Published : 07.25.2023
Last Updated : 07.24.2023
With so many varying environments – cloud, on-premises, and hybrid – and numerous security priorities, there are a myriad of security solutions to choose from. This blog will explore CIEM vs PAM including what they are, what they offer in terms of capabilities, and what their respective strengths and weaknesses are.
CIEM stands for Cloud Infrastructure Entitlements Management, a class of solutions intending to manage and secure cloud identities and their effective privileges, and in turn, protect cloud resources and assets. Identities and permissions are a common attack vector in the cloud, often leveraged by attackers to move laterally and escalate privileges to achieve their goal. That end goal is often data exfiltration, privilege gathering (cloud hijacking) or business disruption.
On the other hand, PAM stands for Privileged Access Management, a solution originally conceived in legacy systems to govern and secure access to privileged accounts.
If every attacker had the choice between your average bedroom door key, and a skeleton key with rights to every door in the house, you’d think they’d pick the latter every time. The same goes for high-value accounts in your environment. Naturally, some positions entail greater privilege than others – consider a Senior IT Admin. These root or admin users have abilities like making system-wide changes, provisioning and deprovisioning privilege, and read, write, or delete rights regarding data. These human identities are the most desirable to someone looking to harm your organization, as they are the medium allowing them access to data, to modifying controls and to disrupting your business.
Both solutions play into the identity security realm, but shouldn’t be conflated together due to their unique use cases and capabilities. Both are important solutions as more and more enterprises struggle with their identity management programs and face damaging breaches as a result.
IBM’s X-Force Cloud Threat Landscape 2022 report cited overprivileged cloud identities in 99% of the breach incidents they studied. Let’s explore more about how CIEM vs PAM solutions approach a solution to this cloud identity challenge.
Privileged Access Management solutions govern and secure access to privileged accounts. They reduce privileged credential theft and protect sensitive assets by creating digital vaults where privileged users can receive a credential, allowing them access to a desired asset. Beyond governing access to privileged accounts, they monitor the access of those accounts for auditing purposes.
PAM tools offer a myriad of capabilities including:
PAM solutions are used for a number of scenarios. They are ideal solutions for human administrators operating out of traditional IT infrastructure with many users all sharing access to privileged accounts for credentials use. They reduce the exposure of credentials by placing keys and credentials in vaults, and provisioning access to these vaults, and then continuously rotating the contents so that a user may never actually know what the password they’re accessing is.
PAMs are useful for a full lifecycle of governing privileged access. Consider an employee joining a company, needing privileged access provisioned, then changing their role and needing their privileged adjusted, and ultimately leaving the company and needing this sensitive privilege removed.
Additionally, PAMs are very helpful in the case of meeting compliance or audit needs. Many compliance requirements are relevant to sensitive information access, data security, or policies regarding identity privilege. PAM solutions log all privileged user sessions, any access to protected credentials or vaults, and when and what was accessed. This information comes in handy when collecting evidence for an audit.
Cloud Infrastructure Entitlements Management (CIEM) solutions exist for two reasons (1) to inventory and manage all identities in a cloud environment from human to machine and (2) to govern, optimize, and secure the broad scope of entitlements cloud identities hold. They discover all cloud identity entitlements, identify high-risk identities and permissions that create attack paths to critical assets, and then remediate risks based on business impact.
CIEMs offer the following features:
CIEM is a critical layer of defense in the cloud. Once an attacker is in your environment, they search for opportunities to move laterally. It is overprivileged identities and risky permissions that allow this lateral movement and access to sensitive assets. CIEMs help reveal these risks and remediate them to protect your assets.
One of CIEMs greatest use cases is around machine identities. Microservices, role based access, and Infrastructure as Code have led to an explosion of machine identities. CIEM tools were built for the nature of cloud-native and are able to inventory and monitor these identities, as well as strip them of excessive or dangerous privilege. The cloud does not only hold privileged accounts or identities – oftentimes these microservices or machine identities are just ‘regular’ identities that also need to be monitored and controlled. In addition, CIEMs are built to manage ephemeral compute and services – consider a workload only spun up for 3 seconds at a time. No matter how briefly privileges are used, they need to be secured.
Speaking of, privilege works very differently in the cloud. The complex and ever-changing nature of the cloud leads to identity entitlements compounding together and privilege blindspots that create unintended attack paths to assets. CIEM offers granular visibility into effective permissions – the net abilities and access of any identity – so teams can remediate existing attack paths that result from inherited privilege, toxic combinations, and excessive privilege.
