What Is Single Sign-On? Understanding SSO
Nov 22, 2022
Nov 22, 2022
SaaS commands the digital enterprise. Access control to SaaS services is the equivalent to protecting the cockpit door of a Boeing 787—unauthorized access is non-negotiable.
Whether organizations were steadily transitioning to a cloud-first world or rushing headlong into the cloud—the COVID-19 pandemic put everyone on an escalator dialed to the max. And when the nature of digital business changes to cloud-first this quickly, there is always a security gap. Often, one of the most common (and avoidable) security gaps is access control and SSO enforcement for SaaS services.
Here, we breaks down what single sign-on (SSO) is, how it works, and its benefits and potential drawbacks to be aware of for SaaS security.
Today, users have many choices for authenticating to SaaS services. One of the most common techniques is single sign-on (SSO). What is SSO? While many enterprises are familiar with the concept, fewer may understand how it works and what it does for SaaS security — as well as some of its disadvantages. Discover more about single sign-on SaaS, and how they relate to the safeguarding resources at your business.
SSO is an authentication strategy that enables people to log into numerous applications using one set of credentials, typically a username and password. Identity and access management (IAM) authentication allows third-party services to review user information and verify their identity without disclosing their password. SSO confirms that users have the right to access certain apps to conduct tasks.
A token is required for SSO to work. SSO tokens are encrypted and contain data about the user, such as their email address, which moves from system to system during the SSO process. These tokens must be verified with a digital signature so that the receiving party can confirm it comes from an authorized source. The credential needed for the digital signature is collected during the first configuration. Open Authorization (OAuth), Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), and similar identity standards permit encrypted tokens to securely move from servers to apps.
Companies implement SSO for many reasons, including supervising SaaS usage and streamlining employee offboarding. It can be highly beneficial in maximizing productivity because it prevents people from signing in and out of each company-sanctioned device, app, or system they use, every time they use them. SSO also helps businesses comply with industry regulations and maintain adequate security.
Since SSO can be advantageous for many business activities, companies often contemplate incorporating single sign-on for SaaS applications. SSO helps maintain better SaaS security, as it may ensure more users adhere to password policies and make password recovery more efficient. It also guides companies in observing access control requirements outlined in international standards like SOC2 or ISO27001.
Despite promoting better security and compliance with corporate information, SSO is only valuable to a certain extent. More so, it does not always provide your business with the highest level of protection — particularly with SaaS, which already poses several security risks.
By its very nature, SSO can present an all-or-nothing security situation. If a malicious party gains an employee’s SSO credentials, they will be permitted into every application the user is allowed to access. This situation can substantially increase the amount of sensitive data that could be exposed. While organizations can enhance SSO through multifactor authentication and similar techniques, the risk is still significant.
For most businesses using SSO, SaaS is only marginally protected. A primary reason for this insufficient security is that SSO’s reach only extends to the apps an IT department knows. It cannot monitor or manage SaaS that falls outside the standard IT purchasing process. This makes controlling all SaaS difficult.
For instance, consider if an employee uses an app not under SSO for work purposes and then leaves. The IT department will likely not know the account credentials and thus be unsure of what kind of data is housed there. This type of SaaS may be owned by third parties, such as a partnering company that collaborates with your business and uses apps that your SSO does not support. It may also stem from the software individual employees utilize (without consulting IT teams first) to enhance their productivity. This phenomenon is called shadow SaaS.
Another drawback of SSO is that the overall cost can render it inefficient for all SaaS. Companies must not only think about the upfront SSO vendor fees but also the expense of obtaining SSO-enabled licenses from SaaS providers. They also need to consider the continuing cost of enforcing SSO, as well as the ever-evolving nature of SaaS apps and the tedious task of managing weak or duplicate passwords.
Some companies may find personnel reluctant to abide by security guidelines for all SSO costs. By and large, compliance is low — typically around 20%. Ultimately, the cost of SSO, coupled with its inability to safeguard most SaaS an organization uses, indicates the method has severe limitations for security.
Although single sign-on offers some benefits, this technique for securing SaaS apps may not be enough to safeguard your corporate resources. The pace of SaaS expansion has left the majority of SaaS services outside the control of IAM and SSO. What is more, the voluntary nature of many SSO and password managers tools, leads to policy dodging and the persistence of users authenticating with weak and duplicate credentials, even for SaaS apps enrolled in SSO solutions.
At Grip, our innovation has led us to develop a fundamentally distinct platform for SaaS security that accounts for the pitfalls of SSO — the SaaS Security Control Plane (SSCP).
With a 15-minute deployment, Grip SSCP discovers SaaS use, misuse, and abuse throughout the enterprise SaaS layer — business-led and IT-delivered SaaS services and apps — uncovering use history, authentication methods, weak credentials, duplicate passwords, and rogue or abandoned SaaS services.
Grip prioritizes SaaS exposures and accumulated SaaS risk from the first user-SaaS interaction to the present day. Mitigate distributed SaaS exploits with SaaS risk indexing based on accessibility and impact to operations and SaaS functional control over business, IT, and security operations. Grip SSCP uncovers accumulated risk via historic graphing to pinpoint dangling access, zombie accounts, and missing access controls. Automate user access reviews and leverage one-click justification and enforcement workflows to remediate overly permissive access and SSO gaps.
With Grip, security teams can achieve secure SaaS outcomes without direct ownership of SaaS services and enforce (not merely enable) access control throughout the enterprise SaaS layer, including automated workflows and open integrations to existing control points (e.g., SSO).
Grip helps customers universalize strong authentication and adaptive safeguards for all SaaS types — sanctioned and unsanctioned SaaS, business-led SaaS, production and security SaaS — and sever risky access to SaaS services, apps, and tenants.
Grip SSCP enables organizations to consistently protect their cloud-first reality while avoiding the complexity of multiple authentication methods and the cost of traditional SSO — mitigating the SSO tax and extending secure access across the whole enterprise SaaS layer.
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