Are you strangled by security?

Dan Farber: How do you simultaneously protect your business from cyberattacks while enabling a more nimble, connected, and distributed environment? Learn the ways of identity management and Web access control.

One prediction for 2003 we know will pan out in the coming months is that the spectre of security vulnerabilities will continue to plague us. The threat of cyberattacks from terrorists, disgruntled employees, industrial spies, or malicious hackers can envelop a company, and a nation, in a siege mentality.

The end result is an organisation focused on defensive measures. You deploy physical security, firewalls, honey pots, virus protection, and usage policies, and hope for the best. It's the typical, common sense approach to protecting digital assets, but it can also strangle an organisation.

As Sun Tzu wrote in the "Art of War" more than 2,000 years ago, "Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive."

Keeping the bad guys from getting inside the perimeter addresses an important security problem but puts a company in a defensive posture as it relates to conducting business. You might be able to keep hackers from penetrating your network, but you could also create bottlenecks that keep legitimate users from gaining access when they need it. In addition, given the fact that the vast majority of attacks come from insiders, building a bigger fence around the corporate network is not the answer.

A largely defensive approach is like digital barbed wire, and it will have an adverse impact on workflow, collaboration and company moral. Nobody wants to deal with intrusive, heavy-handed security policies and monitoring that borders on invasion of privacy.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a more secure environment and to empower users to get their jobs done. Taking the offensive, in this context, means not allowing security practices and policies to get in the way of building a more adaptable, decentralised enterprise.

One key technology for creating a more automated and fluid security infrastructure is identity management, which is sometimes referred to as user provisioning.

I met recently with Gordon Eubanks, chief executive of Oblix, a company that provides identity management solutions. His company is built on the premise that defensive, or exclusionary, security must be aligned with inclusionary tools and practices that allow users to access systems and information anytime, anywhere. Users and administrators don't want to deal with maintaining numerous authorisation and authentication schemes to access applications or DNS locations.

For example, if an airline wants to give access to specific data to partners such as a food service host or car rental service, they need to share a common identity management system for access and control services. According to Eubanks, Oblix's NetPoint product can provide single sign-on across applications, portals and applications servers. It also deals with automating business processes, such as an approval for data access or managing groups of users. Eubanks also believes that delegation should be a core function of identity management systems as a way to lower administrative costs. For example, if an employee is fired, the manager at a remote location can revoke the user's privileges rather than having to send the work order to the central administrator and wait for changes to flow through the system. For larger organisations with thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees, delegated authority can render cost savings. On the other hand, a more distributed management scenario has more points of potential abuse if the systems are not properly configured and more stringent oversight isn't exercised. Several other companies offer products in this field, ranging from IBM and Computer Associates to Netegrity and RSA Security. The trick is to walk the line between protecting the business from harm and enabling a more nimble, connected and distributed environment. Buying into an identity management system to provide single access to applications and the Web across an extended enterprise is definitely worth considering.
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