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What Is Information Rights Management?

Posted on Wednesday August 10, 2022

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Information rights management may become the last line of defense when a hacker tries to gain access to your document. Will your security hold up?

What Is Information Rights Management?

Information rights management is a type of document security that uses encryption and permissions management to protect sensitive information. IRM is a subset of Digital Rights Management and focuses on security for documents, PDFs, and so on.

What Is Driving the Interest in IRM?

According to the IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report 2021, the global average breach cost rose from $3.86 million to $4.24 million in 2021. Unfortunately, this represents the highest average total cost in the 17-year history of the report.

In addition to the financial loss, the reputational damage inflicted on an organization is often incalculable. As a result, chief information security officers and chief information officers are concerned about which technological strategy is best suited to protect confidential data from unauthorized access, in addition to staying compliant with regulations.


Problems with Traditional Security Strategies

Several business communications require the sharing and exchange of company secrets and internal documents in a confidential manner with third parties. Unfortunately, this area is a huge blind spot for traditional data security measures.

We highlight the four critical gaps that have to be addressed in order to foster adequate security within an organization:

  1. The behavioral gap: Often security measures can feel cumbersome, and employees may take shortcuts to work more efficiently. For instance, an employee may find it easier to copy or print confidential documents rather than access them through a secure channel, leaving a gap in security if the documents are lost or stolen.
  2. The visibility gap: It’s difficult to preserve confidentiality when you can’t tell how, when, or where your data is used, stored, or located. Bridging the visibility gap enables you to determine if or when confidential information has been disclosed without authorization.
  3. The control gap: When information leaves your network, its security could also leave your control—causing headaches and vulnerabilities. To bridge this gap, control has to encompass whether the file is online, offline, on your servers, or has been downloaded to a local drive—using granular controls to grant or revoke user permissions on information wherever it is.
  4. The response gap: If your organization is only reactionary, this can create a gap between when a security breach happens and when you’re able to respond. You can’t afford to wait for weeks or months before building guardrails around sensitive documents. 

Conducting modern business is impossible without collaboration and sharing information with vendors, contractors, and other allies. This requires the ability to securely manage sensitive information wherever it goes.

For many businesses, IRM is the missing tool in the arsenal to improve their security profile.

Here are some of the features that an IRM strategy uses to protect documents:

  • Comprehensive user and user groups rights management
  • Secure file sharing capabilities
  • Document embedded encryption 
  • Remote identity and access management
  • Data analysis and classification systems
  • Access policies attached to files
  • Auditing and report capabilities
  • Document tracking and workflow automations

The Advantages of Adopting IRM for Document Security

Instead of compliance-driven, proprietary solutions, customers now desire risk-focused, integrated solutions that are dynamic and highly adaptive. IRM secures information directly by applying a layer of protection to the data, providing protection that travels with your document everywhere it goes.

As a result, IRM allows stakeholders to control information even when it’s no longer in their network. And if by some mistake, the document inadvertently reaches an unauthorized individual, it allows you to revoke access remotely.

In addition, information rights management allows you to do this throughout the entire life cycle of the document: its creation, distribution, and final decommissioning.

How Does Information Rights Management Work?

IRM applies permissions to a file, encrypts it, and then follows the file no matter where it goes.

  • Placing restrictions on what different categories of users can do.
  • Placing restrictions on how users can view, edit, or save the documents.
  • Limiting access times, especially by placing expiration dates on viewing content.
  • Preventing the sharing, emailing, or forwarding of documents without authorization.
  • Limiting the number of times or number of people that can access digital assets.
  • Imposing restrictions on content based on geographical location or device information like IP addresses. 

While software applications might support and implement information rights management in more than one way, this is a high-level, general overview of how IRM data protection works:

  • The IRM-enabled application encrypts a document to protect it.
  • It creates a policy that contains the document’s usage rights and permissions.
  • It creates a user identity certificate that identifies the author and other relevant information.
  • It subsequently stamps all these together.

