What Is Identity and Access Management?

Identity and access management (IAM) is a framework of policies, processes, and technologies that enable organisations to manage digital identities and control user access to data, systems, and resources within a computer network.

IAM is a critical component of cybersecurity, as compromised user credentials are among the most common targets for hackers to gain entry into organisations’ networks through malware, phishing, and ransomware attacks.

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How Identity and Access Management Works

Identity and access management works by implementing a strategic set of policies, procedures, and technologies to manage user identities and control their access to network resources. This includes:

  • Identity Lifecycle Management: IAM systems create and maintain a digital identity for each user or entity on the network. This includes capturing and recording user login information and managing the enterprise database of user identities.
  • Authentication: When a user requests access to a resource, the IAM system authenticates their identity by checking their user credentials against those stored in the directory. This can be done through various authentication factors, such as username and password combinations, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and adaptive authentication.
  • Authorisation: Once the user’s identity is authenticated, the IAM system determines the user’s level and type of access privileges based on their identity and role within the organisation. Users can be assigned to groups or roles to simplify access management for large cohorts of users.
  • Access Management: IAM systems orchestrate the assignment and removal of access privileges, ensuring that users have the right level of access to resources. This helps organisations adhere to the principle of least privilege, where users are granted only the access rights necessary to fulfil their work duties.
  • Enforcement: IAM systems not only create identities and assign permissions but also help enforce those permissions. They ensure that users can only use resources in ways the organisation permits, reducing the risk of internal and external data breaches.
  • Integration: IAM solutions are typically implemented through centralised technology that integrates with existing access and sign-on systems. They employ a central directory of users, roles, and predefined permission levels to grant access rights based on user roles and the need to access specific systems, applications, and data.

IAM is a complex and customisable framework that can be tailored to an organisation’s unique needs. Practical applications and implementation may differ depending on the organisation’s size, industry, and regulatory requirements.

Purpose of Identity and Access Management

The overarching purpose of identity and access management is to ensure that the right individuals or entities have appropriate access to resources while maintaining the security and integrity of the system. More specifically, the intention of IAM is multifold.

  • Secure access to resources: Identity and access management systems enable organisations to grant secure access to company resources, such as emails, databases, data, and applications, to verified entities, ideally with minimal interference. This protects organisations against unauthorised access and data breaches.
  • Efficient management of identities: IAM systems facilitate the management of user identities, including capturing and recording user login information, managing the enterprise database of user identities, and orchestrating the assignment and removal of access privileges. This streamlines the process of onboarding and offboarding employees, contractors, and partners, ensuring that access is granted and revoked in a timely manner.
  • Compliance with regulations: IAM solutions help organisations comply with data protection standards, such as Europe’s GDPR and HIPAA in the United States. By enforcing strict standards for data security, IAM systems help organisations avoid legal and financial penalties.
  • Increased productivity: Identity and access management enables employees to access the tools and resources they need to perform their jobs efficiently without the burden of managing multiple usernames and passwords or navigating complex access control systems. In turn, this can lead to increased employee productivity and collaboration.
  • Support for cloud computing: IAM is a crucial component of cloud computing, where traditional usernames and passwords may not be sufficient to ensure security. IAM systems help organisations manage and monitor access attempts across platforms and devices, providing a centralised and secure approach to identity and access management.
  • Automation and scalability: IAM solutions automate tasks and workflows that can be challenging or impossible to handle manually, especially in large organisations. Automation enables efficient management of identities and access permissions as the organisation grows and changes over time.

Importance and Benefits of Identity and Access Management

The benefits of implementing identity and access management can vary depending on the organisation’s size, industry, and specific needs. However, several key factors contribute to the overall benefits, importance, and return on investment of IAM:

Improved Security Posture

At its core, a robust IAM solution reduces the threat of potential breaches, which can cost organisations millions of dollars. IAM provides added security features like adaptive authentication, biometrics, and compromised credential checks, enhancing the organisation’s overall security.

Direct Cost Savings

IAM solutions can help organisations save costs by automating access-related tasks and reducing the need for manual intervention and support. This includes savings in provisioning and deprovisioning users, managing passwords, and handling access requests, which can all be streamlined and automated with IAM tools.

Indirect Cost Savings

In addition to direct cost savings, IAM can provide indirect cost savings by improving security, reducing the risk of data breaches, and minimising the impact of security incidents. These indirect cost savings can be significant, as the cost of a data breach can be substantial, including potential legal fees, regulatory fines, and damage to the organisation’s reputation.

Efficiency Gains

Identity and access management can streamline the process of granting and revoking access to systems and applications, reducing the time and effort spent on manual processes such as password resets and user provisioning. This increased efficiency can lead to cost savings and improved productivity.

Improved User Experience

A well-implemented IAM solution can provide a seamless and secure user experience, increasing user satisfaction and productivity. This can positively impact the organisation’s bottom line, as satisfied users are more likely to be loyal customers and advocates for the organisation’s products or services.

Scalability and Flexibility

IAM solutions are designed to be scalable and flexible, allowing organisations to easily adapt to changing business needs and requirements. This can result in cost savings by avoiding additional investments in new systems or infrastructure as the organisation grows or changes.

Compliance Regulations That Require IAM

Identity and access management solutions are crucial for organisations to meet compliance regulations. Specific compliance regulations that require IAM include:

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): Organisations must ensure data security during collection and storage. A robust IAM solution for GDPR compliance should include access management, access governance, authorisation, authentication, identity management, and identity governance.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): IAM ensures HIPAA compliance, including using federated identities, single sign-on (SSO), least privileges, regular credential rotation, multi-factor authentication, and role-based policies.
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS): IAM solutions help organisations meet PCI-DSS requirements by enforcing a “least-privileges” model, which can prevent accidental or malicious damage to systems and critical data breaches.
  • North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC): Identity and access management can help organisations comply with NERC requirements by providing centralised authentication, access management, and role-based access control.
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): IAM solutions assist FERPA compliance by managing user identities from enrolment to graduation, limiting staff privileges to prevent access rights to personally identifiable information (PII), and sending password requests to update credentials as appropriate.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX): Organisations that need to meet SOX requirements can use IAM systems to establish secure authentication levels, limit staff privileges, and manage user identities to access financial data.
  • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA): IAM solutions can assist in GLBA compliance by providing secure authentication, access management, and role-based access control for financial institutions.

These are just some of the most prevalent examples of compliance regulations that demand effective identity and access management solutions. A robust IAM programme can help organisations meet these regulations, enhance security, and protect sensitive data.

IAM Technologies

The various technologies that support identity and access management can be categorised into different types based on their functionalities. Some of the common types of IAM technologies include:

  • Password Management Tools: These tools help users manage their passwords, ensuring they are strong and changed regularly to maintain security.
  • Provisioning Software: This software helps manage creating, modifying, and deleting user identities and access rights.
  • Security-Policy Enforcement Applications: These applications ensure that all users adhere to the organisation’s security policies.
  • Reporting and Monitoring Apps: These apps help monitor user activities and generate reports for audit and compliance purposes.
  • Identity Repositories: These are databases where user identity information is stored and managed.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO): This technology allows users to log in once and gain access to all systems without being prompted to log in again at each of them.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): This technology requires more than one authentication method from independent categories of credentials to verify the user’s identity for a login or other transaction.
  • Risk-Based Authentication (RBA): A method of applying varying levels of stringency to authentication processes based on the likelihood that access could result in being compromised by a hacker.
  • Biometric Authentication: This technology uses unique biological characteristics, such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or voice patterns, to verify identity for secure access.
  • Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS): This cloud-based service manages user identities and access controls.

It’s important to note that the selection of an IAM technology should be based on the organisation’s specific needs. Factors to consider include the number of users needing access, solutions, devices, applications, services the organisation uses, and its existing IT setup.


Identity and Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management (PAM) are crucial components of an organisation’s security strategy, but they serve different functions and target different sets of users.

The main difference between IAM and PAM lies in the scope and stringency of the authentication protocols involved. IAM applies to organisations more broadly when authenticating and authorising users. It focuses on ensuring that only employees can access organisational resources. PAM, however, focuses on specific groups of users with the same profile type, such as system administrators or employees in HR or finance, who need an elevated level of access to do their jobs effectively.

Another key difference is that while IAM applies to far more users, its general focus doesn’t require the same stringent authentication protocols as PAM. Due to its focus on privileged users, PAM requires more rigorous authentication and authorisation processes.

In terms of implementation, both IAM and PAM are crucial for an organisation’s security. However, if you are choosing which to implement first, it should be PAM. This is because PAM protects access to the accounts, which, if breached, would be the most devastating.

In conclusion, while both IAM and PAM are related to cybersecurity and access control, they serve different audiences and have different focuses. Organisations should use both tools to effectively safeguard against internal and external breaches and eliminate vulnerabilities to hackers.

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