Monday, October 27, 2008

Identity governance evolves to must-do item on personnel management and IT security checklist

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Read complete transcript of the discussion.

Security and risk aversion around personnel, applications, and IT systems access have never been more urgent. Properly managed identity information and access rules for users of enterprise applications and systems have evolved quickly from hiring and firing to also gaining insight into improper ongoing use and abuse patterns.

Shoddy provisioning of users on and off of IT systems and services won't pass muster with internally mandated best security practices, not to mention becoming a major liability in a new era of mandated regulation and oversight. Guessing which users have access to which discrete services from inside or outside of the company won't fly in a virtualized and cloud-augmented world.

The alternative to guesswork moves IT operators and security officer closer to the level of identity governance, a step above simply granting access and privileges. It means becoming pro-active in managing roles and access across multiple dimensions in a business, across an identity governance lifecycle, for as long as users can interact with a company and its assets.

To learn more about what identity governance means and how big the stakes are for enterprises and highly regulated vertical industries, I recently spoke with Mark McClain, the CEO and founder of SailPoint Technologies, along with Jackie Gilbert, vice president of marketing and also a founder at SailPoint.

Here are some excerpts:
If you look back over most of this decade, back to the turn of the century – it’s still funny to say that phrase – you see a series of issues with breaches. There’s been a series of issues with fraud or potential fraud, everything from Enron to things that happened with other companies where there are questionable practices, and then various clear issues of fraud or criminal activity.

And all of that together has brought about a new focus on privacy, financial oversight, and good governance, which is, in many cases, all related to the management of risk. ... There is a lot of churn in the financial markets and in the companies that make up those markets, where people are potentially moving inside of companies, changing jobs, lots of potential lay-offs happening.

That's when these issues of good governance, good controls over who has access to which critical information become very, very acute. ... Now, you have executives, boards, and business managers, who are being asked to be accountable and to gauge the risk and the effectiveness of controls around identity. ... Some industries have 30-percent churn, with people coming in and out of the organization. All that makes this an extremely difficult problem, just getting proper visibility.

Those people are being asked to use tools and approve, certify, and deem whether access privileges and the accounts the users hold are correct, and do not place businesses at risk. So, if you think about it, it has actually forced the marriage of business and IT all around this issue of identity governance.

We now have the auditors, both internal and external, and/or the compliance people who want to have a say, or a seat at the table, to talk about how well we are managing these kinds of access privileges and what risks are involved, when they are not managed well. ... One of the dirty, dark secrets today is that governance and compliance have become harder, and auditors have been forcing more frequent and periodic review of the access information. Quarterly or annually, these managers and applications owners need to re-certify who has access to what.

Another dirty secret in the industry right now is that managers and applications owners must sign-off on these reports, but they don't understand them, because those reports are generated out of the IT systems and they are incomprehensible to the business people.

You certainly have the business people paying attention now because you have senior management who are highly motivated to avoid being the next headline. They don't want their company showing up out there with Cox Communications, the IRS, Wachovia, and any number of companies like Dupont, which have hit the headlines in the last two or three years with some sort of significant breach related to access.

There is a little a bit of a hot potato now going on where IT and security groups are saying, "Hey, I am not going sign-up and own this problem entirely, because I don't have the business context to know exactly what does or doesn't represent risk. You business people have to define that for us."

It really does start with answering the fundamental question that most companies wrestle with, which is "Who has access to what?" One of my customers has joked about the fact that on the day you start with the company, you have access to nothing, and on the day you leave, you have access to everything. Quite often, the only person who actually knows all of the access privileges I may have after 15 years at a company is me.

There have been multiple groups I have moved through, multiple help desks, and IT organizations that have been part of granting me access over the years. So, it's quite probable that, literally, only I understand all of the privileges I have as an employee -- and that's a problem.

[Our solution] is pretty analogous to business intelligence (BI) and even data warehousing or data mining, if you will. Our approach is to take a very lightweight, read-only access to the data. We pull entitlement data and account data from applications and servers throughout the enterprise and we aggregate that into what is basically an entitlement warehouse.

We physically create a common data view of users and their entitlements. What that gives you is not only the visibility in one, single place, but it gives you the business context to better understand it. And it allows us to do some automation of controls and policy enforcement, and some risk assessment. It's amazing the value you can derive, once you get the data all in one place and normalized, so that you can apply all kinds of rules and logic to it.

... It's all in one place. They’re not getting a single spreadsheet per application. They’re getting it all centralized per employee or per application, however they want to see it.

We can also scan that data, looking for policy violations. A good example of that would be what we call "toxic combinations," such as “you can't have an employee who both has the ability to set up a vendor and pay a vendor.” Those are two different access privileges that together indicate a high potential for fraud. So by combining all the entitlement data into one single database, you can much more easily scan for and detect potential policy violations and also the potential for risk to the business.
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Listen to the podcast. Download the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Learn more. Sponsor: SailPoint Technologies.