Posts Tagged ‘entitlements’

“Security” is still seen as reactive controls & ignores IAM

There was an excellent article at Dark Reading the other day about data leaks focusing on insider threats. It did all the right things by pointing out “insiders have access to critical company information, and there are dozens of ways for them to steal it” and “these attacks can have significant impact” even though “insider threats represent only a fraction of all attacks–just 4%, according to Verizon’s 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report.” The article goes on to discuss how you can use gateways, DLP for at rest and in flight data, behavioral anomaly detection, and a few other technologies in a “layered approach using security controls at the network, host, and human levels.” I agree with every word.

Yet, there is one aspect of the controls that somehow escapes mention – letting a potentially powerful ally in this fight off the hook from any action. There is not one mention of proactive controls inside the applications and platforms that can be placed there by IAM. A great deal of insider access is inappropriate. Either it’s been accrued over time or granted as part of a lazy “make them look like that other person” approach to managing entitlements. And app-dev teams build their own version of security into each and every little application they pump out. They repeat mistakes, build silos, and fail to consume common data or correctly reflect corporate policies. If these problems with entitlement management and policy enforcement could be fixed at the application level, the threats any insider could pose would be proactively reduced by cutting off access to data they might try to steal in the first place. It’s even possible to design a system where the behavioral anomaly detection systems could be consulted before even handing data over to a user when some thresholds are breached during a transaction – in essence, catching the potential thief red handed.

Why do they get let off the hook? Because it’s easier to build walls, post guards, and gather intelligence than it is to climb right inside of the applications and business processes to fix the root causes. It’s easier to move the levers you have direct control over in IT rather than sit with the business and have the value conversation to make them change things in the business. It’s cheaper now to do the perimeter changes, regardless of the payoff – or costs – later. Again, this is not to indict the content of the article. It was absolutely correct about how people can and very likely will choose to address these threats. But I think every knows there are other ways that don’t get discussed as much because they are harder. In his XKCD comic entitled “The General Problem,” Randall Munroe says it best: “I find that when someone’s taking time to do something right in the present, they’re a perfectionist with no ability to prioritize, whereas when someone took time to do something right in the past, they’re a master artisan of great foresight.” I think what we need right now are some master artisans who are willing to take the heat today for better security tomorrow.

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Policy Translation – The Art of Access Control Transcends RBAC, ABAC, etc.

After some holidays, lots of internal meetings, and some insane travel schedules, things are settling back down this week just in time for me to head to TEC. So I can get back to spending time with Quest’s customers, partners, and having great discussions with people. In the last week, I had three excellent conversations, one with a panel of folks moderated by Martin Kuppinger from Kuppinger & Cole set up by ETM [link to podcast site], another with Don Jones and an audience of folks asking questions set up by [link to webcast], and the third just today with Randy Franklin Smith [link to webinar site]. All these discussions revolved around managing identity (of course); they focused on the business’s view of IAM, wrapping proper security controls around Active Directory, and controlling privileged user access, respectively. Even though the subjects seemed quite far apart, a common question emerged: how do you translate the policy the business has in mind (or the auditor has in mind) into something actionable which can be enforced through a technical control? Put another way, the problem is how to take wishes expressed in business terms and make the come true with technology. To me, this is the central question in the IAM world. We have many ways to enforce controls, many ways to create compound rules, many ways to record and manage policies. But the jump from a policy to a rule is the tricky bit.

Let’s take an example and see what we can do with it. Everyone in the US and many around the world know SOX, and most that know it are familiar with section 404. There is a great wikipedia article about SOX section 404 if you want to brush up. Section 404 makes the statement that it is “the responsibility of management for establishing and maintaining an adequate internal control structure and procedures for financial reporting.” While this makes sense, it’s hardly actionable. And businesses in the US have relied on many layers of committees and associations to distill this. What is that process? It’s lawyers and similarly minded folks figuring out what executives can be charged for if they don’t do things correctly in the face of vague statements like the one above. So they come up with less and less vague statements until they have something they feel is actionable. Of course, what they feel is actionable and what some specific IT department sees as actionable may be quite different.

From the filtering at the high levels of the interbusiness activities you get a statement like “Understand the flow of transactions, including IT aspects, sufficient enough to identify points at which a misstatement could arise,” which comes from the work done by the SEC and POCAB to interpret SOX section 404. That approaches something IT can dig into, but it’s hardly actionable as is. But now a business can take that, bring it inside the organization, and have their executive management and IT work out what it means to them. Of course, there are scads of consultancies, vendors, and others who would love to assist there. Your results may vary when it comes to those folks, or your own folks, being able to make these statements more or less actionable. With this specific statement about the “flow” of data and not allowing “misstatement” to arise, there is general agreement that having IT staff with administrative powers that could, in theory, alter financial data is a risk that needs to have a control. And from that general agreement has risen an entire market for privileged access management products that allow you to restrict people who need administrative rights to do operational tasks in IT infrastructure from using those rights to somehow change data that would be used in any kind of financial reporting (or use that access to do any number of other things covered by other sections of SOX or other regulations like PCI, etc.).