Finally, because of the continuous nature of a CIEM, including continuous inventorying and continuous monitoring, it is a great tool to aid in audits and meeting compliance. A CIEM can help assure sensitive assets are locked down at all times, and offer logging capabilities to analyze access data or identity behavior.
PAM is essentially authentication for privileged account access. It is an excellent way to protect privileged accounts and ensure only the right entities access them. However, PAM solutions are unable to analyze the complex web of cloud policies and configurations that compound together to create net effective permissions that create unintended privileged access. This means there is no way to track what someone can do once they compromise one of these accounts, nor reveal the pathways allowing attackers access to them. These capability are CIEM’s greatest strengths.
CIEM is about preventing pathways to compromise, and knowing what could happen if something was compromised. This is only possible via the advanced level of insight into identity permissions, how they connect together, and what actions those permissions translate into (read, edit, copy, delete, etc.) For example, a CIEM can reveal that a low-level or machine identity in one environment is able to jump a couple of hoops and even cross accounts to acquire privileged account access and ultimately gain the ability to delete an entire datastore. A PAM solution would help with controlling access to the privileged account, but not see there’s an indirect and unintended pathway leading to the privileged account via inherited privileges.
A CIEM and PAM solution each serve a purpose in the end-to-end game of managing and securing identities in the cloud. As discussed, a PAM solution is there to control which identities can, using two-factor authentication, access private vaults that contain privileged account access via passwords, keys, or other credentials. This is like saying Identity 1, 2, and 4 are given rights to the vault, but Identity 3 isn’t. Each time Identity 1, 2, or 4 access the credentials in the vault, they are rotated so they never know what the password is. Identity 3 is blocked from ever exploiting the privileged account and Identities 1, 2, and 4 are properly authenticated before accessing the vault. This is a successful PAM solution.
However, this isn’t enough in the cloud. A CIEM solution reveals there’s an identity chain that can be exploited to move laterally through the cloud environment and ultimately allow an attacker to compromise Identity 1. When this happens, the attacker holds the keys to the privileged account. CIEM is built to see all permissions in any cloud environment and how they are intertwined with a complex web of resources, configurations, and other permissions. All of this complexity leads to identities gaining privilege an administrator never actually directly granted. This privilege can be inherited in ways difficult to see to the human eye – which is where CIEM’s permissions analytics come in handy.
In this example, let’s say there’s a low-level machine identity (which a PAM does not track) that can assume multiple roles via several attached policies that ultimately lend it the ability to compromise Identity 1. This is the kind of attack path a malicious attacker is looking for during recon – and one only a CIEM can reveal.
The PAM may be successful in administering direct access to the account and authenticating the acceptable users, but there are still security gaps. CIEM bridges the gap that PAM tools have in the cloud by remediating the unintended attack pathways that allow credential compromise.
In the case of CIEM vs PAM, there’s not a winner, but rather a right choice for specific business needs. The two both play in the identity security space, but fill different needs and gaps. The two can actually play into a better together story, and be leveraged simultaneously.
What is important to note is if you’re a large enterprise operating out of the cloud, using PAM is not enough. This is where Cloud Infrastructure Entitlements Management shines, and reveals toxic permissions paths leading to privileged accounts and ultimately business critical applications and data. A PAM helps control access to privilege accounts, authenticate that the right users are accessing it, and keep a paper trail of sessions for auditing reasons, but it does not detail cloud identity inventories, identity effective permissions, cross-account or cloud access, secure machine identities, or remediate identity risks in an operationalized manner. For this, teams need to look to CIEM.
PAM was created traditionally for on-prem IT infrastructure and is essentially authentication for privileged account access, while CIEM is a cloud-native solution inventorying all identities and entitlements, revealing attack paths created via privilege, and remediating risks.
PAM tools are used for authenticating and controlling access to privileged accounts in an effort to protect credential abuse and sensitive assets.
CIEM benefits include the management of machine identities, implementing an identity solution scalable enough for the cloud, and the most advanced risky identity privilege technology.
Privileged access management limitations include the lack of governance over machine identities, the inability to interpret what attackers can actually do IF they compromise a privileged account, and the inability to reveal the pathways of access to privileged accounts.