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Blog Post Jan 16, 2024

PKI & Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Authentication is a critical component of any cybersecurity strategy. But what makes this indispensable security measure possible? Enter Identity and Access Management (IAM) and Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).

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These two frameworks share similar goals of protecting sensitive information but with different focuses and mechanisms. IAM orchestrates identities and access privileges. PKI is the most secure, reliable, and fool-proof mechanism for authenticating device and user identity. Paired with a PIN (e.g., a biometric PIN), PKI authenticates the identity of an individual whose rights are controlled by IAM. 

Let's explore what IAM and PKI are, how they work together, why you should use both, and how to incorporate them to support a Zero Trust architecture.

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

IAM is a security framework that includes the technologies and policies for managing and controlling access to secured resources and systems. It ensures the right individuals or entities have the appropriate access level to data, services, and applications within a company's IT infrastructure—all while protecting the resources from unauthorized usage. The IAM framework involves these key steps:

  • Verify individuals, devices, or systems through usernames, email addresses, or other identifiers.
  • Authenticate users through passwords, biometrics, smart cards, multifactor authentication (MFA), or PKI.
  • Verify users’ access rights and permissions to determine the actions they can perform.
  • Enforce access control using role-based or attribute-based policies.
  • Manage the creation, modification, and removal of user accounts.
  • Monitor and record user activities and system events to detect and respond to security incidents or policy violations.

IAM provides a structured approach to managing and controlling access rights, permissions, and privileges. It ensures authorized individuals or systems can access specific resources to perform their tasks and responsibilities. It can help enhance account security, reduce IT workload, improve productivity, provide centralized control and visibility, and facilitate information sharing.

However, organizations can't maximize these benefits without the ability to verify the identity of digital actors securely and reliably. Traditional shared-secret credentials such as user name-password are fundamentally vulnerable and error-prone. They often result in a poor user experience, reduce employee productivity, and increase help desk tickets. 

PKI provides a secure foundation for identity establishment on known devices with a reliable mechanism hardened against attacks. Meanwhile, it supports the delivery of a frictionless use experience — enabling organizations to realize the power of IAM. Let's explore what PKI is and how it supports IAM.

What is Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)?

PKI consists of hardware, software, policies, standards, and procedures to support the secure creation, distribution, management, and revocation of digital certificates and their associated public and private keys. It serves as the foundation for secure data exchange and authentication in the digital world.

Digital identities are at the core of PKI. They're bound to digital certificates issued and managed within a PKI. The digital certificates, in turn, may contain a user's or device's public key and other information (e.g., name, email, and organization), verified by a digital signature from a trusted Certificate Authority (CA).

PKI helps establish trust, confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity in digital communications and transactions. It authenticates the identity of a user through digital certificates, protects data integrity during transmission, prevents unauthorized access with encryption, and ensures senders cannot deny their actions (e.g., signing a digital document).

IAM and PKI: What is the difference?

IAM and PKI share similar goals with different focuses. IAM is an orchestration platform for controlling access and permissions for digital entities. The framework enables organizations to manage digital identities through policies, processes, and technologies to ensure authorized personnel can access the right assets at the right time. Meanwhile, PKI offers a robust mechanism for establishing the identity of a digital actor or device. It provides the means for organizations to implement IAM.

How PKI and IAM work together

PKI and IAM work together synergistically to enhance overall security and access control. PKI provides a strong foundation for authenticating and securing digital identities, while IAM defines and manages user roles and access permissions. By incorporating PKI, IAM frameworks use digital certificates to verify the identities of users or devices. PKI also adds an extra layer of security to IAM systems, making it more difficult for unauthorized users to breach systems.

PKI enhances privilege management in an IAM system by enabling granular access control based on the attributes of digital certificates. IAM leverages PKI to establish secure channels for user access and data transmission. Additionally, an IAM framework may use PKI to incorporate digital signatures for user validation and authorization, like digital contract signing or user consent.

Companies can employ IAM systems to ensure that only authorized users receive valid certificates within a PKI, increasing the accuracy and efficiency of digital certificates' issuance, renewal, and revocation. Lastly, PKI and IAM work together to enforce and track access control policies, monitor user activities, and generate logs for compliance and auditing purposes to ensure adherence to data privacy regulations.

The benefits of using IAM together with PKI

Using IAM and PKI together can help strengthen your security posture and better protect your organization's sensitive information and resources. PKI supports IAM by providing a robust identification verification method not subject to attacks and human errors that often come with user-password credentials and traditional MFA. It improves the ability to control access and implement encryption to meet regulatory requirements.

IAM and PKI also work together to support a distributed workforce by enabling secure remote access to corporate resources so remote employees can access systems and data without compromising security. IAM and PKI scale to accommodate a growing number of users and devices while streamlining the user authentication and access processes to improve productivity and user satisfaction.

Secure data and devices with Sectigo

Digital identity management is becoming increasingly essential. Every connection requires robust authentication to ensure the integrity of the network, protect against malicious attacks, and minimize unexpected downtime. Combining PKI with IAM systems allows organizations to simplify user authentication processes, enhance security, ensure compliance, and improve efficiency. PKI also enables machine identity management to support a Zero Trust architecture.

For enterprises that need to manage numerous internal servers, devices, applications, and users across their networks, Sectigo's Private PKI (or Private CA) offers a complete, managed solution for issuing and managing privately trusted SSL/TLS certificates used across the organizations' environments. 

You can integrate these private certificates into an IAM system to offer robust, simple, and cost-effective end-to-end authentication. Sectigo certificates support various use cases, including DevOps, secure email, cloud/multi-cloud environments, and mobile and IoT devices.

Meanwhile, Sectigo Certificate Manager provides a consolidated approach across the provisioning, discovery, deployment, management, and renewal stages of the lifecycle of certificates, offering the automation capabilities required to support a Zero Trust model.

Learn more about our Private PKI solution and schedule a demo to see how we can help you cost-efficiently automate human and machine identity management.

Want to learn more? Get in touch to book a demo of Sectigo Certificate Manager!