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Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management Covers Secure Collaboration for SharePoint Online
Updated 2 March 2022
I know that many Microsoft 365 organizations don’t use sensitivity labels, even if they have the necessary licenses to use labels to protect content. All Office 365 licenses allow users to read protected content, but you need Office 365 E3 or above to apply labels to files, and Office 365 E5 or Microsoft 365 Compliance E5 for auto-label processing. At least, that’s been the case up to now.
Applying a default sensitivity label for a SharePoint Online document library (Figure 1) counts as automatic processing. Apparently, Microsoft considers the fact that new and modified documents in the library pick up the sensitivity label (unless previously labeled) as reason enough. In late January 2023, Microsoft revealed that this feature was one of the set to be licensed through a new Microsoft Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management license.
Features Enabled by the Microsoft Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management License
The new license is in preview and includes other elements to improve secure collaboration based on SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, including:
- Using sensitivity labels with Azure AD authentication contexts to limit access to SharePoint Online sites. This feature has been in preview since 2021.
- Restricting access to a SharePoint Online site to members of a Microsoft 365 group. This restriction blocks users who have received access to a file in the site.
- Blocking the download of files from SharePoint Online sites or OneDrive for Business accounts without the need to use Azure AD conditional access policies. In other words, users are forced to use a browser to access the site or account and cannot download, print, or synchronize files. The restriction also blocks access to the Office desktop apps because these apps need to download files to work on them locally.
In addition, Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management includes some management and governance features. The three examples cited appear to be instances where it’s possible for administrators to do the same thing with some effort. Microsoft is making it easier. For example, the ability to limit access to OneDrive for Business to those who are members of a specific security group stops people licensed to use OneDrive but who aren’t members of the security group from using the app. The same effect is possible by simply removing the OneDrive service plan from their assigned licenses.
I haven’t seen what actions are included in the feature to export recent SharePoint site actions, but it might be possible to replicate the functionality by fetching SharePoint management events from the unified audit log.
My assumption is that any user who takes advantage of a feature licensed by Syntex advanced management requires a license. For instance, site members of a site where a document library uses a default sensitivity label all require Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management licenses.
I can’t find a public announcement by Microsoft about the Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management license. Cynics will say that this is another example of how Microsoft creates licenses for new functionality to generate additional revenue from its installed base. A more benign view is that the new license allows people with Office 365 E3 licenses to use the security and governance features enabled by Syntex Advanced Management. When I find out more details about licensing, including if some features covered by Syntex Advanced Management are also available through other licenses, I shall share the information.
Viewing Metadata for Protected Files
On an associated topic, I was asked why the metadata of documents protected by sensitivity labels remains visible to people who have no right to access these files. It’s a good question because some get confused when they notice an interesting document in a library but can’t open it because they’re blocked by the rights assigned in the label. For instance, who wouldn’t want to open a document with a title like “Proposed Pay Rises for Staff”?
When you enable SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business to support sensitivity labels, it allows the workloads to deal with protected (encrypted) content. SharePoint Online stores protected files in an unencrypted format to allow functions like indexing and data loss prevention policies to work. Any access to a document, such as a user opening or downloading a file, causes SharePoint Online to encrypt the document so that the application used to open the file (like Word) can apply the rights assigned to the user. Everything works very nicely and those who have access to files can work with that content and those who don’t cannot.
When browsing items in a document library, site members can see metadata like the titles and authors of protected documents. Attempts to open these documents fail if the user doesn’t have the necessary rights. Because SharePoint Online doesn’t encrypt or obscure the metadata, those users know that documents with potentially very interesting content are available.
How SharePoint Online Stores Documents
The reason why document metadata is visible to all site members is rooted in how SharePoint Online stores documents. SharePoint Online uses Azure SQL as its storage platform. Blob storage holds documents and other files while metadata is in a separate table (list). The Azure SQL data is heavily protected against illegal access. Once a user has access to a document library, the assumption is that SharePoint can show them all the items, which is what they see in the list shown in a browser or the Teams files channel tab. It’s only when a user attempts to access a protected document that SharePoint Online validates their right to open that content.
You can argue that SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business should hide the existence of protected documents that the user can’t open, but this would require SharePoint Online to check that access before displaying documents in a library. Such a check would incur a huge performance penalty because SharePoint Online cannot assume that the rights assigned in a sensitivity label are the same as the last time it checked.
New Functionality, New Costs
Although the news about the Syntex-SharePoint Advanced Management license will disappoint some, it’s reasonable that Microsoft should charge extra for security and management features that not every Microsoft 365 tenant will want or need. Those that need the functionality will simply have to pay the $3/user monthly cost. Hasn’t that always been the way?
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