access — while still being compliant with security and privacy —  but is more aligned with client business needs.

Where you from?


Access Governance Strategy

August 18, 2014

Identity and Access Management (IAM) projects are initiated due to an audit finding or security review. These projects have limited management focus — really, if we’re honest about it, a compliance driven project ends up being launched to fix a specific problem in the business. Projects are expected to be delivered on time and on budget, and then to wrap up after addressing a specific, tactical business need.

An Access Governance program doesn’t lend itself to this type of tactical approach. Access Governance needs a strategy, one that will help drive initiatives over the mid- to long-term. This is true even when (or perhaps especially when) an initial project is launched due to a compliance problem.

Access Governance has a longer life cycle than audit or security reviews, which are typically annual events. This is because access is something that crosses business boundaries, requires complex technical integration, and is dynamically changing as the business changes.

Business or IT strategies can help programs like Access Governance get established and funded. A strategy for access can critically assess business needs, develop roadmaps for addressing those needs, and help management to set performance measures.

When setting out to develop an Access Governance strategy, there are some key activities to be considered:

  • Know the audience — Is the CIO the primary reader of the strategy, or will it be used by multiple executives and managers?  A clear understanding of the business audience is crucial before embarking on the development of a strategy.
  • Identify relevant business goals — What is the organization trying to accomplish? What are the business goals for the next three to five years? Read the business plan and look for ways that access management can support those goals.
  • Link Access Governance to business strategy — This is the key to the process and it has to be done well. Explaining how a program of Access Governance helps move the business forward is critical. But linking Access Governance to business goals needs to be realistic and defendable if the strategy is going to be adopted.
  • Identify champions — The strategy needs to be built with full support of those that will receive the benefits of Access Governance. Make them part of the strategy development process and listen to their input. You’ll be rewarded with loyal supporters of the strategy.
  • Develop a readable strategy — There is nothing worse than a dense, technical document passing itself off as a strategy. Strategies need to be filled with business language. They must use terms that the audience understands, and they need to be structured in a way that encourages reading. Costs need to be identified and provided in both summary and detailed forms. Illustrations and models are key, and a realistic project roadmap diagram is mandatory.

Once the strategy is approved, a program for Access Governance can be developed. Soon, priority projects will begin to deliver strategic results, and your management will realize the benefits of having a strategy guide this crucial program.

Mike

(Yes, we can help you to develop your strategy. Please contact us for more information.)


Access Anarchy

August 18, 2014

It is no secret that enterprises run on information: records tucked away in databases, procedures retrieved from content management systems and transactions posted by business applications.  These information systems are as varied as the people who access them, ranging from highly-structured data stores to loose collections of images, files and assorted bits.  And cloud computing is flinging corporate information in ever-more places, onto remote servers, accessed by employees and customers whenever and from wherever they like.

access governance entitlements identity managementInformation Security professionals have to deal with questions that probe into information access.  On the surface, management — and their earnest auditors — have a simple question: who has access to what?   After all, access controls have been around for half a century and it is common practice to apply those controls to all types of information.  So what is the problem with these Who Has Access To What (WHAW) questions?

Put simply, security managers fear these questions because they are very difficult to answer.  And these, inevitably, then lead to ‘who gave access to whom’  (WGAW), ‘when was access granted’ (WWAG) and ‘why wasn’t access revoked when Bob left five months ago’ (WWARWBL5MA… okay, enough with the acronyms…)

Auditors know of these challenges but they are obligated to ask the questions.  It is their thing. And they don’t forget they asked — predictably they will return a year later to ask again.

Traditionally security managers would simply work with existing tools and cobble together reports based on information contained within business applications.  Once notice of an audit arrived, the security manager would direct access cleanup, export data from various systems, clean up the data, import data into a reporting tool, create reports, correct reports, format reports and submit them to management.  With anything less than 30 days lead time, this manual, inefficient process puts strain on the team and leads to errors in the reporting.

The main issues here are related to identity and entitlement management.  Let’s look at identity management first.

