9 Information Rights Management
As described in the previous chapter, there are several technologies that address
the security of unstructured data, but once that data leaves your network, those
security technologies lose their effectiveness because you no longer control the
environments where the data has migrated. One common theme among those
technologies is that the security controls are tied to something other than the data
itself, such as network or computer perimeters. As discussed, there is only one
technology that fully secures access to the data regardless of where it travels. The
solution is to build the classification metadata, the access controls, and the
information about which rights are allowed to individual users right in to the
data itself. This solution is known as information rights management (IRM).
IRM is essentially a combination of encryption and access controls that are
built into document creation and viewing software applications, so that
encrypted content can be decrypted and viewed based on access rights. In the
following sections of this chapter, we examine the history of rights management
technologies that began with the digital entertainment industry and led to todayâ€s
IRM solutions that apply similar controls to any unstructured data.
In the first part of this chapter, we start with the high level architecture of
IRM, including the primary components of any IRM infrastructure and how they
work when a user is connected to the network and when they are offline. We will
also discuss why auditing and reporting is an important feature of IRM.
In the second part of this chapter, we will look at the classification of data and
how that leads to protecting data based on its confidentiality. We will also
consider how users are given access to IRM-protected data and how that leads to
locking down that data so it can be distributed to allow authorized users to access
it, and what they are allowed to do with that data based on their rights
assignment. Youâ€ll see how unauthorized users, who have no rights, are unable to
do anything with the data, even when those users were previously authorized
and their rights were subsequently revoked.
IRM shrinks the security perimeter to the information itself, as depicted in Figure
9-1. With IRM, you are not protecting the location where the information lives,
nor the network it lives on. Instead, you are applying access control, encryption,
and auditing to the information itself. That way, regardless of which disk the
information resides on, which networks it travels across, or which database it
may be resident in, IRM is able to provide a persistent level of security to the
information wherever it goes.
Figure 9-1 IRM shrinks the security perimeter of information to the content itself.
IRM provides security protections not only for data at rest and data in transit,
but also for data in useâ€”which, as noted in Chapter 8, is hard to accomplish. IRM
technologies are able to prevent things like data being copied to a clipboard and
pasted into another application. IRM can allow authorized users to open content
while also limiting their ability to edit that content or make printed copies of it.
With this level of control for data in use also comes auditing of all access to the
information, even after it has left the perimeters of your network. These controls
are basically impossible to implement with any other technology.
With its fine-grained data-in-use features, the most valuable thing that IRM
brings to the security landscape is the ability to control access to information,
every time it is accessed, from any place it is copied to, and for every single copy,
anywhereâ€”along with the ability to revoke that access at any time. Imagine the
scenario where your business has shared millions of e-mails, images,
spreadsheets, documents, presentations, and so on with your business partners,
customers, potential acquisitions, and employees (both current and long gone).
Now imagine being able to revoke access to all that information and ensure that,
as your business relationships and trusts change, you can maintain appropriate
access to information even when it has long left the confines of your file servers,
content management systems, and networks. The security of the data is
persistent. Unlike nearly every other data security technology, the information is
never given to the application or end user in an uncontrolled manner.
IRM technology extends the reach of information access control to well
beyond places where you can typically deploy identity and access control
technology. However, as with any technology, IRM has pros and cons, and this
chapter will cover those. IRM is not a replacement for existing security solutions,
but it is an excellent tool to complement them. IRM represents a powerful tool for
reducing risk of data loss.
The Difference Between DRM and IRM
You may already be familiar with digital rights management (DRM)â€”the
technologies used by copyright owners to protect music and movies. IRM is
nearly the same thing; it can be considered a type of DRM. IRM is sometimes
referred to as E-DRM, or enterprise digital rights management. The distinction is
that DRM has been developed mainly for use in the consumer space, while IRM
focuses on the business problems of information security. DRM typically has a
poor reputation with consumers, not only because of problems with over-
restriction and excessive enforcement, but also because media companies who
mandate its use have done a poor job of communicating any value of DRM to
their customers. Thus, the IT world prefers the term IRM (or just rights
management), to avoid negative associations with DRM.
The customers who buy music and movies from the entertainment industry
feel strongly about being able to use, copy, and play their music and movies on
any device they own. People are used to buying and owning vinyl records,
cassette tapes, CDs, and DVDsâ€”physical media that can be used in any supported
player. Standards for CDs enable them to be played on any CD player, and the
owner owned the content for the lifetime of the medium, which in theory is
forever for a CD if handled carefully.
But does the owner of a CD really have a license to play the content for the
lifetime of the CD? The answer to that is complicated, because the information
owners (the entertainment companies) typically do not want consumers to have
unlimited rights to play the content wherever they want. Entertainment
companies have, on occasion, attempted to restrict playback ability even when
the law and usage agreements do give consumers those rights. As a result, the
owner of the CD is likely to believe they are allowed to do anything they want
with that CD, whereas the entertainment company that produced the CD may not
agree. Thus media rights are never completely black-and-white, and
consequently are often disputed in courtrooms.
Most people believe that physical ownership of CDs can be transferred
without restrictionsâ€”in effect, they are allowed to sell their CDs online or to their
local music store. But how do the information owners view that (especially
considering that the sales of used CDs can be considered as competition to the
sales of new CDs)? In fact the entertainment companies generally do not agree
with the consumers on this point.
The same debate exists for movies on DVD and digital media, and is even more
heated because movies represent a more profitable product. Despite the fact that
consumers are accustomed to being able to resell or give away their CDs without
restriction, whether or not the record companies agree (and largely because not a
lot of attention has been given to this type of rights transfer), those consumers
donâ€t understand why they canâ€t do the same with digital media like movies.
Ripping a movie is just as easy as ripping a CD, which is a very common way to
move music from a purchased CD to a portable music player. Why is it okay to rip
music but not movies?
From the perspective of the entertainment industry, the ease with which
digital information can be duplicated and distributed has caused enormous
financial losses because copyrighted entertainment content has been widely
shared without any compensation to the industry. DRM has been used to recover
and maintain that control. Corporations in the entertainment industry argue that
they need to maintain control over their content to make money to pay artists,
producers, studios, and others involved in the creation of the media.
With these opposing perspectives of consumers and corporations, the topic of
DRM is controversial. The entertainment industry likes it because of its inherent
ability to restrict use and redistribution, but consumers dislike it for the same
reasonâ€”they want the same level of flexibility and ownership that came with
Gone Too Far with DRM?
In 2005, Sony BMG made headlines when it was discovered that some of its music
CDs secretly installed Trojan software on computers that forcibly implemented
DRM. When unsuspecting consumers inserted a music CD into their computer,
the Trojan compromised the computer by installing a rootkit that blocked
attempts to copy or play music outside of Sonyâ€s own music player. Widely
considered to be poorly programmed, the rootkit was later found to provide a
convenient hiding place for other viruses and malware.
