Identity Security’s Crucial Role in Safeguarding Data Privacy

November 9, 2023 Lilach Faerman Koren

Digital fingerprint illustration depicting data and its relationship to identity security.

More than 130 global jurisdictions have enacted data privacy laws. While each contains rules and requirements distinct to their regions, they share a common priority: identity security.

That’s because if an attacker compromises a single identity in an organization where sensitive data is collected, stored and handled, it’s all downhill from there. A single stolen credential – an IT admin’s SSH key, a developer’s secret or a vendor’s password – is the starting point for a nefarious momentum that’s tough to stop. This is why securing the identities that can access sensitive data and the identity-rich infrastructure where your data lives is essential.

Read on for an examination of why identity security should live at the core of data privacy strategies and provide best practices.

What’s at Stake? Data’s Value and Inherent Risks

In today’s digital age, data is the lifeblood of businesses and organizations, fueling decision-making, innovation and customer trust. And the benefits of being an effective data steward are often rooted in outcomes that don’t happen. For example, a health insurance company that keeps its members’ data off the dark web won’t appear in reputation-damaging headlines; that’s the ideal outcome. A consumer technology company that protects its users’ data from breaches won’t join the ranks of firms contributing to the billions other companies have paid in General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fines.

The list goes on; the stakes keep rising.

In short, data is the currency of the digital economy. It can be quietly stolen, sold and exploited relatively easily, making it an attractive target. And the owners of personal data have very few options for stopping these outcomes. If consumers learn their credit card information was affected by a breach, they can cancel the card or change the password relatively easily. In contrast, personal data is far more challenging to modify once compromised. It is intrinsic to who you are, the life you’ve built and every entity you engage with – people, healthcare institutions, businesses and governments.

Controlling Access to Data: Start with Identity

This heightened value of data underscores the need for comprehensive data privacy measures and strong identity security controls and hygiene. And the pressure is on. Regulations like GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the Network and Information Systems (NIS2) directive in the EU have set stringent standards for data protection. But the job of securing data is complex. Across privileged IT users and everyday employees, there are too many identities and privileges to handle. The economic pressure and staff burden make it impossible for security teams to keep up with access certification.

Data privacy begins with controlling who can access sensitive information. In the realm of identity security, this involves managing access rights effectively. Whether it’s sales representatives accessing customer data, HR professionals handling sensitive employee information or IT managers overseeing system resources, it’s essential to maintain the principle of least privilege (PoLP) to ensure that only the right people have access to specific data, reducing the risk of unauthorized data exposure. This requires comprehensive identity and access management (IAM) controls and capabilities.

Here are two examples:

  • An adaptive form of multi-factor authentication (MFA) can enable organizations to strengthen their security posture through additional checks to validate identities in multiple layers.
  • Automated lifecycle management can help organizations easily define and enforce each user’s unique role, responsibilities and access privileges.

Data Location and Privileged Access: Where PAM Comes into Play

While controlling access to data is crucial, securing the infrastructure where data is stored and managed is equally essential. This is where privileged access management (PAM) controls come into play.

Consider admins needing access to critical databases or engineers responsible for maintaining cloud-based storage and data services. A comprehensive PAM program, rooted in fundamentals but evolved to secure a broader range of identities, can ensure:

  • Access is tightly protected with layers of powerful, holistic control, helping organizations adopt a Zero Trust mindset and deliver measurable cyber-risk reduction.
  • Privileged users’ sessions are fully isolated and monitored to prevent the spread of malware and monitor end user behavior for forensics, audit and compliance purposes – without sacrificing the native user experience.
  • Identities are continuously verified with strong authentication mechanisms, including biometrics, to help validate identities following a Zero Trust philosophy.
  • Users’ web application and cloud services sessions are secured, which is crucial in preventing malware and providing audit trails.

Also worth mentioning: encryption plays a pivotal role in safeguarding data, ensuring that even if unauthorized access occurs, the data remains unreadable.

Privilege and Machines: Protecting Non-human Identities

In the context of data privacy, privilege isn’t limited to human users alone – especially at a time when machine identities outnumber human identities by 45:1. Non-human entities like servers, applications and automated processes also require identities and privileges.

It’s essential to align these non-human identities with PoLP to limit access to only what’s necessary. Furthermore, the authentication of machines must be fortified to prevent misuse or compromise. Secrets management and credential rotation are as critical for non-human identities as humans, and organizations look to secure them without compromising agility and development workflows.

Here are a few best practices to apply:

  • Integrate secrets management with existing tools and applications to simplify secrets management.
  • Centralize secrets management and reduce secrets sprawl.
  • Automate security functions to improve operational efficiency.
  • Provide easy-to-use options for developers.

Reporting and Audit: Ensuring Compliance

Complying with data privacy regulations requires meticulous reporting and auditing processes. Organizations must provide specific insights into their data security practices and demonstrate adherence to best practices. In this context, data sovereignty becomes increasingly relevant as regulators and organizations work to maximize ownership and control of data.

The problem is that economic pressures such as staffing and resource gaps make it hard for security teams to keep up with audit and reporting demands.

This exemplifies how automation can help – and why it’s essential. The work associated with compliance will only increase; if teams aren’t growing in parallel, you need efficiencies that can help you scale up to audit requirements. Automated access certification processes and ensuring a constant review of existing entitlements can help remove time-consuming manual tasks from the equation.

A Zero Trust approach is standard practice for compliance across industries. This means working under the assumption that all users and devices are implicitly untrusted and must be authenticated, authorized and continuously validated regardless of location or network.

Many directives and guidelines reflect Zero Trust principles; in conversations with auditors, it’s essential to show which identities have access to what resources and demonstrate what controls you have in place to secure it all.

High-Risk Access in the Cloud and Zero Standing Privilege

Cloud environments are complex, and the sheer number of servers and accounts makes it easy to overlook security configurations, making robust identity security controls in the cloud crucial. In turn, misconfiguration of cloud access is a common pitfall for organizations’ security. Recent data breaches have highlighted the importance of proper cloud access management. Many incidents result from simple misconfigurations rather than sophisticated cyberattacks.

But there’s hope. Pursuing zero standing privileges (ZSP) can significantly reduce the risk of identity compromise and credential theft and misuse. By limiting access to only what is necessary for a specific task and reducing standing privileges to the minimum, ZSP enhances data security and privacy.

Especially in developing their own cloud-based software offerings, implementing least privilege and ZSP principles can help organizations meet requirements for data privacy regulations and earn SOC 2 or ISO 27001 certifications. These certifications also accelerate growth opportunities by building trust and credibility for consumers.

While zero standing privilege (ZSP) is often associated with privileged access, a growing discussion exists about extending its application to data consumers across departments, such as HR, sales and finance. Ensuring all users operate under PoLP is a proactive step toward bolstering data security and compliance.

Protecting Data in Today’s Threat Landscape

Data privacy and security remain critical for organizations and the stakes are higher than ever. With regulations and frameworks increasing, the rising value of data and the integration of data-driven technologies all demand a proactive approach to identity security. Organizations must prioritize robust identity security controls and hygiene, implement ZSP and stay abreast of evolving compliance requirements to safeguard their most valuable asset: data. By doing so, they can mitigate risks, protect customer trust, and thrive in a world where data is the new currency.

Lilach Faerman Koren is a product marketing manager at CyberArk.

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