One of the biggest trends in security gets no respect at RSA. Maybe because identity folks still look at security folks cross-eyed. But this year things will be a bit different. Here’s why:

The Snowden Effect

Companies are (finally) dealing with the hazards of privilege – a.k.a. Privileged User Access. Yes, we hate the term “insider threat” – we have good evidence that external risks are the real issue. That said, logic does not always win out – many companies are asking themselves right now, “How can I stop a ‘Snowden Incident’ from happening at my company?” This Snowden Effect is getting traction as a marketing angle, and you will see it on the RSA Conference floor because people are worried about their dirty laundry going public.

Aside from the marketing hype, we have been surprised by the zeal with which companies are now pursuing technology to enforce Privileged User Access policies. The privileged user problem is not new, but companies’ willingness to incur cost, complexity, and risk to address it is. Part of this is driven by auditors assigning higher risk to these privileged accounts (On a cynical note, we have to wonder, “What’s the matter, big-name audit firm? All out of easy findings?”). But sometimes the headline news does really scare the bejesus out of companies in that vertical (that’s right, we’re looking at you, retailers). Whatever the reason, companies and external auditors are waking up to privileged users as perhaps the largest catalyst in downside risk scenarios. Attackers go after databases because that’s where the data is (duh). The same goes for privileged accounts – that’s where the access is!

But while the risk is almost universally recognized, what to do about it isn’t – aside from “continuous improvement”, because hey, everyone needs to pass their audit. One reason the privileged user problem has persisted so long is that the controls often reduce productivity of some of the most valuable users, drive up cost, and generally increase availability risk. Career risk, anyone? But that’s why security folks make the big bucks. High-probability events gets the lion’s share of attention, but lower-probability gut-punch events like privileged user misuse have come to the fore. Buckle up!

Nobody cares what your name is!

Third-party identity services and cloud-based identity are gaining momentum. The need for federation (to manage customer, employee, and partner identities), and two-factor authentication (2FA) to reduce fraud are both powerful motivators. But we expected last year’s hack of Mat Honan to start a movement away from passwords in favor of certificates and other better user authentication tools. But what we got was risk-based handling of requests on the back end. It is not yet the year of PKI, apparently.

Companies are less concerned with logins and more concerned with request context and metadata. Does the user normally log in at this time? From that location? With that app? Is this a request they normally make? Is it for a typical dollar amount? A lot more is being spent on analytics to determine ‘normal’ behavior than on replacing identity infrastructure, and fraud analytics on the back end are leading the way. In fact precious little attention is being paid to identity systems on the front end – even payment processors are discussing third-party identity from Facebook and Twitter for authentication. What could possibly go wrong? As usual cheap, easy, and universally available trump security – for authentication tools, this time. To compensate, effort will need to be focused on risk-based authorization on the back end.