Regardless of the ethics of using malware-like behavior to force a companyâ€s
requirements onto consumers, which most would agree is not good for customer
relations, DRM itself went from being unpopular to being symbolic of â€œBig
Brother.â€ By forcing DRM onto its customers in this way, Sony BMG exacerbated
the already existing division between consumers and corporations, and this
incident elevated DRMâ€s already troubled reputation to that of global pariah.
A classic example of DRM in use is the inability to copy a song downloaded
from an online music store. DRM may restrict the customer from copying or
moving the song from one computer or music player to another computer or
music player. The real goal is to prevent unscrupulous people from distributing
the content to other people. But DRM often prevents users from making
legitimate backups of CDs or DVDs, and it can prevent the viewing or listening of
content on devices because of incompatibilities and differences between varying
manufacturers and varieties of DRM. As a result, many legal battles have ensued
between the media companies and consumer groups over the use of DRM
A key differentiator between DRM and IRM is the relationship between the
content producer and the consumer (see Figure 9-2):
Figure 9-2 DRM and IRM user relationships
â€¢ DRM controls access to published entertainment content such as music, films, and
e-books. The relationship between the author of the content and the consumer is
one-to-many. This means that a single entity creates the content, and many
people purchase and use it. DRM is intended to ensure that a person who
purchases particular content on a particular device canâ€t transfer or distribute a
copy of that content to any other device, other than as authorized by the owner,
without financial compensation to the content owner. In other words, one owner,
â€¢ IRM controls access to information such as medical data, financial records,
engineering research, marketing plans, and sensitive e-mail communicationâ€”
typically within the umbrella of a single organization. The relationship between
the author of the information and the consumer is more complex and is
considered many-to-many. For instance, a VP of finance who is the trusted
authority to create company financial information might be working alongside a
trusted group of executives who collaboratively work on a set of documents that
contain private financial data. The VP of finance and his or her trusted colleagues
might be allowed to open, edit, and print those documents. Yet a different set of
people, such as the company sales team, may only be granted the right to open
and view the contents of those documents, without being allowed to modify them.
And yet another set of people, such as external contractors, might be allowed to
access the location where those documents are stored, but they are not
authorized to open the documents at all. In this example, the access controls of
the storage system on which these documents reside will not be sufficient to
provide the needed restrictions on what the sales team and external contractors
The different access requirements of different sets of information consumers
drive the designs of the technologies and their deployments. This is why IRM is
more complex than DRM. DRM is all-or-nothingâ€”either you have access to the
data, or you donâ€t. IRM controls what you can and canâ€t do with data. A goal of
DRM may not be a goal of IRM, and vice versa. People in general are frustrated
with DRM because the main goal is to control and limit access to information, and
end-user impact is not always a primary consideration. By contrast, IRM is
something people wantâ€”to ensure that critical information about them or the
company they work for is kept under control. DRM is typically aimed at
controlling one file for access by one user, but in a business environment,
information is shared with many authorized people and the access rules change
often, thus IRM is a good choice.
Whatâ€s in a Name? EDRM, ERM, RMS, IRM
Given that DRM has a bad reputation, and that security practitioners who like the
benefits of rights management donâ€t want to get embroiled in controversy, we
would do well to avoid altogether the terms â€œdigital rights managementâ€ and
â€œDRMâ€ and their problematic associations. Thus, instead of using these terms, we
need a new name. Several choices have been proposed:
â€¢ Enterprise digital rights management (EDRM) This is an attempt to associate
the DRM concept with the goals and objectives of enterprise environments. It is
considered a weak choice because the name doesnâ€t really avoid the negative
connotations associated with DRM.
â€¢ Enterprise rights management (ERM) This is similar to the preceding term but
without â€œdigitalâ€ included. The acronym ERM is already commonly used to
represent the terms enterprise risk management and environmental resources
management, so this is also a weak choice.
â€¢ Rights Management Services (RMS) This actually refers to Active Directory
Rights Management Services (AD RMS), Microsoftâ€s IRM technology. Microsoft
uses the acronym AD RMS to describe the product that delivers IRM functionality.
This is a brand name, therefore, this term should not be used to describe rights
management in the broader sense.
â€¢ Information rights management (IRM) As you are already aware, in this book
weâ€ve chosen to use this term, which is generally descriptive and provides a
conceptual separation from the problematic and unpopular DRM technologies,
even if it is just in name, and even then only by one word.
Itâ€s also generally acceptable to shorten the name to just â€œrights management,â€
which is the common denominator among all the names, even though that term
doesnâ€t exactly make clear what â€œrightsâ€ are being â€œmanaged.â€
Evolution from Encryption to IRM
Many people think of IRM as a new technology, but itâ€s actually been around for
over a decade. Hereâ€s a brief history.
The first practical computerized use of encryption to protect unstructured
content was PGP, developed by Phil Zimmermann to secure messages and files
from prying eyes. This moved strong cryptography from the province of a few
government agencies into the hands of millions of individuals around the world.
Other encryption solutions soon followed, some commercial, and others open
source. Files wrapped in encryption could be shared electronically over the
Internet and only those with the right cryptographic certificates could decrypt
and access the data. However, file encryption solutions only allow the secure
storage and transit of informationâ€”once the file is decrypted, the control is lost.
It could be stored in unsecure file formats and easily retransmitted further
without its protective encrypted wrapper. Furthermore, anybody with the right
key could access the data. Keys could be lost, stolen, or published, and they need
to be shared, so they didnâ€t really constitute a bulletproof solution. In fact, key
management became one of the hottest topics in encryption, for exactly that
In order to preserve the protection of files regardless of what actions people
might perform, the next main advance in unstructured content security was
Digital Rights Management (DRM) developed and used by the entertainment
industries as discussed in the previous section. In addition to its unpopularity,
DRM proved eminently hackable. All modern implementations of DRM have been
compromised, resulting in an array of software tools available to end users to
bypass built-in content controls.
IRM was the next and current generation. Securing not only the delivery of
data, but also creating mechanisms of persistent control, IRM solved the problem
of key management as well as restricting functionality. Consider, as an example
of business requirements, a hypothetical organization that needs an IRM solution.
A company has an engineering department of 500 people, of which 300 are
managers and product specialists who are allowed to create and edit classified
information about the products they design and build. The remaining 200 people
are only allowed to open and view that information. In addition, there are 100
people external to the company, at different partner companies, who also need
access to some of that information. After 6 months, due to a change in the market,
several external partners are cut, and 10% of the internal employees are laid off.
A year later, the company acquires a smaller company of which 50 new people
now require access to the information. In this time, some of the engineering
department members have been promoted to a manager or specialist and as such
they have gained a need for access to the information changes, allowing them to
create and edit documents and emails. Over this hypothetical two years,
thousands of documents, spreadsheets, images, emails and other such
unstructured content is created for many different projects, all containing a
variety of sensitive information.