What should be apparent is that things like RBAC, ABAC, and rules based approaches to access control are all simple and straightforward when compared to taking policy and making it actionable. Putting an RBAC system into place is taking action. But, as anyone who has been through an RBAC roll out will tell you, the hardest bit is figuring out the roles. And figuring out the roles is all about interpreting policies. So what is the answer for all those folks on these webcasts who wanted to know how to master this art? The short answer is like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. The medium length answer is to find a consultancy and a vendor that you trust and that have had the right amount of practice and make them do it for you. The long answer is to follow the path I took above trying to explain the question. You need to analyze the requirements, break them down, and keep doing that until you start getting statements that look slightly actionable. Of course, that takes a huge amount of resources, as evidenced by all the money that’s been spent on SOX alone in the US (that same wikipedia article quotes one study that says the cost may have been 1.7 trillion USD). And the final trick is to take your actions and breakdowns back to the top, your auditor or CISO or whomever started the chain, and validate them. That’s a step that gets skipped all too often. And then you see million dollar projects fail with one stroke of an auditor’s pen.

an identity schema: less is more

June 22, 2010 1 comment

My degree is in philosophy; specifically I studied what would be called cognitive science or philosophy of mind. I still read papers and articles about the field occasionally as they come to my attention. Doing some pleasure reading this father’s day weekend I came across this passage in a paper called “Conceptual Problems in Memetics in a Multi-Level View of Evolution and Behaviour” which seemed to call out a problem that is worth considering for those contemplating the next generation of directories:

Consider the problems of ostension for a mother who points out and names the species of a bird that is singing in a tree to her infant child. How does the child know what precisely is being given a name: the name could refer to all trees containing birds, or all small, noisy objects, or of that particular bird, or of the underside of its belly? To avoid ambiguity, the child needs some low-level schemas, perhaps reflecting the nature of taxonomy and the economy of expression, which act as “attractors” for the acquisition of new higher-level schemas. These aspects might allow a child to surmise firstly that the mother is referring to the bird in itself, and not as part of its relation to this particular tree, or the fact that the bird happens to be singing. Secondly, these aspects should allow the child to realise[sic] that it is the “whole” object of the bird that is being referred to, rather than, say, only its underside. While the child has not yet developed a detailed knowledge of birds and their general relations to other very basic categories in the world, he or she is unlikely to expect the mother to be referring to detailed aspects of a bird.

We all know what someone means when they say “there is a need to track all the accounts and rights granted to those accounts that are associated with any specific person”. There are definitive ideas of an account, a person and a right – though a right is likely the one most likely to admit something inexact into the conversation. But these very concrete things are not first order objects in directories, they don’t have their own schema. Instead they are all persons or, worse, accounts, and the very obvious classes they fit into described in that simple to understand requirement are merely attributes assigned to them. That seems like something worth fixing. When the technical and real life descriptions diverge that much, it can never be good for your ability to get things done.

If you look at the language I’m using, my prejudice becomes clear. The concepts of object oriented programming seem to be very useful in this problem space. The idea of having a base class, like a person, and having classes that extend that to be an employee or similar flows very well. It also fits very well with reality. All these entities are people after all. And that base object becomes implemented through a schema for entries in a directory. If one organization relies heavily on contractors and another does not, it’s likely that contractors will have very different “schemas” defining them in each. If those two organization now want to share data about identity including the contractors, they may find themselves with a big job of mapping. If they had a shared basic schema that has been used by another more complex one as a parent in the more contractor reliant shop, there are well established ways for those interactions to take placed based on patterns from object oriented designs. And imagine how much better that could be using something similar to a common schema everyone used.

Doing things along these OO lines would also allow us to do more with less.  Since the base classes are shared, changes to those would make their way through everything.  And as new use cases arise, simple inheritance would allow for quick work making these new classes of schemas that map to the needs.


