What is Customer Identity and Access Management (CIAM)?

Need strong cybersecurity, low e-commerce friction, and easier identity management administration? CIAM promises to straddle the B2C and B2B environments, boost security and privacy, and improve the consumer experience.

Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter

November 16, 2021

4 Min Read
customer identity and access management
Panther Media GmbH via Alamy

Enabling secure online interactions has become mission-critical, while authenticating users quickly and seamlessly has become extraordinarily challenging. 

Identity management has always been difficult, but it grows more complex with every new account, cloud application, and device. Consumers are weary of passwords. Yet customers and regulators alike are paying more attention to security and privacy -- through regulations like the California Consumer Protection Act and the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. 

Customer (or consumer) Identity and Access Management (CIAM) attempts to bring order to the chaos. CIAM revolves around a basic but powerful concept: it extends identity information across systems rather than requiring a separate record for every application or database.

What is CIAM?

According to Gartner, “Key CIAM features include self-service for registration, password and consent management, profile generation and management, authentication and authorization into applications, identity repositories, reporting and analytics, APIs and SDKs for mobile applications, and social identity registration and login.”

The technology is designed to accommodate public-facing systems. Yet it’s more than a basic authentication tool. What makes CIAM so powerful is that it integrates with other enterprise applications, including ERP, CRM, marketing platforms, e-commerce sites and content management systems (CMS). This means that while it helps enterprises manage customer identities, it also ties together elements that deliver an enhanced customer experience.

This bridge across the B2C and B2B worlds dramatically boosts security and privacy while simplifying tasks for consumers, who now expect logins and account management functions to be quick, simple, and seamless. As a result, CIAM is commonly viewed as a security tool but also as a growth engine for businesses.

How Does CIAM Work?

A CIAM system typically resides in the cloud and operates under a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. It relies on built-in connectors and APIs to tie together various enterprise applications, systems, and data repositories. This makes it possible to combine features, including customer registration, account management, directory services, and authentication.

When a customer visits a website or calls in, for example, the CIAM solution handles the authentication process (using a password, single sign-on, biometrics, or multiple factors, for example). It’s also adept at juggling different protocols, including SAML, OpenID Connect, OAuth and FIDO. Once a customer signs in, it’s possible to place an order, track delivery, update a user profile, and handle other account-related tasks.

Another benefit of CIAM is that it delivers risk-based authentication (RBA), which is sometimes referred to as adaptive authentication. This means that a system can look for signs and signals -- such as a user’s IP address, User-Agent HTTP headers, the date and time of access, and other factors -- and thus identify when risk is elevated and additional authentication controls are needed.

Because CIAM integrates with other digital systems, it’s possible to ensure that information is current in all the associated systems. It’s also possible to deliver a consistent multi-channel experience and even personalize interactions to better match customer profiles, personas, and behavior.

How Does CIAM Differ from My Enterprise IAM?

Although CIAM is a subset of IAM, there are important differences. CIAM is specifically built to be customer-facing, as opposed to your business access management tools for managing employees' identities. Many of the familiar names in enterprise IT are active in CIAM (Akamai, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Amazon) as well as identity specialists and startups like Ping, Sailpoint, Okta, OneLogin, and ForgeRock. (ForgeRock recently went public in record-breaking fashion.)

As organizations venture beyond web applications and into the realm of mobile, IoT, and partnerships that span clouds and companies, the need for unified customer profiles with consistent security grows. CIAM delivers a unified and seamless experience to the user. What’s more, fluctuating traffic and resource demands aren’t a problem for CIAM.

Finally, CIAM delivers enhanced security and privacy protections that aid in complying with CCPA and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Not only is it easier to manage and protect accounts and data using CIAM, but it’s also possible to enforce customer consent and improve reporting.

CIAM Enables the Digital Enterprise

By combining security, customer experience, and analytics functions, CIAM makes it easier to onboard new customers and maintain accounts -- including those that link to partners and other third-party entities.

Not surprisingly, the highly dynamic nature of CIAM is appealing to a growing number of organizations in retail, travel, financial services, and other industries. By eliminating data silos and integrating enhanced account management functionality, organizations improve their security posture while boosting the quality of customer interactions.

What to Read Next:

Skilling Up the Cybersecurity Workforce of Tomorrow

How to Build a Strong and Effective Data Retention Policy

Okta Outlines Growth Plan for Serving the Enterprise

About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights