Fortifying Your Perimeter with Identity-First Security

Written July 11, 2024

Key Data Identity First Security

The IT security landscape protected by firewalls, VPNs, and physical access controls is no longer. Cloud computing has shattered these walls, enabling data to flow freely across organizational boundaries, networks, and the traditional perimeter. Mobile workforces have expanded the perimeter, accessing sensitive information from anywhere in the world. At the same time, an ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT) has thrown open the digital gates with a multitude of new connected devices, each presenting potential new attack vectors.

These dramatic changes have rendered traditional perimeter-based security models obsolete. Just as a moat alone can't protect a castle without vigilant guards, network-based perimeter controls are insufficient against today's sophisticated attackers. They've shifted tactics, bypassing firewalls by forging user identities, exploiting human error, and leveraging social engineering to gain access from within. Attackers today aren’t “breaking in”; they are “logging in”.

This new reality demands a fundamental shift – a move towards identity-first security. This innovative approach recognizes that user identities are the new frontline in IT security. Identity-first security offers a more granular and user-centric strategy by focusing on securing access at the user level, regardless of location or device. This ensures the safety and integrity of your most valuable digital assets – your data and systems.

The Shortcomings of Traditional Security Models

For decades, the dominant security strategy relied on a perimeter-based approach. You could imagine it as a medieval castle with its thick walls and guarded gates – this is the core idea of traditional security. Firewalls acted as digital walls, meticulously filtering incoming and outgoing traffic based on pre-defined rules. Network segmentation further strengthened this defense by dividing the internal network into smaller zones, limiting access and potential damage if a breach occurred.

This model, which worked well for protecting in-house networks, crumbles under the weight of modern realities. The rise of cloud computing has fundamentally altered the way we store and access data. Sensitive information is now potentially accessible from anywhere outside of the in-house network with an Internet connection.

Mobile devices are further eroding our well-defined perimeter. Employees can now access corporate resources from laptops, tablets, and smartphones, all potentially vulnerable to security risks outside of centralized IT control.

IT security is a new game today, with new rules. The ineffectiveness of traditional perimeter defenses is evident in the increasing number of successful breaches, which have exploded in frequency and intensity since 2020.

The 2023 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report highlighted the limitations of firewalls and network segmentation in a world where attackers can bypass the perimeter entirely by compromising user identities. Their research found that 82% of breaches involved a human element, often exploiting weak or stolen credentials.

Understanding Identity-First Security

Identity-first security is a product of a fundamental, universal first step of all data access: authenticating and authorizing the user. Of course, securing data requires multiple controls at multiple stages of the data access journey, but this first step highlights that protecting human or non-human users is the key to preventing malicious access in virtually all scenarios.

Recognizing that identities are the keys to accessing sensitive information, identity-first security places user identity at the core, with a security architecture based on least privilege, secured by continuous authentication.

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  • User Identity: Identity-first security treats each user as unique, regardless of location or device. Access decisions are based on a user's identity and associated risk profile, not just their physical network location.
  • Least Privilege Access Control: This principle minimizes user access. Users receive only the permissions necessary to perform their job functions, reducing the potential damage if their credentials are compromised or if they connect with malicious intent.
  • Continuous Authentication: Identity-first security goes beyond the initial login. It employs continuous authentication mechanisms that monitor user activity and request additional verification if suspicious behavior is detected or if the user’s risk profile changes.

Identity-first security secures access at the individual level through a multi-layered Identity and Access Management (IAM) strategy with several key components:

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Authentication verifies a user's identity before granting access to resources. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a core principle here, requiring users to provide additional verification beyond just a username and password. This could involve fingerprint scans, one-time codes sent to a trusted device, or security questions.

Authorization: Once a user is authenticated, authorization determines their level of access to specific systems and data so users can only access what they need to perform their job duties. minimizing the potential damage if their credentials are compromised.

User Management: This component involves creating, managing, and monitoring user accounts throughout their lifecycle within the organization. This includes provisioning access for new hires, de-provisioning access for departing employees, and enforcing password policies to ensure strong credentials are used.

Auditing and Reporting: Identity-first security programs provide detailed audit trails that track access attempts, successful logins, and any unusual activity so you can identify and stop breaches.

Identity-first security is more granular and user-centric than traditional perimeter-based security models. It ensures that the right people have the right access and provides a more detailed and adaptable approach to securing access in today's dynamic digital environment.

Benefits of Identity-First Security for Your Organization

Moving from a perimeter-centric approach to an identity-first security strategy offers a multitude of benefits for organizations.

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Better Security: Identity-first security focuses on preventing unauthorized access by prioritizing user identities and verifying access attempts. MFA and least privilege access control further strengthen this security approach. By focusing on the most likely security vulnerabilities, identity-first security lowers the organization's risk.

Improved User Experience: Identity-first security, often paired with single sign-on (SSO), simplifies and expands the user experience. Employees can access the resources they need from any authorized device, from diverse locations, with a single login, streamlining their workflow and boosting productivity. Identity-first security removes network-based restrictions on users, allowing them to access workflows not previously possible.

Enhanced Visibility: Identity-first security focuses on who can access the system and how they access it. Having visibility into user activity can help you detect breaches and insider threats before they cause serious damage.

Increased Scalability: Identity-first security is inherently scalable, with its core focus on user identities. Permissions based on individual identities rather than complex network configurations simplify adding new users or devices.

Improved Compliance: Data privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA require strict data management and security. Identity-first security simplifies compliance by strengthening user identity and access controls.

Finding the Right Identity-First Security Solution

If you’re like many IT security leaders, you know the risks you face all too well and may not know where to start or what will work best for your organization’s IT security needs. We understand that effective IAM is not one-size-fits-all. Developing a robust, adaptable, and flexible IAM strategy takes a village.

Ready to learn more? Send us your questions or schedule an assessment today with one of our KeyData experts.


Verizon 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report

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