  • The true ‘source of truth’ for enterprise identity is the company’s human resources system.  No employee gets hired, paid or retired without HR knowing about it.   But what about temporary staff? Or contractors? Or those new employees from the company we just acquired that are in a separate HR system? The source of truth for these individuals — all of whom will have access to information — likely isn’t a single HR system.
  • Digital identities in enterprises are represented as accounts in a directory (typically Microsoft Active Directory or another type of LDAP store).  These accounts are created when employees are hired and removed when they leave.  An account is used to access network resources such as shared folders, content management systems and email. Provisioning of a user’s information directly from HR into Active Directory should be a straight-forward and high-value integration — and, sure enough, many enterprises have solved this problem already. But those relatively high-churn temps and contractors are often left outside this loop, requiring manual processes to create, modify and revoke those accounts.
  • Enterprise applications also require accounts, and these are often unique to each application or application suite.  Increasingly these accounts can be linked to the directory account, but that capability isn’t a given.  Legacy systems may have no support for this type of account linkage let alone any kind of dynamic provisioning.  And even if they are linked once, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be updated as the user progresses through the organization, experiences key life events (e.g. a name change), goes on extended leave, or, ultimately, retires or quits. As a result, gaps result that can be exploited by others who have access to the enterprise network.

Access issues are similarly challenging, and even more complex:

  • Before we get to describing the problem (even amongst ourselves), can we even agree on terms? Quick: what is the difference between an ‘access right’ and a ‘permission’? How about ‘entitlement’, what exactly does that mean?  Do you group users into ‘roles’, or perhaps you prefer ‘groups’?  Each system has its own, often arcane, language for describing what a user can access.  I have no real bias towards any one term but I’ll use ‘entitlement’ for the remainder of this article.  Entitlement is simply any form of application access right granted to a user.
  • ‘What’ is being accessed is similarly a challenge to define.  Some applications give access to all information.  Others have entitlements based on application functions or menu groups.  It is common to only have entitlements created for access to a group of records, or even a single record. Other systems have field level access controls.  And of course we have files and folders… as you can see, ‘what’ is being accessed is difficult to describe.  For now, let’s call all of these ‘information objects’.
  • These objects exist and need to be protected if we are going to keep the auditor happy (or less unhappy). Going back to our access terms, we might control access to one object using group membership entitlement – a common technique with Active Directory and network folders.
  • A business application might also use group-like entitlements that are related to job functions, but instead calls them ‘roles’.  And the roles don’t map to the same AD groups because, well, this application’s information objects aren’t used in the same way as network information objects are used.
  • Another system works from job title entitlements — only users with payroll titles can access the payroll system.  Of course, job titles may have little to do with the application’s groups or roles…and job titles change…

The result is that linking a user’s digital identity to an entitlement, then making sure the entitlement is controlling the right information object is a difficult problem to solve.  In practice, security managers delegate this responsibility to the owners of each business application.  They are given processes to follow for requesting access.  Sometimes the processes for access changes involve an email or two. Or a call to the help desk.  Or a full-fledged Access Governance tool. But in many cases it starts with a hallway conversation…

See where all this is going? That’s right – access anarchy. It seems hopelessly complicated to manage WHAW and we accept the next invite to the audit review with dread.

Over the next while, I’ll outline solutions to Access Anarchy: creating an Access Governance Strategy, having a better understanding of risk, developing standards, implementing software tools, and enhancing training. The key is to embracing the importance of Access Governance to quell Access Anarchy in your organization.

Mike


Should government sites use social media login?

August 30, 2013

I’ve been thinking about how the public sector model for identity has changed in recent years from one where the government body controls the credential AND acts as an identity provider, to one where the credential management is delegated to a service provider. Social media login and, at the premium end, SecureKey’s briidge.net are examples of this model.

Social media credentials from Twitter, Facebook and Google are used everyday by millions of Canadians.  Why not leverage these existing accounts to access government services?

The problem I have when talking to clients about these solutions is the assumption that any credential service provider (CSP) will do.  That is, a public organization can (and should) readily accept any common credential, add a layer of identity proofing, create a link back to the credential (for future access) and start counting the costs saved. After all, it is all about citizen choice isn’t it?