#eic10 part 2: lacking policy, lagging XACML, authZ not so externalized

I’m not sure why, but the theme for me at EIC10 was policy. It wasn’t that the sessions or discussions were intent on going there. If anything, it was quite the opposite. I sat in on one of the “pre-conference” sessions that was titled “Moving beyond the Perimeter: Identity & Access Management for a Networked World“. That was what set the tone. I went in expecting a lot of discussion about how organization could, should and have been able to overcome the tricky policy barriers to open themselves up and manage access. The reality was that we spent a lot of the time discussing how to get over the challenges of making IAM work inside the perimeter so they can start thinking about the outside. For those that had some established outside presence for identities accessing other resources or accessing their own (and it was only a few), they were set back on their heels by my questions about policy and challenges to explain the legal implications of those access points. Later on, in a session titled “It has been Quiet around Federation. Is this a good Sign or a bad one?“, asked what challenges were faced by your organization when trying to federate, I answered that we (Quest) had faced numerous legal challenges to getting federation done. Each time has been a meeting with lawyers and lawyers meeting with lawyers and so on. The shocked looks from the general audience didn’t quite drown out the few nodding heads that clearly knew exactly what I meant. It shouldn’t surprise me that technology outstrips policy and that technologists don’t see the policy lagging behind until it’s too late, but somehow it always does.

Of course, technology is still my preoccupation so I was equally into the technology of policy that seemed to pervade EIC10. XACML was everywhere. Or maybe it only seemed that way because I attended so many of Felix Gaehtgens‘s sessions. However, there were a few stark contrasts that struck me. First, there were no fewer than 5 vendors on the floor offering XACML based or compliant solutions for externalized authorization. Despite that, I didn’t see one keynote mention it, nor customer story talk about having that be built into their architecture. Even the big vendors, when directly questioned about it, immediately submersed it into an acronym soup of SAML, claims, and other federated related stuff. It seems like many are now using “federated” interchangeably with “externalized”, which is sensible on some level but seems to lose some of the important distinctions between the two (e.g. trust is explicit with federation and implicit with externalization). By far my favorite externalized authorization moment was in a panel titled “How to make your Software Security Architecture Future-Proof” when Felix asked Kim Cameron, who had just made his interstellar announcement, the following: “if the application has to have internal logic to handle claims, then the authorization has not been externalized, right?” Kim made no real answer. But I think Felix said what a lot of people were thinking. Claims are the bees knees, but WIF still embeds all the authorization logic right in the application itself.

This will be the last on the conference. It was a real blast and I got to meet some of the folks who have haunted my mind via twitter for a long time in person. Good stuff.

Access Certification CBT/video for non-IT folks

November 19, 2009 1 comment

I’m always in catch up mode with my reading. I finally got to Ian Glazer’sAccess Certification and Entitlement Management” on a plane to California. If you are in the market for access certification, trying to understand how to construct and approach to managing entitlements or just want to understand the moving parts of access in any reasonably complex organization, then this is a must read. What got me thinking most was the tone of the paper. Essentially it boils down to the good advice to make sure you define boundaries for tasks well and get the people from the business who should own the information to become the owners by the end of the process. Ian also encourages you to use whatever resources you can, even if they make strange bedfellows. It reminded me very much (and I’m going to mix analyst firms here so forgive me) of Earl Perkin’s thoughts about making the auditor your friend and making sure you “care, but not too much”, which he communicated at the Gartner IAM Summit last week (and blogged about previously as well).

All this got me thinking about the actual content of such IT to business communication regarding access certification. And, since I was trapped on a 6+ hour flight with a power outlet but no internet, I came up with this small, tongue in cheek video. I know the terms will feel like nails on a chalkboard to some since they are not exact. But I really tried to exercise that “it’s more important that they get the right ideas and not the exact right terminology” notion as best I could.

RBAC and ABAC and Roles, oh my.

November 3, 2009 13 comments

So I missed the Kuppinger Cole webinar with Felix Gaehtgens on ABAC, but I read the materials and the Q&A was really good. What it got me thinking was that there may not be enough good stuff in the world explaining the basic differences between RBAC and ABAC and why one may be better than the other. So here’s my take on it.

First, let’s set up what RBAC is. RBAC stands for Role Based Access Control. The idea is that instead of granting individuals access to assets the access is granted to a role. Individuals are then associated with the role and thereby gain access to the assets. Like with so many things, there is a decent wikipedia article on RBAC, but it fails to capture some of the basic flaws I see. If you were to draw a picture of RBAC, it may look like this:

From left to right in the above diagram, you have the asset to which access is being granted. Then there is some form of a rule which is controlling access to that asset. If the asset were a file, then the permissions in the filesystem for that file would be the rule. Then you have the roles. The roles can have users associated in a number of ways. Attributes can determine the user being associated. Rules can also be used to determine role association. And a user can also simply be declared to have a role explicitly. Last you have the users and all their attributes. If the users were in AD, then the attributes would be all the attributes of the user object. In this RBAC model, the assumption is that controlling and maintaining access is easier since there doesn’t have to be a direct relationship maintained for every user. The roles act as an abstraction layer. When assets were all files and the rules that governed access to them were very simple, that made sense. Now assets are much more than files on disk, there is almost always a middle application tier involved, and the rules are very robust.