How are you going to ensure that every copy of every document can be
opened and used in a consistent manner? How do you ensure that terminated
employees canâ€t just walk away with all the companiesâ€ crown jewels and take it,
en mass, to the competition? What about partner relationships that have
changed? Where youâ€ve already sent thousands of sensitive documents? This is
the challenge to be solved by IRM. The above-defined functional requirements
are all needed in this complex scenario, which is representative of the complexity
of a typical business case. Encryption, file collaboration services, and access
controls alone wonâ€t be able to solve all the aspects of the business problem.
IRM Technology Details
Different vendors have different solutions, each with variations in architecture,
but to be considered an IRM technology, an IRM solution should have the
following characteristics: content encryption, identity-based rights definitions
based on authentication, persistent access controls for data, granular rights,
offline capability, and auditing and reporting. Letâ€s consider each of these in
more detail, beginning with an overview of the architecture of an IRM
implementation and ending with a note about file formats.
What Constitutes an IRM Technology?
With over 20 technology vendors selling some kind of IRM solution, and many
more general security vendors offering similar, non-IRM capabilities for
protecting information in files and e-mails, how do we classify a solution as IRM?
Off-the-shelf products range in capabilities from at-rest and in-transit encryption
to fully configurable document functionality restriction. In the middle are many
commercial solutions. So when is IRM really IRM?
The best definition of a full IRM solution is a document protection technology
that supports the most commonly used business document formats, works when
a user is connected to the network as well as offline, allows revocation of access
to content no matter where it resides, and includes all of the following criteria
which combine controls for confidentiality, access control, and functionality.
1. Employs a client/server architecture that provides centralized management of
rights (as opposed to a built-in protection that cannot be changed remotely).
2. Uses a format that includes the document content as well as metadata containing
security rules that are used by document viewing and editing applications to
3. Provides confidentiality for protected information in unstructured files through
the use of encryption.
4. Leverages an identity from an enterprise directory to authenticate a user to the
information and apply the access control. Embedding this access control into the
content is not sufficient. Because IRM technologies are aimed at the enterprise,
they should support industry-standard authentication schemes, work with
identity federation technologies, and be able to connect to commonly used user
5. Applies a rights model, based on an enterprise classification system, that controls
access to ensure only certain subjects can decrypt and access the information and
define what they can do within the document. This should include a combination
of at least the following basic in-use controls:
â€¢ Create a new document with IRM protection based on a pre-defined classification
â€¢ Open and view a document only; unable to edit or copy information within it
â€¢ Edit and save changes into the protected format
â€¢ Print to a trusted print device
â€¢ Forward a document or message and reply to a protected message
â€¢ Provide a basic level of screen-capture protection
6. Generates reports of access to content.
The metadata that accompanies an IRM-protected document comes from both the
IRM server and the IRM client performing the protection. The server provides a
rights model and classification system to define the relationships between
content and users. This is an important aspect of IRM (and it is one of the
functional differences that distinguish IRM from DRM technologiesâ€”DRM creates
a right for a user to access a single piece of information and restricts the user
from interacting with the content and sharing it with others).
IRM, however, abstracts much of the data onto the server. This is because IRM
must allow for secured information to be shared with many diverse parties, and
the rights given to those parties can change often. IRM also must allow a wide
range of collaborative scenarios, involving varying levels of rights, to occur
without changing the document to which those rights are applied. If IRM were to
embed the rights and identity data directly into the files, like DRM does, this
would limit scalability to support the wider range of use cases required in an
enterprise document-rich environment. IRM also needs to integrate with complex
business environments with overlapping requirements to define rights to
The system has to incorporate the enterprise identity infrastructure and also
be accessible by certain parts of the business and end users. Unlike DRM, which is
usually intended to be hidden from the end user, IRM wants to inform the user
about the rights they haveâ€”and create mechanisms in the rights system that
allow users to request rights changes from the content owner. When users have
not been granted access to IRM-secured information, there needs to be a way to
redirect users to the right business process to request access.
IRM solutions have a common set of basic architecture building blocks that
are designed to facilitate access to the data for authorized users while blocking
unauthorized users from performing various tasks with the data.
Clients and Servers
IRM technologies protect information that will travel far beyond the perimeters
of the typical enterprise network. Therefore, IRM technologies use a classic client
and server architecture. Figure 9-3 shows an example of how the client and
server communicate to control access to protected content.
Figure 9-3 Client/server communication flow
The IRM server stores information about user rights, cryptographic keys,
auditing data, and classifications. The IRM server is accessible from the public
Internet, so users can open documents no matter where they are (as long as they
are on the Internet). Such access ensures that traveling employees can still gain
access to content without the need to be physically connected to the corporate
Unstructured content is secured with the IRM server. This process typically
happens in one of two ways: it is secured as part of an automated process when
the content is downloaded from an application, a content management
repository, or a file share; or end users secure content by making a manual
decision using the client software user interface. Once the document is secured, it
can be distributed anywhere with the confidence that only authorized users can
open and use it according to the content ownerâ€s rules.
When a user attempts to open a secure file, a piece of client software is needed
on their local computer to perform the decryption and enforce the access rules.
Depending on the vendor, this may require an additional download or it may
already be built in as part of the operating system or document publishing
application. The client software reads the IRM server information from the file
and communicates with the IRM server, passing authentication information and
other document attributes. Depending on the information passed, the user may
then be granted access to the document. If so, the information required to open
the content is securely sent back to the client, where it may be cached for later
use when the user is offline.
IRM Secured Content Format
IRM is all about protecting unstructured data files, as defined in the preceding
chapter. E-mails, spreadsheets, documents, images, and HTML pages are
examples of such unstructured data files. Each of these file types has its own
specific format, but they all need to be protected in the same way. Most IRM
vendors do not own the document format specifications for the content they are
protecting. There is also no commonly accepted standard for how vendors should
create IRM content, so itâ€s up to each vendor to define its own IRM file
specification. These specifications typically take the form of a container in which
the information being protected is kept in encrypted form, in addition to
metadata that describes what IRM classification applies to the protected content,
along with the URL for the IRM service and other IRM-specific data. In some
cases, the file extension for the document also changes. Figure 9-4 shows how
encrypted data is commonly embedded in encrypted form in an IRM file that also
contains rights data along with digital signature information to validate
Figure 9-4 A typical IRM stack
Microsoft owns the format specification for Microsoft Office documents, and
Adobe owns the specification for PDF documents. As such, those manufacturers
didnâ€t need to create new formats to secure documents; they chose instead to
modify their own formats to include the IRM functionality, and design their
software clients to enforce it. They still use encryption along with a section of
new metadata containing the certificates, licenses, and other information needed
to describe and control the content, as depicted in Figure 9-4. Other vendors have
a similar approach. Once the source content has been encrypted and any rights
metadata added, then the whole file is digitally signed to ensure it is tamperproof.
