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What are Cloud IAM Permissions?

Cloud identity and access management (IAM) permissions let IT and security organizations control access to the resources in their cloud environments. Each cloud provider — Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform (GCP) — offers a unique set of IAM capabilities with distinct permission principles and constructs.

Corporate IT and security planners need to take a close look at entitlements when migrating applications and infrastructure to the cloud. Traditional IAM permission models aren’t well suited for AWS, Azure and GCP environments. Conventional IAM solutions and practices were designed to protect and control access to systems and applications deployed in an on-premises corporate data center owned and operated by an enterprise.

Today’s cloud and multi-cloud environments are highly distributed, accessed by a much larger set of constituents and far more difficult and complex to monitor and control. Unlike conventional data centers, cloud infrastructure is owned and operated by the cloud provider and governed by a shared responsibility model. The cloud provider provides directory services and user authentication, authorization and auditing functions for cloud infrastructure and services. Traditional designations of privileged and non-privileged access simply don’t map to the cloud; IT and security planners cannot extend traditional IAM tools and permission models to the cloud.

Cloud Least Privilege Access and IAM Challenges

The sheer scale, diversity and dynamic nature of the cloud pose a number of challenges for IT operations and security teams. In a cloud environment, corporate IT and security professionals must control and track IAM permissions for human, application and machine identities as they access an ever-increasing variety and volume of workloads.

IAM permissions govern access to

  • Cloud resources: e.g., files, Virtual Machine servers, Kubernetes containers and serverless infrastructure
  • Cloud services: e.g., database, virtualization, storage and networking services
  • Cloud administrative accounts: e.g., cloud management consoles, security admin consoles and billing portals

AWS, Azure and GCP combined support an astounding 21,000+ unique permissions that can be assigned.

Another factor making IAM permissions a challenge for security teams is that each cloud provider has distinct roles, permission models, tools and terminology. Each cloud provider supports a variety of IAM features like multi-factor authentication (MFA), single sign-on (SSO) and role-based access controls (RBAC). Methodologies for granting and navigating permissions differ across AWS IAM, Azure IAM and GCP IAM. Businesses that use multiple cloud providers are forced to use multiple provider-specific tools, which can lead to configuration inconsistencies, security gaps and vulnerabilities. Administering and tracking IAM permissions across clouds is an inefficient, error-prone undertaking that squanders time and resources.

And the ephemeral nature of the cloud further complicates matters. Applications and services are instantiated on demand, and containers are spun up and spun down continuously. Assigning entitlements and tracking access privileges to these short-lived workloads is even more challenging.

Manual Cloud IAM Practices Introduce Security Vulnerabilities

Many organizations rely on manual, risk-prone administrative practices for managing cloud IAM entitlements and accessing credentials. Passwords and other credentials are often statically configured or infrequently rotated, exposing the organization to security breaches and data leakage. (To account for these risks, many organizations are adopting “Zero Trust” mindsets that assume identities will be compromised and aim to limit attackers from moving laterally and escalating privileges.)

Credentials are sometimes shared among multiple users, creating security vulnerabilities and forensics challenges. And organizations often grant access to privileged accounts unnecessarily or haphazardly, creating additional risk and exposure by introducing so-called “shadow admin” accounts that appear innocent but can elevate privileges and take over additional cloud resources.

Over-permissioned accounts and excessive cloud entitlements can increase attack surfaces and make it easier for adversaries to move laterally across a network and wreak havoc.

CIEM Solutions Improve Visibility and Mitigate Cloud Security Risks

Many IT and security organizations use Cloud Infrastructure Entitlements Management (CIEM) solutions to manage identities and privileges in their cloud environments. CIEM solutions apply the Principle of Least Privilege access to cloud infrastructure and services, providing IT and security organizations fine-grained control and full visibility into entitlements across cloud providers. By using CIEM solutions to reduce the risk of excessive permissions, businesses strengthen their security, reduce risks and accelerate the adoption of cloud services and development practices.

Most CIEM solutions provide a centralized dashboard to track and control IAM permissions scattered across public clouds like AWS, Azure and GCP. Leading CIEM solutions provide AI-powered analysis and assessment tools to intelligently identify and rank risks associated with configuration errors, shadow admin accounts and excessive entitlements for human, application and machine identities. By identifying which remediations to prioritize, CIEM solutions help cloud security teams take a proactive, phased approach to risk reduction.

Learn More About CyberArk Cloud IAM Permissions and Entitlements