Reduce complexity and the attack surface area with IAM solutions

A digital enterprise can only thrive if it is operated securely, meaning it is protected from data loss and only has a small attack surface area. Verizon’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) reveals that there is a direct proportionality between the attack surface area (“Risk Posture”) and the number of cyberattacks, accidents, and leaks (“Data Breaches”).

In other words: If the attack surface area is reduced, the number of breaches will decrease to the same extent.

This sounds trivial at first, but it shows that a reduced attack surface area actually means a safer and more secure digital environment.

The follow-up question is simple: How can the attack surface area be reduced? Especially since we know from the latest discussions around Zero Trust, that it no longer is a question of whether breaches happen but only of when and how often they happen.

Identity & Access Management as a secret recipe for a reduced attack surface area

Attack surface area refers to the area of an organization that is vulnerable and can be hacked. This area is made up of all access points that an unauthorized person could use to penetrate the system and steal, encrypt, or cause other damage or tampering with data. The smaller it is, the easier and cheaper it is to protect an organization or business.

It also appears from the Verizon report that implementing Identity & Access Management (IAM) in an enterprise environment can be a very effective way to reduce the attack surface area. An IAM system does this by controlling the access to the organization’s data through digital identities and granularly managing the permissions of those identities across the enterprise environment. Permissions are not granted uncontrollably, but through request and approval workflows, and they are also revoked when they are no longer needed or when an employee leaves the company. What’s more, all of this can be largely automated.

The Identity & Access Management approach does cost some money, but when you consider how much money and valuable data/assets a company can lose to data breaches of all kinds (not only from malicious cyberattacks from the outside, but also quite often from internal accidents like misconfigurations by non-experts with too many permissions), it makes perfect sense to invest money in one of the most important areas of a company – security. A large percentage of breaches happen due to weak or stolen passwords alone. Again, the Verizon report provides more details on this, if you’re interested.

Maintain control

A secure environment of a modern digital organization is built with the help of Identity & Access Management, because control over identities and their access to data means a safe and secure environment with a controlled attack surface area.

Let’s briefly clear up the tool hype at this point. The most important thing is strategy. By this we mean the processes and structures that are to be implemented using Identity & Access Management. The tool is secondary, as long as it provides the necessary functions. Of course, there are differences in the solutions offered by the various manufacturers, but that is not the decisive factor in whether an IAM project succeeds or fails.

In large companies, multiple tools are often used as well. At this point, it is possible to become even more versatile and powerful by combining them to reduce the attack surface area. A sophisticated auditing and monitoring tool, for example, improves compliance and gives manifold analysis possibilities up to forensics within an Identity Management system through audit dashboards, reports, and data historization.

Define cyberattack vectors and start reducing the attack surface area

Cyberattack vectors generally refer to the landmarks on an attack surface, each of which represents a vulnerability, such as access points, protocols, or services.

The composition is unique to each organization. There are not two or three of them, as it might seem. It is very likely that an organization has dozens or hundreds of key cyberattack vectors that are vulnerable, such as customer portals, VPNs, public development sites, or vulnerable web components. By identifying the most valuable data and establishing a backup strategy, this complex business environment can be protected and made more resilient to cyberattacks.

Identity & Access Management is considered one of the most effective techniques for reducing the attack surface area because it is the place to ensure that the right identities (not just people, but applications, servers, API’s, and devices) have the correct access to the correct data at the right time. This is where the principles of Zero Trust are significantly implemented, most notably the principle of “Never Trust, Always Verify” and the principle of “Least Privilege”. Other effective techniques include:

Identity & Access Management against complexity and cyberattacks
  • Creating a clean-up plan and removing expired certificates.
  • Performing a code review to remove obsolete or redundant code
  • Keeping passwords secure (or eliminating them) for all employees and partners and providing guidance on what to do in the event of a data breach
  • Regularly scanning the environment to stay informed about the health of the network.

The importance of monitoring should not be underestimated. That’s why Identity & Access Management is more important than ever. Even if an organization has applied all of these techniques, rather than opting for just one or two, monitoring and visibility will ensure that nothing is broken or out of date and that the environment is secure.

Secure can never mean 100% – but it doesn’t have to

No system is 100% secure, but many organizations leave their environments vulnerable to data breaches and cyberattacks because they don’t take all the necessary and effective measures to ensure their network is secure. Even if all measures have been taken, that doesn’t mean that someone who really wants to penetrate a network won’t be able to. Rather, it means that attackers will be greeted with a highly complex security environment in which access is not easily gained. This makes the cyberattack highly time-consuming and labor-intensive, so that cyber criminals will simply move on to a less protected enterprise.

 💡 Sources:

Centrify “IAM Best Practices to Reduce Your Attack Surface”

Okta “What is an Attack Surface? (And How to Reduce It)”