Signing of the whole file is performed because while the source content is
encrypted, the metadata needs to remain readable in order for the software to
process it. We donâ€t want that metadata, which contains classification
information, to be changed so an attacker could modify their own permissions.
To prevent such tampering, the entire document is signed so that any change in
the bits causes the IRM client software to deny any access to the content, when it
can no longer be trusted.
As an example, consider the protection of a JPEG file using Oracle IRM. The
original JPEG file, which has a .JPG extension, is encrypted and then stored in a
file with an .SJPG (Sealed JPEG) extension. At the top of the file is stored a variety
of cleartext data that describes the classification of the file, the location of the
IRM server, and similar information. Preceding all of this is a cleartext statement
that informs anyone who opens the file in something other than the Oracle IRM
Desktop client that they must have the software installed and configured
correctly to access the file. Figure 9-5 shows a sample of such a file.
Figure 9-5 The file header from a JPEG file protected with Oracle IRM
Cryptography is an important tool for protecting the confidentiality of data. For
this reason, IRM relies on cryptography, which is a core component of IRM
Content Encryption The first step in any IRM technology is to encrypt the
content of the unstructured data you want to protect. The encryption used to
secure the content is almost exclusively symmetric-key encryption, because it is
fast, and decryption to access the content usually needs to be done quickly.
Symmetric-key cryptographic algorithms, in which the same key is used for the
encryption and decryption of the data, are designed to be fast. As mentioned
earlier in this chapter, this presents a problem if encryption is all you are doing,
because anyone who has (or cracks) the key can easily decrypt the content. As
with standard key-management approaches, asymmetric (public and private) key
pairs are typically used to then encrypt the symmetric key itself. Asymmetric
cryptographic techniques are not used to encrypt the actual unstructured
content, because they are much slower. Nobody wants to wait while opening or
saving their document.
Signing As previously described, IRM file formats contain freely readable
metadata, which allows the IRM software to extract the IRM server location,
classification of the data, and other content-specific information. This has to
remain unencrypted; otherwise, the client software has no way to know where to
get the cryptographic keys needed to decrypt content. Because this data resides in
cleartext in the file, the whole file is signed to ensure someone cannot spoof the
IRM server URL or other data. With a signature, any changes made to the file
would result in the IRM client software not being able to verify the signature, in
which case it would refuse to open the tampered content. Another benefit of
signing is the confidence that the content was created from a trusted source, and
as such is a legitimate IRM-protected document.
Communication Encryption IRM clients need to talk to IRM servers to send
authentication information and in return receive rights information. Due to a
lack of standards, the actual protocols used are proprietary to each vendor.
However, they do send their proprietary IRM communication over standard
protocols for securing the connections. Nearly all IRM solutions use Secure
Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) between client and server. This
allows for IRM deployments to leverage existing PKI infrastructure for client and
server communication. Most IRM servers are implemented inside web
application servers. This means that setting up an SSL certificate to secure the
client to server communication is relatively easy, and in fact is often already in
place out of the box.
IRM deployments can be configured to communicate using regular, unsecured
HTTP. This is highly unadvisable because the communications are going to
transfer the cryptographic and rights information from the server to the client,
and if this data is compromised, it puts the entire IRM deployment at risk.
Offline Rights Encryption After a client has received rights to access content,
those rights can be cached so that the same content can be opened without a valid
network route back to the IRM server. This is an important aspect of an IRM
solution, because even in todayâ€s â€œalways connectedâ€ world, being able to access
secured content without communicating to the server allows for scalability, ease
of use, and redundancy. Offline access is covered in more detail later in the
When rights are cached for offline use, they need to be protected. These rights
contain the cryptographic information used to decrypt the secured content, so it
is very important this information is protected from abuse. Once again,
cryptography is used to solve the problemâ€”an encrypted secure container is
maintained by the IRM client software to store these rights. The encryption of the
store is also typically keyed to the host computer in some fashion to ensure that
the IRM-protected files canâ€t simply be transferred to another, unauthorized
computer to allow content to be accessed without the server authenticating the
Once a document has been secured with an IRM technology, access to it can be
limited to a range of specified users, or identities. An identity might be a user in
Active Directory, an X.509 certificate, or a user whoâ€s been authenticated by an
online service like a social networking site. IRM uses these identities to enforce
who can access what. This is different from just storing a password in a
document. The identity and authentication process does not rely on the content of
the document itself, and as such it allows for IRM solutions to revoke access to
secured content without having to change the content. This is a great advance
over plain file encryption, which allows access forever to those who have the key
or can crack it.
This authentication process is a key benefit of IRMâ€”it authenticates people
with the same set of credentials they already use to access their corporate
network, e-mail, and computer. Imagine a scenario where instead of using IRM,
you use traditional file encryption to secure five documents that you share with a
group of ten users. If the security solution places a separate password on each
document, then you end up with five different passwords that all ten people need
to know. This would become even more complicated as the number of documents
increased. So, what most people do instead is use just one password for all
documents. That results in a single password protecting your most valuable
information. If someone gets hold of the password, they can access the content
regardless of whether theyâ€re supposed to. And what happens when you want to
revoke access to any of the ten authorized people?
Identity Management (IDM) systems not only extend the functionality and
ease of use of IRM, they also extend the reach of the IDM system to information
beyond the traditional network perimeters. In a traditional network-resource
environment, identity and access control solutions apply to information only as it
resides within a network, device, or application to which security controls are
applied. IRM extends the reach of those systems to anywhere the information
may travel, inside or outside the network.
Another feature of IRM is the ability to revoke access to information. When an
employee leaves a company, their corporate account is typically disabled or
deleted. If that company protects its documents and e-mails with IRM, the
employee automatically loses access to that information no matter where it has
been transferred to. This solves the age-old problem of an ex-employee taking
intellectual property from the company when they leave and giving it to a
The integration with identity management systems does stop at the corporate
directory. IRM can be integrated with advanced risk-based authentication
solutions that make access decisions based on numerous factors such as IP
address, GPS location, or patch level of the host. Such integration can allow access
to sensitive documents and e-mails only when the user is using a device within
the borders of a particular office, area, or country, or in other known locations.
How IRM Authentication Works At a high level, here is a generic flow
describing how IRM authenticates users:
1. A user attempts to access an IRM-protected file by opening an e-mail or double-
clicking a protected file.
2. Before the content can be opened, the IRM client requests credentials from the
user. This may require interaction with the user, or it may be an automated
process leveraging an existing authenticated session and therefore achieving a
state of single sign-on.
3. Credentials, combined with metadata about the content being accessed, are
passed by the IRM client to the IRM server for validation over a secure network
4. The IRM server (usually a web application server) authenticates the credentials
against a connected identity store.
5. If the authentication is successful, the IRM server then determines whether the
user actually has rights to open the content. Alternatively, the IRM server may
rely on another identity management and access control technology to make this
6. If the authorization is successful, a set of rights is passed to the user that enables
the decryption of the content and rendering of it to the user based on the
restrictions defined in those rights.
