Identity and access management (IAM) is a field of cybersecurity focused on managing user identities and developing access controls to protect critical computer networks. The specifics of an IAM policy will vary across organizations and industries. However, the main goal of all IAM initiatives remains the same: guaranteeing only approved users and devices access resources for appropriate reasons at proper times.

In today’s digital world, IAM technologies help organizations streamline access control amid complex work environments (multi-cloud, on-premises, remote work, etc.). Managing user access across environments is a challenge, especially for large organizations that support an extensive web of human and non-human users (employees, customers, suppliers, IoT devices, APIs, etc.).

IAM tools allow security teams to set stringent access privileges and easily manage individual permissions throughout the user lifecycle. Keep reading to dive deeper into the principles of IAM and learn how developing a robust understanding of IAM can help your organization improve its security posture and data security.

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Why are IAM Systems Important?

IAM systems are fundamental to the success of many organization’s cybersecurity programs. Overall, identity access management systems help organizations in three critical areas:

  • Regulatory Compliance: Cybersecurity and information security frameworks (GDPR, ISO 27001, PCI-DSS, etc.) mandate strict access policies and workloads for managing the status of privileged accounts. IAM systems allow organizations to develop role-based access control (RBAC) standards and privileged access management (PAM) protocols to meet standards and achieve certification.
  • Data Security: Data breaches continue to rise in frequency and severity. IAM systems allow organizations to fortify their critical networks, firewalls, and sensitive data behind layers of secure access controls and mitigate security risks throughout the user lifecycle.
  • Digital Identity Management: The increase of multi-cloud systems, BYOD policies, and remote work has complicated navigating access control in the modern work environment. IAM systems allow organizations to securely transfer to managing user access digitally through principles such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), zero-trust, and single-sign-on (SSO).

How Does IAM Improve Security Posture?

spider web graph displaying common principles of identity and access management (IAM) y

Simply put, IAM systems aim to deny access to hackers and grant appropriate access levels to verified users when needed. Installing IAM principles into your information security or cybersecurity programs significantly improves your security posture by managing the identity lifecycle, developing access control standards, installing authentication and authorization processes, tracking user activity, and implementing zero-trust concepts.

Identity Lifecycle Management

Identity lifecycle management involves creating and administering digital identities for human and non-human users within a network. Each identity serves a particular user and defines their approved level of access, access rights, and the actions the user is permitted to take on the network.

Digital identities commonly include the following details:

  • User Name
  • ID Number
  • Login Credentials
  • Job Title
  • User Roles & Responsibilities
  • Access Privileges

The identity lifecycle management process encompasses onboarding new entities, managing existing entities, adjusting user accounts and levels of access, and offboarding/de-provisioning users when necessary. Network security personnel may need to de-provision users for various reasons, including termination, change of responsibilities, or an individual user no longer needs access to a particular system or network section.

Access Control

Each digital identity within an organization is permitted a specific level of access. Security personnel determine this level of access based on the user’s responsibilities, needs, and the company’s network access policies.

Customers, employees, and system administrators often require different access levels. For example, within the network of a healthcare company, access distribution may look like this:

  • Customers: Access to personal portal, customer resources, and other customer-facing systems
  • Employees: Access to customer information databases, internal systems, internal policies, and other employee resources (HR, Payroll, etc.)
  • System Administrators: Access to all network systems

IAM systems often manage employee access control more granularly using principles such as role-based access control (RBAC). RBAC is a standard method used to align users with access that matches their job title or role within an organization.

In an RBAC system, access distribution may look like this:

  • Junior Security Analyst: View-only access
  • Senior Security Analyst: Access granted to most systems
  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO): Administrator-level access to all systems

Access control principles also manage the level of access granted to non-human users within an organization’s network. Most non-human users will be permitted view-only access to activity logs and other systems that can help with automation, machine learning, data storage, and ongoing workflows.

Authentication & Authorization

Aside from creating user identities and assigning access permissions, IAM systems also help manage these identities through authentication and authorization. Authentication and authorization are slightly different principles within system security:

Authentication: The process of using registered credentials to verify who a specific user is

Authorization: The process of verifying what data, systems, and applications a particular user is permitted to access

Basic authorization systems use usernames and passwords to evaluate user identities. However, today, most IAM frameworks use more advanced levels of authentication to scrutinize user identities and protect against malicious users and cyber threats.

  • Two-Factor Authentication (2FA): Requires two forms of identification from different credential categories: knowledge and possession factors. Knowledge factors are something only the user knows, like a password or a PIN. Possession factors are something only the user has, like a smartphone, hardware key, or token.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Often requires three forms of identification, each from a different credential category: knowledge, possession, and inherence factors. Inherence factors are often biometric credentials unique to an individual, like fingerprints or facial recognition.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO): Allows users to access all applications within an organization’s network with a single set of credentials. SSO systems often utilize security assertion markup language (SAML) and 2FA or MFA to generate access between identity providers and applications securely.
  • Adaptive Authentication: Method that changes authentication requirements in real-time as inherent or perceived risk changes. Example: A user logging in from a trusted device will be able to use their standard username and password combination, but the same user logging in from an untrusted device may need to complete additional authorization steps.

