Ransomware protection using IAM – identity and access management controls


Ransomware has emerged as one of the most damaging cybersecurity threats in recent years. This malicious software encrypts a victim’s data, so it is inaccessible until a ransom is paid to the attackers. As a cybersecurity consultant, it is crucial to understand the various types of ransomware and implement effective strategies to prevent these attacks. One powerful approach involves the implementation of robust Identity and Access Management (IAM) controls.

IAM Identity and Access Management Controls to Prevent Ransomware Attacks:

Before digging deep in each control, the next table contains recommended IAM – identity and access management controls to implement, their type and a simple description.

ControlControl TypeDescription
Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)PreventiveRestricts access based on users’ roles and responsibilities, ensuring that individuals have the minimum necessary permissions for their tasks.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)PreventiveAdds an extra layer of security by requiring multiple forms of identification, such as passwords, biometrics, or smart cards, to verify user identity.
Regular Access ReviewsDetective, CorrectiveDetective: Identifies and detects inappropriate access by regularly reviewing and auditing user access permissions. Corrective: Ensures access aligns with current roles and responsibilities.
Privileged Access Management (PAM)Preventive, Detective, CorrectivePreventive: Restricts and monitors access to privileged accounts. Detective: Monitors and logs privileged user activities. Corrective: Mitigates the impact of security incidents involving privileged accounts.
User Training and AwarenessDeterrent, DirectiveDeterrent: Discourages risky behavior by educating users about cybersecurity risks. Directive: Guides user behavior through security policies and best practices.

Identity and Access Management (IAM) controls can reduce the risks of ransomware attacks by ensuring that only authorized individuals have access to systems and data. Here’s a sample of IAM controls that contribute to mitigating ransomware:

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC):

  • Implement RBAC assigns permissions based on job roles and responsibilities.
  • Limits access to critical systems and data only to those who require it (Least privilege).
  • Reduces the attack surface and minimizes the impact of a potential breach.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA):

  • MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring multiple forms of identification.
  • Even if passwords are compromised, unauthorized access is thwarted.
  • Common factors include passwords, biometrics, and smart cards.

Regular Access Reviews:

  • Periodically review and audit user access privileges.
  • Remove unnecessary permissions and revoke access for users who no longer require it.
  • Ensures that access aligns with current job roles and responsibilities.

Privileged Access Management (PAM):

PAM is crucial to avoid ransomware attacks, PAM can prevent the privilege escalation in the attack workflow and also prevent lateral movements, PAM can do:

  • Monitors and controls privileged access within an organization.
  • Restricts privileged accounts to the bare minimum required for tasks.
  • Monitors and logs privileged user activities for suspicious behavior.

User Training and Awareness:

  • Educate users about phishing threats and social engineering tactics.
  • Encourage proactive behavior and the reporting of suspicious emails or activities.
  • Empower users to recognize potential ransomware threats and act responsibly.

Attack Scenarios

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC):

Scenario: Attack: A malicious insider gains unauthorized access to sensitive financial data by exploiting a loophole in user permissions.

Prevention: Implement RBAC to ensure that employees have access only to the resources necessary for their roles. Conduct regular access reviews to verify that permissions align with job responsibilities. In this scenario, RBAC would have limited the insider’s access to sensitive financial data.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA):

Scenario: Attack: An attacker obtains a user’s password through a phishing email and attempts to access the corporate network remotely.

Prevention: MFA adds an extra layer of security. Even if the password is compromised, the attacker would still need a second form of authentication (e.g., code from a mobile app) to gain access. This prevents unauthorized access, even with a stolen password. Also, SSO can be used to reduce/eliminate the use of passwords and also avoid storing passwords as free text by end users.

Regular Access Reviews:

Scenario: Attack: An employee who recently changed roles retains access to sensitive customer data from their previous position or old account for leaver employee with no owner (orphan account).

Prevention: Regular access reviews would identify this issue during the periodic audit. By promptly removing unnecessary permissions through access reviews, organizations can prevent employees from retaining access to data they no longer need.

Privileged Access Management (PAM):

Scenario: Attack: An external attacker gains access to an employee’s credentials and attempts to escalate privileges to gain control over critical infrastructure.

Prevention: PAM solutions restrict and monitor privileged access. Even if the attacker gains initial access, PAM controls would limit their ability to escalate privileges, and anomalous activities would trigger alerts for investigation.

User Training and Awareness:

Scenario: Attack: Employees receive a phishing email disguised as a software update, leading them to unwittingly download ransomware.

Prevention: User training and awareness programs educate employees on recognizing phishing emails. In this scenario, well-informed employees would be less likely to click on malicious links or download suspicious attachments, preventing ransomware infection.


In the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, ransomware continues to pose a significant risk to organizations. Implementing robust Identity and Access Management controls is a proactive and effective strategy to mitigate the impact of ransomware attacks. By focusing on RBAC, MFA, access reviews, PAM, user training, and network segmentation, organizations can build a strong defense against ransomware and fortify their cybersecurity posture.

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