Access Feedback Loop Authentication and authorization are two different
things. The former establishes who you are, and the latter defines what you can
do. Itâ€s possible for a user to successfully authenticate but fail to authorize for a
specific function. This may come into play in collaborative environments where
people need to know how to request access to information. The denial of access
can also be leveraged to inform users about policy, the reasons for denial, and the
exception request process. IRM works as an awareness-raising service as well as
an access control tool. IRM works alongside identity management systems to
redirect users back to self-service functionality, where a userâ€s access request
may go through a workflow that includes approval from the information owner.
Figure 9-6 depicts how the IRM client takes user credentials and passes them
securely to the IRM server, which in turn authenticates the user against whatever
identity platform the server has been configured to work with. The IRM server
may be configured to trust claims from the user as a result of federation with
external identity platforms the IRM server also trusts. After the userâ€s identity has
been authenticated, the IRM server checks to see whether the user is authorized
to access the content. This may be another external call but often is a result of
internal IRM server logic. If the user does indeed have rights to the information,
the IRM server ships them a set of rights, which includes the cryptographic keys
that allow the decryption of content. This is how the key-management problem is
Figure 9-6 IRM client and server communication with a directory store
Document encryption and access controls are important components of IRM, but
alone they do not constitute an IRM solution. This needs to be said, because some
products may be marketed as â€œIRM solutionsâ€ when they really donâ€t have full
IRM functionality. Among the other features required to qualify a product as IRM
is the rights model. This is the complex, granular set of rules that defines which
identities are allowed to access what information (the secured content), and what
they can actually do once theyâ€ve been given access. It is this rights model that
provides a logical mapping from your enterprise security policy to the IRM
technology. By contrast, file encryption only protects individual documents to be
shared with a few other people, and it only scales to a small number of people.
When you scale the challenge of document protection up to a group size of
hundreds of thousands of users, you run into a management problem.
The IRM rights model allows you to create classifications, separate out groups
of people in the business environment inside and outside the network perimeter,
and associate the protected information with your security policy. By centralizing
this policy management, you can retain control over access to thousands of
documents in a manageable manner.
Rights classification is typically defined by three main components:
â€¢ The content being protected
â€¢ Rights defining access to the content
â€¢ Identities (users, groups) that are assigned rights
A data model then defines the relationship among these components. For
example, you might create a classification in the rights model called Top Secret
Finance Data. Within it you might add two groups from Active Directory, Finance
Department and Executive Board, as shown in Figure 9-7. The Finance
Department is given rights to open content, create content, edit content, and
print, while the Executive Board is only given rights to open content. All of this
information is stored in the IRM server, and certain aspects of the data are
pushed to the IRM clients and into IRM-protected content.
Figure 9-7 A simple example of an IRM rights model controlling functionality
Once a piece of content has been secured, a rights classification has been
applied, and a user can access the content with their enterprise identity, an
important aspect of IRM comes into playâ€”persistent control. Instead of simply
decrypting the information for the user to open in whatever application they
choose, the IRM client software manages the entire process of decryption,
rendering, and user interaction. After a successful authentication, the IRM server
distributes to the end user a set of rights that dictates how they can interact with
the content. These rights will expose a varying level of functionality regarding the
ability to print, copy, or edit the information.
First, the content needs to be securely handed off to the application that will
control the interaction between the user and the content. This process typically
goes like this:
1. The user successfully authenticates to the content, and a set of rights is made
available to the user.
2. The IRM client accesses the source content by using the decryption keys for the
content, which are contained in the set of rights. The content is decrypted into a
3. The application associated with the content (such as a document viewer) starts,
and the IRM client either dictates to the rendering application what features
should be made available or takes over the rendering directly (depending on the
specific product). For example, the IRM client determines whether the print
buttons in the interface and the print options in the menus should be available to
4. Once the rendering application has been secured, it is passed a reference to the
secure location of the decrypted content, and it renders the content to the user.
5. As the user interacts with the content and the application, the IRM client
consistently monitors for legitimate and illegitimate activity. For example, the
IRM client determines based on the userâ€s rights what happens if the user
attempts to take a screenshot, or what happens if the user is allowed to print but
attempts to print a Word document as an electronic PDF file instead, which is
really a way of saving the document in a different format. Figure 9-8 shows an
example of this restriction.
Figure 9-8 IRM prevents someone with print rights from creating a digital version via a
PDF printer driver.
6. If the user is able to edit and save the document, the IRM client protects all the
artifacts of this activity as well. It monitors and secures temporary files generated
by the application, and encrypts any changes saved into the IRM secured file.
7. Finally, when the user closes the application, the IRM client ensures a clean exitâ€”
removing decrypted content from the secure location, destroying any
cryptographic keys that were in use, and shutting down IRM-related processes.
IRM rights control individual actions that an authenticated user can take
within the protected document. The rights described next are common to IRM
Create and Protect Some IRM technologies allow you to dictate whether a user
has the right to create a new secured document, as opposed to opening an
existing one. Being able to control this aspect of an IRM technology has a
powerful implication. You can control not only who can consume protected
content, but also who can create sensitive information.
To illustrate this principle, consider a scenario where you are using IRM to
secure company e-mail communication. You may, for example, have a
classification set up that allows all company executives to read e-mail
announcements from the CEO. Letâ€s say this classification is called Executive-
Announcements. In this scenario, you only want a few select people, say the CEO,
the CEOâ€s administrators, and a few trusted executives, to be able to create and
secure e-mail against this classification. For this particular classification, you
donâ€t want anybody else to have the ability to send executive announcements.
You can then use the Executive-Announcements classification to restrict that
The Create right differs from the Save right; instead of allowing someone to
open, edit, and save changes to existing content, the Create right controls the
authority to create new information in a particular classification and protect it.
Open and View Controlling access to open content and to view it is the most
fundamental capability of an IRM solution. The Open right allows an
authenticated user to open and view the protected content. In general, any user
who is going to work with and access IRM-protected information needs the right
to open and view it.
Edit and Save The right to open and view content only gives users the ability to
read the information. The Edit right gives them much more capability by
comparison. However, this capability is constrained by the underlying document
management software. For PDF documents opened in a viewer, the Edit right
may not have any effect at all, but for Word documents, the Edit right will enable
the user to make changes to the content just as if IRM were not applied. There
may also be differing levels of Edit rights. For example, one level may allow the
user to copy data to the clipboard and other nonprotected applications, while
another level may prohibit this action.
Most people would agree that if you have the right to edit a document, you
should also have the right to save itâ€”otherwise, your edits would be lost. Thus,
edit and save rights are usually delivered at the same time. However, there may
be unusual situations where you want to allow a document to be edited but not
saved. For instance, you may want to allow a user to interact with a spreadsheet,
enter data, and do calculations, but you may not wish these changes to be saved
back to the official source documentâ€”much like a template that behaves like a
calculator. In that case, you can prohibit the Save and Save As commands but
allow the Copy to Clipboard right, so that data can be copied out of the template.
