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Reduced Confusion as Everyone Waits for Native Support in Office Clients
As is the nature of the Microsoft cloud, the preview version of the Azure Information Protection client (unified labeling edition) has been replaced by the generally available version, now available for download and deployment. Microsoft’s April 16 announcement on the topic was upbeat but I still find considerable confusion in the field about labels, Azure Information Protection, Office, encryption, and rights management. Let’s see if we can clarify the situation.
Rights management is the technology that allows content owners (authors) to protect documents and files by stamping them with a template. The template defines the rights given to recipients to interact with the content such as the ability to edit or print. Rights management is automatically enabled for all Office 365 E3 and E5 tenants.
Azure Information Protection
Azure Information Protection (AIP) is a suite of technology built by Microsoft to control and help secure email, documents, and files. Reflecting their original name of “classification labels,” AIP labels are used to classify material inside or outside Office 365 with different degrees of sensitivity to reflect the confidentiality of the content. Labels are associated with rights management templates but also include other features like content marking. Labels used for the most sensitive information are likely to invoke encryption to protect the information against unauthorized access. AIP labels and templates are managed in the Azure Information Protection blade of the Azure portal. An AIP license is needed to assign AIP labels to files.
Office 365 Sensitivity Labels
Sensitivity Labels are like AIP labels except that they are managed through the Security and Compliance Center. Both sets of labels share a common base in rights management and if a tenant started with AIP labels, they can migrate the set of AIP labels to become sensitivity labels and thereafter continue managing the labels through the Security and Compliance Center.
Sensitivity Labels are designed to protect content like email and documents stored inside Microsoft 365. Office 365 E3 and E5 plans include the licenses to use sensitivity labels, including the ability to encrypt email and documents. Figure 1 shows an Outlook message protected by a sensitivity label. You can also see the protection bar, which shows the current label applied to an item, and the sensitivity button, to expose the set of labels available to the user.
Although Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and OneDrive for Business support sensitivity labels today, it will take some time before sensitivity label support is picked up in other workloads, like Teams.
AIP Client (s)
Two versions of the AIP clients are available. The standard version reads its policy and label information from the Azure portal. The unified labeling version reads equivalent information from the Security and Compliance Center. Both versions integrate with the Office desktop applications. You should use the AIP unified labeling client with Office 365, making sure to use the latest version whenever possible.
If you see a Protect button in the Office desktop apps, you know you’ve installed the older version of the AIP client. The unified labeling client installs a Sensitivity button (as shown in Figure 1).
Although the unified labeling version of the AIP client is not quite as functional as the older client. Microsoft expects it to reach close to feature parity with its older counterpart by the end of 2019. Microsoft’s blog post also makes the important point that “going forward new features will be included in the Azure Information Protection unified labeling client whereas we’re not planning to add new features to the Azure Information Protection client”. In other words, future development efforts are focused on the unified labeling version, so tenants starting deployment projects today are strongly advised to use this version.
One of the big features of rights management templates is the ability to protect content through encryption. The keys used for the encryption can be tenant-provided (BYOK or HYOK) or Microsoft-managed (MMK). In either case, the AIP client is responsible for encrypting content after an AIP or sensitivity label is applied to a message, document, or file. This is why you need to deploy AIP clients to workstations.
It’s obviously inconvenient to have to deploy yet another client to user workstations. To make things easier, Microsoft is building native support for sensitivity labels (and encryption) into the Office ProPlus (click-to-run) desktop apps and the Office Online apps. Office mobile apps (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) also support the application of sensitivity labels today. Outlook Mobile can read protected content and will be able to apply sensitivity labels to new messages soon.
When the Office apps include native support for sensitivity labels, you won’t need to deploy the AIP client to get this functionality unless you intend applying labels to content stored outside Office 365, in which case you need an AIP license (available in P1 and P2 plans and as part of the Enterprise Mobility + Security suite or Microsoft 365 Enterprise plans).
Most organizations have a mixture of content that needs to be protected inside and outside Office 365. The unified labeling version of the AIP client delivers this functionality today. In the future, native support in the Office apps will create a more integrated solution for Office content, but you’ll still need to deploy an AIP client to handle content stored in file servers and other non-Office 365 locations.
Still confused abut AIP, labels, encryption, and Office 365? We suggest you read Chapter 24 of the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook where this topic is covered in detail.