Document Encryption

Encryption is the primary form of data protection employed by IRM. Data is encrypted at the application level by making the document’s content unreadable to unauthorized users.  

The most crucial role of encryption in information rights management is extending the secure management of information beyond the confines of repositories so protection is provided wherever a file is stored or used. In addition, this end-to-end encryption gives businesses a measure of granular control over what users can do with the document.

This control exists wherever the data finds itself: whether on end-users laptops, desktops, mobile devices.

Different forms of encryption are used at various stages of IRM-enabled protection. In addition to symmetric encryption, some IRM techniques also use public-key cryptography, also known as asymmetric cryptography.

Identity management

While information rights management attempts to transcend the limitations of perimeter-based security, it still employs some of the latter’s techniques when appropriate. One of these techniques is identity and access management.

IAM is right in IRM’s wheelhouse. According to Gartner, identity and access management empowers the right individuals to gain access to the right resources for the right reasons and at the right time. IAM is mission-critical for an organization because it allows it to manage a range of identities including users, hardware, and software applications.

Its most important role with regard to IRM is confirming that the user (including software and hardware devices) is who they claim to be by authenticating their credentials against a database.

Permissions Management

When an IRM-integrated application determines the protected document is being accessed or used by an authorized user, it decrypts the data in the document. It subsequently enforces the rights defined in the policy.

Hence, documents have an access policy attached to them. This enables you to enforce individual authorizations and exert control in managing granular permissions like the ability to print, save, or edit the document. And these permissions can be changed remotely.

The Difference between IRM and Traditional Digital Rights Management

The core difference between IRM and DRM largely rests on two things: the nature of the data protected and the security defenses built around the data.

DRM is applied to mass-produced, rich media like music, movies, and video games for copyright protection. On the other hand, IRM mainly protects single-file documents like PDF documents, spreadsheets, and so on from unauthorized access.

Security Defenses Surrounding IRM and DRM

Though IRM is a subset of DRM, using perimeter-based security is insufficient for IRM. The danger with perimeter security is that it essentially becomes redundant once an individual is able to access the information it protects. Thereafter, the individual can subsequently do whatever they desire with the information: copy, print, forward, and generally share it however they want.

For IRM to be effective, it, therefore, needs to rely on another security paradigm: zero-trust security.

One of the distinct advantages of zero trust over perimeter-based security is that it allows IRM protections to move, travel, and stay with a file.

Other key differences between IRM and DRM include the following:

  • Life cycle control over content monetization: DRM is concerned with the optimal monetization of digital content. DRM attempts to solve the business problem of protecting the interest of copyright holders through technical means. It achieves this primarily by restricting access to media content to its rightful owner: the paying customer or individual consumer. 

    In contrast, IRM protects documents not intended for mass consumption such as PDFs, Microsoft Office documents, and emails.

  • Static, published information versus highly collaborative: The rich media content DRM seeks to protect from abuse is already published in the public domain. Also, its content is static, read-only, and largely remains unchanged. 

    In contrast, IRM deals with highly collaborative, dynamic documents which need to be shielded from unwanted eyes. To maintain this secrecy, IRM requires persistent control of information throughout the life cycle of the content.

Information Rights Management versus Digital Rights Management


Business Case
Businesses need to protect information contained in documents throughout their entire life cycle, from creation, archiving, auditing, and reporting.
The business focus for DRM is to maximize content monetization by preventing intellectual property violations.
Emails, Word documents, PDFs, and other dynamic content. Multiple users handle these documents in a collaborative environment.
Secure, static content that has already been completed and published.
User Experience
An intuitive and user-friendly experience is necessary to gain widespread adoption and market share.
Most of its software applications derive their utility on perimeter-based security, not so much for their user experience. These products provide regional restriction or geoblocking, software licensing keys, firewalls, and virtual private networks.
Require zero-trust environments that can be platform-agnostic as they foster collaboration in a protected manner. Client systems enforce user rights, at times with the aid of policy servers distributing them.
Proprietary devices and software are used to control intellectual property. Unlike IRM, rights aren’t updated or transferable.