Alternatively, you could allow the user to use the Save As command, but prevent
them from using the Save commandâ€”thus they could make their own personal
copy based on something they changed.
Print Despite the growth and migration of information into digital form, and
periodic promises about the â€œpaperless office,â€ people continue to want to print
content. Printing is also one of the vectors by which content is easily lost, and itâ€s
one of the more difficult ones to control. For this reason, controlling the ability to
print is perhaps the most popular feature of IRM solutions. Print features in IRM
solutions can be implemented in various ways. Some IRM solutions will detect the
conversion to other digital formats through the print driver, such as PDF print
devices, and prevent this activity, while still allowing printing to actual physical
printers. Preventing any printing at all is also an option. The right to print can be
subject to further controls, such as mandatory automatic insertion of dynamic
watermarks (like â€œConfidentialâ€ or â€œDo not distributeâ€) into the content, thereby
adding unique identifiers into the printed copy.
Whether or not to grant rights to print can be a contentious issue. Users want
to be able to print documents freely, but organizations are often concerned about
the proliferation of uncontrolled copies that granting such rights may produce.
The decision to enable this right usually represents a balance between the
usability of information by users and the need to protect its confidentiality. Some
IRM solutions have functionality that enables administrators to dictate how many
times a document can be printed, but in practice, limiting the number of printed
copies is really not an effective approach. If you give a user the ability to print
once, a simple trip to a Xerox machine defeats any IRM controls for future
printing. Ultimately, the decision should be straightforward: if the content is too
sensitive, donâ€t let people print it.
Forward and Reply Because many IRM solutions are able to protect e-mail in
addition to documents, there are usually e-mail-specific rights as well. Once
again, the implementation of these rights differs from vendor to vendor. Some
solutions have the ability to control whether someone can reply to a secure e-
mail, while others have rights for allowing or preventing the forwarding of e-
mails. Some have more complicated rights restrictions, such as controlling the
ability to modify, copy, or export the content of the e-mail you are replying to
when replying to an IRM-secured e-mail.
Screen Capture One of the first questions many people ask when they first hear
about IRM technology is, â€œAll that content control is just fine, but how are you
going to stop somebody from simply printing the screen to get around copy and
The answer is, IRM products can control screen capture in addition to built-in
document functions. This helps avoid the side-channel approach to getting
around security by working outside the document software framework.
This restriction can also be used to prevent sharing of the screen during
meetings, presentations, online web meetings, and instant message chats.
Auditing and Reporting
The IRM capability to report on document access activities is one of its most
useful features. Even implementing IRM and giving everyone full access rights to
all content, with no restrictions, can have significant value in just the reporting
capability itself. An access report can contain details of what was accessed, when
it was accessed, and by whom, along with details such as the activity involved
(Create, Open, Print, Save) or where the content was accessed from (IP address,
location on disk). This information is not available with any other data security
solution, even DLP (Data Loss Prevention, which as mentioned in Chapter
8 reports on access only, not usage). With IRM, you now have a total view into the
use of your most sensitive data. Some solutions even record attempted access to
IRM-protected content, so you can also see who is trying to get access even if they
are denied. Offline access to content can also be recorded and then sent back to
the IRM server when the client next accesses the server. This type of reporting is
useful both for keeping internal records and when working with compliance
requirements or legal cases.
What if Somebody Takes a Picture of the Screen?
Photography is another side-channel approach to avoiding IRM controls that
springs to many peopleâ€s minds when they hear about IRM. â€œIRM sounds great,â€
they say, â€œbut what if I just take a picture of the screen?â€
While itâ€s true that IRM canâ€t prevent somebody from taking a picture of the
screen, it certainly makes stealing or leaking documents much more difficult.
Instead of simply attaching a document to an e-mail or copying it to a USB drive, a
person has to work a lot harder to steal information from an IRM-protected
document. Like in an old spy movie, they would have to take a picture of each
page, one at a time.
Furthermore, an authorized individual would have to first open the
document. That means a trusted insider is involved. Without IRM, anybody could
steal your data, but with IRM, it can only be done through a trusted channel. And,
you have an audit trail, so you can find out who opened the document at the time
the pictures were taken.
Finally, if somebody has to resort to taking pictures to steal information, they
are willfully breaking the law (especially if the document is clearly labeled
confidential) and the activity is more actionable than with unprotected
documents because of the audit trail and the evidence that IRM provides. You can
point to the thief and say â€œyou stole this informationâ€ because their actions were
clearly overt, and they canâ€t use the â€œI didnâ€t knowâ€ defense.
The built-in reporting features of IRM solutions may even lead some
organizations to avoid restricting access to their data, at least initially, so they can
record access and collect valuable information about usage patterns.
Organizations that implement IRM initially may want to limit printing, prevent
people from editing, and lock down all access to information. However, just the
fact that IRM-protected content informs users that the information has been
secured with a technology that can control and track all use of information may
be a good initial step to changing user behavior and reducing the risk of data loss.
Knowing that the company gets reports on how many times each user accesses
the confidential information has an immediate psychological effect on users that
motivates them to treat IRM-secured content differently. People are less likely to
forward an IRM-protected document and are more likely to think twice about
whom they intend to send it to. It doesnâ€t matter whether the recipient would be
able to open the content or not; just the fact that IRM is protecting it causes users
to be more cautious about how they handle it. They become aware, for example,
that if they have rights to edit and print an IRM-protected document, and choose
to do so, someone, somewhere in the company will know they have done so. This
awareness can lead to positive changes in user behavior.
These days, computer devices are usually connected to a network of some formâ€”
the Internet, wireless, cellularâ€¦even airplanes are providing network
connectivity. It is rare for a device to be totally offline anymore. However,
occasionally people need to work with unstructured content offline, albeit for
only short periods. There are also situations where a user may be online but
unable to reach the IRM server to validate rights. As such, it is important that an
IRM technology allow for clients to handle the access of IRM-protected content
without requiring a direct network connection to the IRM server.
When assigning a right to access content, the IRM technology usually allows
the definition of some offline period. This time period dictates for how long the
access to content remains while the user is offline. When the period expires, the
IRM client requires the user to regain access to the IRM server to validate their
continued access. Providing this grace period is optionalâ€”you may wish to give
users no offline period at all, and force them (for certain content) to always
communicate with the IRM server. Or, for less sensitive information, you might
go the other way and allow infinite offline accessâ€”but you probably would not
do this for highly confidential documents.
Allowing offline use, and choosing the allowed duration, should take into
account that sometimes youâ€ll want to revoke access (such as when an employee
leaves the company). As long as the user is offline, they can continue to access the
content until the next time they connect to the IRM server. You may choose to
give certain individuals longer offline periods, either because they are more
trusted or because of their job role. Conversely, you may choose to give
contractors or temporary employees little or no offline duration.