In this newer, application ruled world, there are many issues with RBAC. First, asset owners must be aware of role details in order to make their choices about what roles get access. To grant access to the wrong roles means granting access to the wrong user. So all the logic for the granting of the role must be understood by the asset owner and that means almost no advantage in terms of spreading out load for maintenance – everybody must understand everything. Second, there are now two layers of abstraction, rules and roles. This results in some very complex interactions which make it hard to get a grasp of just how access is being granted, and that is very bad come audit time. Third, access is now dependent on role maintenance. If there is a group maintaining the roles with a complex and locked down change control procedure and a nimble application group which needs a lot of changes, you end up with process timing mismatches that can cost real money. And last but far from least, new use cases for assets means new roles. Because the rules can only result in a pass or fail for roles, if there is a need to have a different access scenario there will be a need for a new role to match it. And that means role proliferation and more maintenance.

For those reasons and more, I believe ABAC is becoming more popular. ABAC is Attribute Based Access Control. It’s picture is much more simple:

Right away, it’s clear ABAC is cleaner. It eliminates the man in the middle and puts the users right in touch with the assets. The abstraction layer RBAC provides has become overhead in the face of the new ways the assets can govern themselves. The rules assets can use via their applications are more than enough to give flexibility to the asset owners. And since the users are likely to have a good set of attributes to draw on for evaluating their claim to access, there is no reason to add the other layer of roles to mitigate. The rules can simply evaluate attributes and be quite abstracted from the actual users. And since it’s much more likely that attribute stores are well maintained since they are linked to HR and other time and legally sensitive business drivers, there is much less likely to be issues with asset owners outpacing the maintenance of their source of access control information.

Of course, roles are not simply going away. The role of roles is changing. The new picture is really more like this:

The roles are not directly involved with access control rules – except perhaps that they may show up as an attribute of the user and be used in the rules evaluations. But the roles are very useful in the administration of massive sets of users. They are also very useful in the attestation, auditing and other security and identity processes around entitlement management. Maybe it’s time to think of RBEC, Role Based Entitlement Control. The idea being that entitlements, the security view of business rules for access, are governed and audited via roles. But we can keep the OLTP side of access control, the effective controls, in an ABAC form.

That’s a lot of typing. Hope someone finds it useful…

entitlements and access – separate but equal?

So I’ve finally had the time to digest a lot of the materials and notes I collected at catalyst 2009. Though the identity track had a lot of content around many topics, there was one theme I kept hearing again and again. Access control is king. That’s not news, but it seems like everyone is just coming back from role management, provisioning and other IAM projects to find that the core issue is still waiting to be solved.

The other thing that seemed to emerge, at least to me, was a distinction between the definition of entitlement management and access management. Entitlement management is the practice of deciding what business functions a person should have access to. So a statement about entitlements would be: “Sally Brown the Accounting Director may sign off to close the books at the end of a quarter”. That may be recorded in a system. And I think that is the ultimate goal of systems like Aveksa, Sailpoint and CA/Eurekify. But what seems to happen in those systems in a practical sense is that people record things at a technical level. So they end up with statements like: “people belonging to a group with an ID of 3345 may execute the sys_plx_camp_fog procedure in the PROD system”. Of course, that is useful to know. But it is still something that needs to be decoded. To their credit, all the systems let you put friendly names around these things, but that doesn’t address the core issue. The core issue is that people are using an entitlements tool to solve access issues. It is a process issue.

Access management is the practice of encoding and enforcing entitlements in the IT infrastructure. It’s where the rubber meets the road. So things in your access management solution should actually be able to touch your infrastructure and make it listen to policy. This type of tool has been around forever. Quest’s own ActiveRoles Server, Privilege Manager for Unix and others perform this role in various types of infrastructure. Another prime example is Keystone from BiTKOO, which does this using all the new OASIS pizzazz of XACML, PDPs, PEPs and such. And just like the entitlements tools get abused by the IT staff to do technical duties, you also see these tools getting pulled by the business to try and to entitlements work.

Of course, all of this goes back to that ever present prime mover in identity – compliance. Not the only reason people do IAM work, but one of the major drivers to be sure. And so the use of one product to do entitlements and access work is natural because people are trying to get things done under time constraints to avoid failures in the next audit and also under budget constraint since they (IT) are spending someone else’s money to do it.

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