Identity Governance & User Activity Tracking

Identity governance is tracking what users do with their access after access is granted. It’s common for IAM systems to monitor user activity, ensure users do not abuse their privileges, and catch malicious hackers who have infiltrated the network disguised as permitted users.

Most regulatory frameworks and information security certifications require organizations to have identity governance systems to monitor user activity.


Zero-trust is a cybersecurity and network security model that operates on two absolute principles: security methods should never trust users and should always verify user identities. These principles apply to all users attempting to access an organization’s network, including employees, network administrators, customers, and third-party service providers.

Additional principles of zero-trust architecture include:

  • Least Privilege: Providing minimal access to users, nothing more than what they need to complete their responsibilities
  • Micro-Segmentation: Limiting lateral movement and fortifying the network against data breaches by splitting it into smaller sections
  • Continuous Monitoring: Monitoring and analyzing network traffic and activity to detect suspicious behavior quickly

How to Manage IAM Implementation?

Implementing an IAM system into your existing network security program can be achieved by following these steps:

  • Assess & Planning: Evaluate current procedures, identify organizational goals, and predict challenges that may make IAM implementation difficult
  • Network Policy Refinement: Adapt existing policies to meet IAM principles and user access levels and develop an active directory service for web services
  • Technology Selection: Compare and contrast IAM technologies and select a solution that meets your organization’s goals, needs, and perceived use cases
  • User Provisioning: Develop processes for onboarding users, assigning access levels, and gathering secure credentials
  • Authentication Process: Implement 2FA, MFA, or SSO to enhance network security and validate user access credentials
  • Implementation & Integration: Deploy IAM technology and monitor integration with existing processes and network systems
  • Testing: Validate the effectiveness of the IAM system and monitor user activity to evaluate security
  • Compliance & Governance: Ensure the IAM system complies with relevant industry frameworks and install identity governance tracking to gather activity data
  • Continuous Improvement: Gather user feedback, analyze system performance, and refine IAM processes based on data and ongoing industry developments

How Do I Select An IAM Solution?

Selecting an IAM tool for your organization can be difficult when you don’t know how to evaluate each tool’s performance. The best way to compare and contrast IAM solutions and determine which is best for your organization is by answering the following four questions:

What are our specific business needs and requirements?

By understanding your organization’s specific needs and requirements, you can ensure the IAM solution you select is tailored to fit your organization’s present state and future growth. While answering this question, consider the following factors:

  • Size of your organization
  • Complexity of your organization’s network infrastructure
  • Level of security your organization requires

Can this tool be integrated into our existing systems?

Selecting an IAM solution that integrates with your existing systems will streamline the implementation process and reduce the time and energy needed to complete the process. While answering this question, consider:

  • Operating Systems: What do members of your organization use? (Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS, etc.)
  • Authorization Demands: What level of authorization does your organization require?  (2FA, MFA, SSO, etc.)

Does this tool meet our security and compliance standards?

In addition to ensuring an IAM tool meets your organization’s authorization needs, make sure it meets additional security and compliance standards:

  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)
  • Data Encryption
  • Real-Time Monitoring

Is this solution scalable to meet our growth goals?

The most suitable identity as a service (IDAAS) solutions will scale alongside your organization. Your organization’s security needs will likely change as your organization grows. Selecting a solution that offers your organization ongoing support and security is essential.

How Can UpGuard’s Cybersecurity Solutions Help?

By pairing an IAM tool with UpGuard’s all-in-one cybersecurity solution, your organization can further improve its security posture, develop healthy cyber hygiene, and fortify its critical systems and data from cyber threats and data breaches.

UpGuard’s comprehensive VRM solution, UpGuard Vendor Risk, grants users 24/7 visibility across their entire supply chain. While VRM and IAM are not always directly linked, UpGuard’s solution can complement your IAM systems in several ways:

  • Determining Vendor Access: UpGuard tiers vendors based on their security posture and risk level. Your organization can use this information to decide what level of access each vendor should possess and the credentials each needs to present to authenticate their identity
  • Risk Assessment & Mitigation: UpGuard allows users to develop a comprehensive view of their vendor’s security posture through intuitive risk assessments. Integrating UpGuard alongside your IAM system will grant your organization complete insight into the inherent risks of all its third-party partnerships and allow it to mitigate the effects of any new risks that develop quickly
  • Streamlined Workflows: Integrating UpGuard alongside your IAM system will allow personnel to streamline workflows related to vendor requests, stakeholder reporting, and ongoing vendor maintenance.

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