Secure and usable offline use is not easy to implement, because of the need for
the application to check rights with the IRM server. Leading IRM vendors have
solved these challenges, as described below, which include:
â€¢ How to perform offline authentication and authorization to IRM content
â€¢ How to automate the caching to ensure usability
â€¢ How to protect the cached rights from tampering
Offline Authentication and Authorization
IRM products typically solve the problem of offline access by caching the rights
that were granted by the server at some previous time. This typically consists of
saving the rights data in a temporary location on the computer that was first used
to attempt to access a protected document. When the user first opens the
document, the IRM client contacts the server to check the userâ€s credentials
(authentication) and what they are allowed to do (authorization). Once it receives
the response containing the authorization information, that information is saved
somewhere (typically on the hard drive, in a temporary file). Subsequent
attempts to open the same file while offline rely on the IRM software to check
that cached information. Thus, the user must carry with them the original
computer used to first open the document when they travel and need to go
Automating Offline Rights Caching
Balancing usability with security can be especially important when using IRM
solutions. When authorized users are traveling, or otherwise cut off from access,
their IRM clients must ensure that any rights they need are cached so that they
can access content they are legitimately allowed to. Some IRM technologies cache
this information when you first access a piece of content (as described above) for
a specific classification, or sometimes the offline rights may pertain only to a
specific document. Alternatively, some products have the IRM server send all
available rights to the IRM client, even when the user has not actually accessed
any content yet.
Tamper-Proofing Cached Rights
The cached rights information that is saved in the computerâ€s temporary location
(such as in a temporary file as described above) is cryptographically protected so
it canâ€t be copied to another computer or exploited by somebody who has not
previously been properly authenticated to the identity management system via
the IRM server.
Unstructured Data Formats
Up to this point in our analysis of IRM technologies, weâ€ve covered the use of
encryption to protect content, access controls to ensure the right person gets to
access those encrypted files, and the rights which dictate how users can or cannot
interact with the information. Now we consider the types of unstructured content
IRM typically secures.
One of the challenges of IRM is that it relies on the client software (document
editing programs like Microsoft Word and e-mail programs like Outlook) to
follow the rules IRM provides. To provide controls over things such as opening,
editing, clipboard access, saving, and printing, IRM needs to understand the
format of the content being protected, and the applications that open and render
the content need to support those controls. This means that the IRM client must
integrate with those applications, on many disparate platforms, to ensure that
persistent security is delivered for the duration of the time the content is
E-Mail, Office, and PDF
Each IRM product has a set of formats it supports. The most commonly protected
â€¢ Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint)
The applications and formats supported by IRM products are well defined for
the protection of Microsoft Office content. PDF documents are somewhat less
supported, because the PDF format is an open standard and many applications
can render PDF content. E-mail support varies as well. However, new releases
and versions of these products, and sometimes even patches and hotfixes, may
require a delay while the IRM vendors catch up to support changes in
functionality. Choosing an IRM vendor will probably require analysis of which of
your platforms and applications are supported.
Generic File Protection
IRM products support a variety of different formats and applications. Many of
them also support generic file protection, which is for applications and formats
that IRM technologies donâ€t currently support. It is an attempt to provide IRM
functionality for a wider range of environments. IRM functionality, in theory, can
be applied to any unstructured file and opened in any application. The advantage
is support across a wider range of platforms for more formats. The downside is
that some features of IRM may not work, because the IRM software is unable to
completely integrate seamlessly with every third-party application to provide the
granular rights control described in the previous section. However, a generic
approach can support a broader range of formats to provide the primary value of
IRM, which is extension of the enterprise identity infrastructure to unstructured
Getting Started with IRM
The following is a summary of the steps required to get started with IRM, from a
freshly installed, blank service; to configuration of the rights model; to securing,
distributing, and accessing content; and finally to the revocation of access.
Before anything can be secured, a data classification scheme is required to sort
the data into categories that can be used to apply rules. Some IRM solutions allow
for the ad hoc securing of content, which requires no initial preparation of
classification. But the best deployments are those that leverage a central policy or
classification scheme that can be mapped to a corporate security policy. The
creation of the classification is typically done by the security department, because
it has the deepest knowledge of classification and handling practices, and the
ongoing ownership and management of the documents within those categories
can be owned by different business groups. Chapter 5, which covers security
policies, includes a discussion of common data classification practices.
Figure 9-9 shows an example of how data classification may be implemented
in a corporate environment in which there are four internal departments that
want to use IRM to control access to their documents: Engineering, Finance, HR,
and Sales. This company has five classifications for all information: Secret,
Confidential, Proprietary, Controlled, and Public. These five classifications are
sometimes referred to by their shorthand identifiers, L1 through L5. In this
example, the Engineering department has three levels of sensitivity: Secret,
Confidential, and Proprietary. The Finance department also has Secret and
Confidential data. Sales produces some Confidential data and HR handles some
Secret data. In this use case, assume that each department has differing
requirements for rights based on how they intend their information to be used
(such as: printing is allowed for HR but not for Engineering at the Secret level,
and Confidential Sales and Finance documents allow copy and paste but
Confidential Engineering documents do not).
Figure 9-9 Data classification example
This example depicts how the combinations of sensitivity levels and
departmental requirements play out. The granularity of user rights within an
IRM solution, coupled with a data classification scheme consisting of several
levels of confidentiality and the complex needs of varying departments, results in
permutations that are simplified by creating an IRM classification system. At the
Secret level, three IRM classifications have resulted, called â€œL1 Secret Engineering
Information,â€ â€œL1 Secret Finance Information,â€ and â€œL1 Secret HR Information.â€
Likewise, Engineering, Finance, and Sales each have an L2 Confidential
classification, and Engineering has one L3 Proprietary classification. There is also
a general category in this example called L4 Controlled External Communication,
for documents that are classified as Controlled that are not tied to a particular
department. And for documents classified as L5 Public, IRM is not needed, since
these documents are intended to be open to all.
An IRM classification scheme translates complex use cases into simple
designations that people can understand and use. People who create documents
that use these IRM classifications will need to be trained on which ones to use,
and when, but they wonâ€t have to worry about the underlying details. IRM
classifications abstract the user rights to simple labels.
You canâ€t control access to content without distinguishing individual users so that
they can be included in the access rights or excluded from opening documents.
Thus, the IRM solution must be connected to a directory containing user accounts
and must be able to authenticate incoming requests. It must also have a
mechanism to authenticate external users, either federated with external user
stores or by creating accounts in the corporate directory store. When creating
accounts for external users, you must also communicate to them information
about how to install the IRM client software and what their credentials are, if you
havenâ€t federated the IRM solution with their existing identity management
solution. Provisioning may also involve the creation of groups that may be
specific to the IRM solution.