This isn’t as simple issue.  There are some fundamental problems with using low-end credentials, such as social media logins, that need to be carefully considered when delegating authentication to a third party:

  • Operational Disruptions — There was a great post from the Basecamp blog a few years ago (since deleted) that described how difficult it was to maintain the link between a credential provider and the site. This post talked specifically to OpenID and how changes to the credential may not be properly shared with relying parties, resulting in support calls and manual fixes. Users would also forget which OpenID account they used, and Basecamp had no automated way to reconnect them.  In the end, disruptions were common for OpenID users, support costs spiked, and Basecamp discontinued its use.
  • Longevity — Which social media credential providers are going to be around for the long run? What consolidations of login services or outright mergers are coming? How might the protocols for social media login change? For a public-sector service wanting to provide stable, long-term services, picking the right credential service providers is extremely difficult.
  • Wrong Message — Social media companies (Google, Facebook, even LinkedIn) often misbehave when it comes to privacy. They routinely run afoul of privacy commissioners and even irritate their user bases when ever-invasive features are introduced.  Given the poor privacy records, should a  public-sector website be encouraging the use of social media login to access government services? What are the downstream risks?
  • Convenience — Social media login can certainly save time when it comes to authentication. I use my Twitter account to access Level 1 (low value) services frequently. I’ll admit it is convenient and I like that blogs, news websites and the like offer this option. But convenience is far less important to me when accessing my personal information on a government website. First of all, security and privacy protection matter a lot more. Further, I don’t access these sites all that often so if I have to login (or request an automated password reset) it isn’t that big of a deal to me. What would be more useful would be a common credential for all of a particular government’s services, so that I can experience single sign-on.

So what are the benefits of leveraging a social media credential for government websites? Well, for those more trusting than me, convenience and the benefit of having fewer passwords to remember is a definite plus. And cost savings can be significant for large websites, although keep in mind that a full IAM stack is still required — the public sector website will still need to provide their own login service as not all citizens will trust an alternate credential.

Ultimately, social media login for services won’t meet government privacy and security requirements for access to sensitive information. Existing in-house systems and credential solutions (like SecureKey) that specifically address the trust issue will likely prevail.

Mike


Managing Access — an Enterprise Issue

June 4, 2013

I got my start with identity management 20 years ago.  For much of the 90’s I installed and supported networks, and provided system administration services.  In this role I helped enterprises with creating user accounts and granting access to network resources (mostly files, folders and printers).

I’ve recently completed a couple of projects that remind me of those simpler days.  Last year I worked on an enterprise Access Governance project.  This project, for a financial institution, was a challenging to me and important to the client.  The primary driver for the project was to answer the auditor’s question ‘who has access to what’.  This organization, like so many large enterprises, needed to have an efficient method of determining which users were accessing which applications, databases and files.

Reporting on this is harder than it seems. The wide range of financial, human resource, marketing and client self-service systems means that access is granted in many different ways.  User accounts are common for enterprise systems (like network login and email) but often unique for ERP, custom or business area-specific applications.  Even if the same network account is used across enterprise applications, reporting on access (security groups, permissions, rights, etc.) is very difficult to automate. As a result, reporting on who has access to what is pretty much a manual exercise that is impossible to carry out without a significant effort.

There are a growing number of tools that are effective in supporting the type and style of access reporting required by enterprises.  But before the tools can be considered, a philosophy of strong access governance needs to be established.  According to Aveksa, a leader in access governance solutions:

… with business-driven identity and access management solutions, companies can empower the business owners to take ownership of identity and access control, provide consistent, full business context across Identity and Access Management systems, connect to the full set of data and application resources, and significantly lower the total cost of ownership

What makes Access Governance difficult is that it is a new concept that is (I think) widely misunderstood.  Executive management are uninvolved unless a breach has occurred that forces them to take interest.  Senior IT management (CIO, Directors) are feeling the heat from auditors, but have no experience with the new Access Governance tools and methods.  Managers are swamped with ‘real work’, and analysts generally consider the whole exercise to be either ridiculously time consuming or impossible.

The trick, I believe, is to get support for Access Governance as high up in the organization as is possible.  That might be the CIO level, or possibly higher if poor compliance reports or breach incidents are a priority for executives.  Only with senior support can a program be established that will deliver on Access Governance and, ultimately, start to lay the groundwork for an appropriate program.