The Difference between Data Loss Prevention and IRM

DLP aims to prevent data loss and leakage at both ingress and egress points of a system. To achieve this, DLP relies on standard security tools such as intrusion detection systems and firewalls.

In contrast to IRM, DLP only prevents the unlawful transfer of data outside organizational boundaries.

Moreover, the zero-trust tenets of IRM mandate a data-centric scope of protection that travels with documents wherever they go, including the ability to revoke permissions or access to files in real time.

In addition to meeting regulatory standards and protecting intellectual property, organizations typically use DLP for the following:

  • Providing data visibility, especially in large organizations
  • Securing data on remote cloud systems
  • Enforce security in “bring your own device” environments, especially through a secure mobile workforce
  • Provide reporting for incident response and forensics to identify areas of weakness and anomalies

DLP also has to monitor sensitive data in rest and in transit through the network. To achieve this, a lot of work has to be invested in locating, categorizing, and classifying sensitive data.

Unlike IRM, DLP doesn’t concern itself with or provide any solutions to what happens once data is outside of the organization. DLP might use software tools and technology to detect and monitor confidential information. It attempts to block the data from being transmitted outside the organization, not caring whether or not such transfers are sanctioned by usage rights.

DLP software also uses algorithms, in addition to company policy, to deny permission to anyone attempting to send sensitive information outside the organization.

Important Use Cases for IRM

IRM is needed to secure sensitive documents in distributed environments where implicit trust doesn’t exist. It is a crucial tool for improving the security posture of an organization through protecting files from misuse, both inside and outside of an organization.

Sharing Documents Needed for Business-critical Transactions

In the course of everyday business, users need to access files of varying degrees of importance. Some of these users may be contractors and business partners you need to trust with your information. This raises the conundrum of protecting information that could essentially be accessed and downloaded on devices worldwide.

IRM enables you to share your information while also providing you with full control over the files for their entire life cycle, regardless of how far it travels or where it lives.

To Address Regulatory Regiments

With the spate of cyberattacks in recent years, a stricter regulatory environment has arisen to hold companies more accountable for how customer data is handled.

There are a myriad of data protection regulations and privacy laws: PCI DSS in the financial industry, HIPAA in the healthcare sector, and GDPR in the European Union. In addition to these regulations, suffering a data breach can be very costly for organizations.

IRM can provide regulatory compliance because it is capable of automatically compiling a comprehensive audit trail by virtue of tracking activities like file access and distribution.

To Combat Internal Threats

Most of the data breaches that receive attention are those involving the leaking of personally identifiable information. This type of data is protected by regulation because it can be linked to a specific person.

However, what doesn’t receive as much attention is the loss of intellectual property data, company trade secrets, and research and development information. This type of data is highly susceptible to insider threats, especially through employees and industrial espionage.

It should be noted that all internal threats aren’t nefarious. Some information leaks that IRM also strives to fix are those emanating from employee error.

How Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration helps businesses protect sensitive information

To put it mildly, cybercriminals now have more data to steal. The scope of sensitive data has expanded over the years. In addition to the usual targets such as credit cards and personally identifiable information, it now includes intangible assets like business methodologies and pricing models.

For example, according to Ocean Tomo’s Intangible Asset Market Value Study, between 1975 and 2015, the S&P 500 market value for intangible assets grew from 17% to 84%. The study now projects intangible assets to constitute 90% of all business value.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to protect data by shifting from an infrastructure-centric security posture to a data-centric approach. Fortunately, Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration has extensive expertise in providing IRM-as-a-service and protecting critical enterprise content.

Contact us today to provide your documents with persistent online and offline protection.

Tags:  Secure Collaboration

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