Figure 9-10 demonstrates the necessity for user accounts to be in place before
a user is allowed to access a document in an IRM implementation. In this
example, the IRM server has received a request for document access from an IRM
client, and is ready to authenticate the user who is requesting access.
Figure 9-10 User authentication example
In this example, the IRM server has been configured to connect to both Active
Directory (for employees) and an external LDAP directory (for contractors and
other non-employees). If a new employee wants to open an IRM-protected
document, a user account must be configured into Active Directory so the IRM
server will be able to authenticate that person and determine what rights to
grant. Likewise, if a new contractor needs access to protected documents, a user
account must first be configured into the LDAP directory and the username and
password need to be given to the contractor (in this case, via e-mail) so they can
authenticate when they attempt to open the document. Of course, if the
authentication attempt fails on both Active Directory and LDAP, all access to the
document is denied.
With users available to the IRM server, you can now associate their accounts with
the classification youâ€ve created and give them rights. Rights assignment can be
done in a variety of ways by different members of the business. You can assign
rights directly to individual users, but this creates administrative overhead and is
not generally considered a best practice in any rights-assignment scenario. It is
better to create or use existing groups and assign rights at this level, even if a
group has only a single user account in it (see Figure 9-11). Then the management
of groups in the directory has a direct reflection on which users have access to
Figure 9-11 Rights assignment example
The management of rights groups can vary among products. It may be defined
by the security department or the IT department. Some IRM solutions allow for
this management to be handed over to the owners of the information. The
information owners may be in the best position to decide how they want their
documents to be used.
The IRM solution is now ready to protect content. There are two typical
approaches to doing this, as shown in Figure 9-12. One approach is to allow users
to actively select information and choose the appropriate classification, and the
other is to remove the decision from the user entirely and automate the
protection. This is done through either integration with the application
generating the content or by monitoring a file share and automatically securing
files as they are stored within. DLP technologies are often integrated at this point
to automate the creation of IRM control documents.
Figure 9-12 Automatic and manual content protection
A key factor of IRM technologies is that, once documents are protected with IRM,
it no longer matters how content is distributed. It can be e-mailed, posted on a
website or file-sharing site, stored on a network file share, or even copied to a CD
or USB drive (see Figure 9-13). There are numerous ways in which unstructured
content can be distributed, and IRM works with all of them. Thus, the decision
about how to distribute content to the end users can be based entirely on other
business factors besides security.
Figure 9-13 Examples of content distribution
Installing and Configuring the IRM Client
For large organizations with mature IT departments, it is usually possible to
deploy the IRM client software automatically, at least to internal users. For some
IRM technologies, the client software may already be in placeâ€”for example, in
Adobe Reader or Microsoft Windows. However, you should consider the
eventuality that at some point IRM-protected content will end up on the desk of
someone who does not have the IRM client. They will then need to install the
software and configure it so it can communicate with your IRM server. Most IRM
solutions automate the client configuration, either by auto discovery or when a
piece of IRM content is first opened. When this is done, the server settings are
stored without user interaction.
Now that a user has a piece of IRM content and the software required to open it,
authentication takes place. This might be transparent if the IRM client supports
single sign-on (SSO). For users who are external to the organization and for
whom accounts have been precreated, there needs to be a mechanism of
communicating their username and password beforehand. A common approach
is to e-mail these details with a temporary password, which the user is then
prompted to change upon their first access to the IRM server (as depicted
in Figure 9-10). This authentication phase may also take place offline and may
differ from the online mechanism.
Figure 9-14 shows a login screen for an IRM system that is prompting the user
for their username and password. This system allows the user to save their
password for future attempts, in which case the software will pass the stored
credentials back to the authentication server, and if they are still valid, the user
will get access without having to re-type their password.
Figure 9-14 User authentication example
Once authentication validates who the user is, the IRM solution must determine
what rights they are authorized to have. This determination may be done with
the built-in IRM rights model or it may be externalized to an existing application
or technology that is already configured to understand who should get access to
Rights Retrieval and Storage
If the user is granted rights to the content, these are packaged up in a secure form
and sent securely over the network to the IRM client to be interpreted. The rights
package will also contain the cryptographic keys that allow the IRM client to
decrypt the content.
If the rights are able to be cached and stored for offline use, they must be
written to the host storage in a secure fashion and must be retrievable offline
Content Access and Rights Invocation
At this stage, everything is in place to actually decrypt and access the IRM-
secured content. The cryptographic keys need to be securely accessed and then
used to decrypt the content. The rendering application then needs to be started
and secured. The IRM client may need to hook into operating system
functionality, such as the clipboard and screen-capture functionality. This all
takes place before the decrypted content can be handed off to the application for
rendering to the user.
Access Auditing and Reporting
Each time an IRM-secured document is opened, an audit record is generated, as
shown in the example in Figure 9-15. These records may be generated on the
server in real time as the request is made, or they may be cached offline and sent
back to the server on a scheduled basis.
Figure 9-15 Access auditing example
Finally, at some point the user will no longer require access to the sensitive data.
At this point, their rights are revoked from the IRM server. This change in rights
may happen immediately, if the client is online, or it may need to wait until the
offline period expires, forcing the IRM client to communicate back to the server
before the document can be opened, at which point the client discovers that the
rights are no longer valid.
IRM technologies are a different, comprehensive approach to securing
unstructured data. Unlike access control systems such as those built into file
servers, or file encryption tools that require passwords and either grant all rights
or none at all, IRM combines an entire layered security approach of access
control, authentication, encryption, authorization, and auditing into a data-
centric solution. By shrinking the access control perimeter from the network and
storage to the content itself, IRM is able to enforce access and the security of
documents and e-mails no matter where they reside.
The future of IRM technologies and their adoption may depend on the
continued expansion of format support. Some vendors are evolving the platforms
to a degree where they can support many of the basic IRM rights controls such as
Open, Print, and Edit with a thin and simple application integration. This
approach allows for the support of many formats, while giving up some of the
finer-grained controls. Enterprises are also continuing to see increasing numbers
and diversity of devices in the enterprise, including tablets and smartphone
formats, which need to be supported in a comprehensive IRM deployment.
The security challenges of unstructured content are increasing along with the
continued proliferation of unstructured data, and IRM is a good tool to deliver a
persistent level of access control to information regardless of where it is and
where it goes.
Becker, Eberhard, et al. Digital Rights Management: Technological, Economic,
Legal and Political Aspects. Springer, 2004.
Harte, Lawrence. Introduction to Digital Rights Management (DRM); Identifying,
Tracking, Authorizing and Restricting Access to Digital Media. Althos, 2006.
Smallwood, Robert, and Barclay Blair. Safeguarding Critical E-Documents:
Implementing a Program for Securing Confidential Information Assets. Wiley, 2012.
Umeh, Jude. The World Beyond Digital Rights Management. British Informatics
Zeng, Wenjun, Heather Yu, and Ching-Yung Lin. Multimedia Security Technologies
for Digital Rights Management. Academic Press, 2006.
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