Mike


Dispatches from REFEDS and VAMP2012

October 7, 2012

Here’s a post from Chris Phillips’ trip to the REFEDS and VAMP2012 conferences last month.

Digital Innovators

Good morning from Utrecht, NL where I am attending as CANARIE’s CAF representative for REFEDS & VAMP2012

I’ve found that this September is an inflection point for change; back to school kicks in, summer holidays recharge the batteries and give a chance to step back and take stock. To this end, I’m going to experiment with a  more brief communication model with this blog.  There may be the occasional essay like post because complicated topics need their due depth, but I would rather have more frequent postings to avoid the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t read) and see which ones to go deep on as people express an interest in them.

Why REFEDS?

Research and Education FEDerations is one of the few locations dedicated to the interests of  CAF and our peers.  It is also a forum for advancing Federated Identity topics and collaborating on workplans to the…

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Canadian Access Federation: A model that works

October 3, 2012

The largest and arguably most successful identity federation in the world is the network used by higher education institutions.  Academics, faculty and their partners have enjoyed the benefits of single sign-on, secure wireless access and identity sharing since 2003.  Interest has recently spiked in consumer login and citizen identity federation, so it is worth looking at how academia has tackled Federated ID.

There are national identity federations currently operating in over 30 countries, involving thousands of post-secondary institutions.  In the UK Access Management Federation alone there are over 900 members and approximately 250 service providers. In the US, the InCommon federation boasts over 5,000,000 users.

In each of these federations, schools and service providers trust each other via a central body (hub), based on rules that are formally established for participation.

Canadian Access FederationHigher education federations are focused on ‘circles of trust’.  A circle of trust is a collection of organizations that, typically, operate in the same business sphere and have common traits and ambitions.  For example, the Canadian Access Federation (CAF) is made up of over 50 Canadian universities and colleges, plus a growing number of cloud service providers that are involved with student services.  The CAF circle doesn’t include banks, insurance companies or telcos, or for that matter, social media operators.

Higher education federations work because of these well-defined circles of trust.  Participants can release and consume identity information, including a privacy-enhancing, opaque and unique identifier, because the relying parties (schools and cloud service providers) trust the identity providers (schools).  And, most importantly, the users of the federation – the students, faculty, administrators and alumni – are comfortable trusting all the parties in the federation.

The identity information available in the CAF includes name, email address, institution, and ‘scoped affiliation’ (aka role, such as student, faculty, staff, etc.)  This relatively rich claim-set allows a relying party to make access decisions, at least at a course-grained level of authorization.

(Note that some relying parties will still want to have enrolment processes in place to handle access to specific applications or data.  These sites will need to perform additional verification steps to authorize access to services.)

The CAF standard claim-set of identity attributes is based on the eduPerson Object Class.  This specification allows many sites and web applications to provide automatic access without further ‘interrogation’ of the user.  As examples:

  • The eduPersonOrgDN claim represents the institution or organization of a researcher.  It can be used by the RP to give a researcher access to a collaboration folder specific to that institution, plus a common collaboration folder that all researchers can use.
  • The eduPersonPrincipalName claim can be used by the RP as a key to link a faculty member to a specific record, or to a set of permissions within a web application.  This in turn allows for automated provisioning to take place, with the other identity attributes used to populate the user profile maintained by the RP.
  • The eduPersonScopeAffiliation attribute – let’s say it is set to ‘alum’ – can act as a general course-grained entitlement, used to tailor a portal to the specific needs of alumni.  For example, the portal could offer alumni special offers or encourage donations.

It is within this relatively rich framework of trusted identity claims that higher-ed federations have a distinct advantage over social media-based identity networks. Social media identities are fine for low-value transactions (personal blogs, commenting on news articles, etc.), but are nowhere near strong enough for academic and business transactions.  Only within a trusted federation, where the rules of participation are clear and binding, can identity information be appropriately shared.

The CAF and its international counterparts allow for new connections and new services to be established based on trust and collaborative service delivery.  It is a proven model that aspiring identity federations can learn from when planning the next generation of access networks.

Mike