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Businesses, regardless of size, grapple with the formidable task of securing data and systems. A key part of this involves managing elevated access: the permissions afforded to certain users who hold authority to induce significant changes in the IT environment. These individuals, referred to as privileged (or elevated) users, regularly interact with sensitive information and critical systems, making their accounts prime targets for cyber-attackers. This article looks at privileged access management and shares some best practices that you can implement to monitor and control privileged access.

Imagine a privileged user as one possessing a master key to your company’s virtual house. Just as you would secure this key against burglars, your privileged accounts need robust protection against cyber threats. Privileged Access Management (PAM) serves as the protective mechanism for this purpose.

PAM, also known as Elevated Access Management (EAM), outlines and reinforces strategies, including various policies and technologies designed to manage and secure privileged access safely. It comprises several steps, such as defining privileged accounts, enforcing robust password policies, managing shared accounts, and the continuous monitoring of privileged account activities. Incorporating PAM into your business’s overall security strategy can notably diminish the risk of data breaches. 

Why Privileged Access Management is Critical

Privileged Access Management is a crucial component of your organization’s cybersecurity framework. The integrity of your IT environment largely depends on effective PAM. Let’s delve into the reasons.

Guarding Against Internal Threats

Human error is a notable cybersecurity risk. Whether it’s an inadvertent mistake by a well-meaning employee or a malicious act by an insider, privileged accounts can present significant threats. PAM helps mitigate these risks by controlling the actions of privileged users and monitoring their activities.

Defending Against External Attacks

Cyber attackers often aim at privileged accounts because they offer unrestricted access to your systems and sensitive data. PAM serves as your primary defense, restricting access and identifying unusual activity indicative of a potential breach.

Meeting Regulatory Compliance

Many industries face strict data security regulations demanding control over information access. A robust PAM implementation helps your organization meet these requirements, shielding you from legal consequences and reputational harm.

Minimizing Data Breaches

Data breaches can lead to financial loss, reputation damage, and loss of customer trust. By managing and monitoring elevated access, you can significantly reduce the risk of a data breach.

Boosting Operational Efficiency

PAM isn’t solely about enhancing security; it also improves operational efficiency. Automating processes such as password resets and access requests saves time and resources, freeing your IT team for more strategic tasks.

Curbing Privilege Creep

Employees may gradually gain excess access rights as their roles change, leading to ‘privilege creep.’ This heightens the chances of security threats. PAM counters this by ensuring access rights are regularly reviewed and adjusted.

In light of these reasons, it’s clear that a comprehensive EAM strategy isn’t an optional luxury; it’s a vital part of securing your organization’s assets.

Understanding Privileged Accounts

Privileged accounts, also known as superuser accounts, play a critical role in IT environments. To fully understand these accounts, let’s look at their types and characteristics.

Types of Privileged Accounts

Recognizing different types of privileged accounts allows us to identify risks and enforce appropriate security measures. Here’s a breakdown of the main types:

  • Administrative Accounts: These accounts have full system access and can add or remove users, and install or uninstall software.
  • Service Accounts: These non-human accounts are used by applications or services to interact with an operating system.
  • Domain Accounts: These accounts can access network services and have high-level privileges, enabling them to modify system settings.
  • Emergency Accounts: These accounts are used during crises to perform recovery operations and usually have extensive privileges.

Characteristics of Privileged Accounts

Knowing the characteristics of privileged accounts is essential to understanding why these accounts require robust protection. Here are some of their defining features:

  • Unrestricted Access: Privileged accounts have nearly unlimited access to systems and data.
  • Ability to Make System-Wide Changes: These accounts can modify system settings, adjust security controls, and install or uninstall applications.
  • Target of Cyber-attacks: Due to their high-level access, privileged accounts are often the main targets for cyber attackers.
  • Increased Risk: Misuse of these accounts, whether intentional or accidental, can lead to considerable damage, such as data breaches or system disruptions.

Understanding privileged accounts makes it clear why careful management is necessary. Effective privileged access management can reduce the risk of cyber threats and strengthen an organization’s security posture.

Understanding the PAM Lifecycle

Privileged Access Management is a continuous, cyclical process, not a one-time task. It requires several sequential steps, each vital to the next, ensuring efficient management of privileged access. Let’s delve into these steps.

Step 1: Identifying Privileged Accounts

The PAM lifecycle begins with identifying all privileged accounts. Organizations often discover more privileged accounts than anticipated. Privilege isn’t confined to human users; application, service, and machine accounts can also have elevated permissions. A precise inventory can pinpoint potential vulnerabilities and lay the groundwork for the entire PAM process.

Step 2: Securing Privileged Credentials

After identification, the next step is securing these privileged credentials. This includes creating unique, complex passwords for each account stored in a safe vault. The vault should have robust security controls, allowing only authorized users to access these credentials. Regularly changing these passwords further minimizes the risk of compromise.

Step 3: Establishing Access Controls

Next comes the establishment of strict access controls. In this procedure, permissions adhere to the least privilege principle – only the required access for accomplishing a task is provided. For instance, while an IT admin may require high-level access, a typical employee likely does not. Excessive permissions can elevate risk.

Step 4: Monitoring and Auditing Privileged Activity

With secure and controlled access, the focus shifts to continuous monitoring and auditing. This allows for the detection of unusual or suspicious behavior. Are users trying to access resources beyond their role? Is there increased activity during non-working hours? Regular auditing also facilitates compliance by providing a record of access.

Step 5: Reviewing and Updating Access Rights

The PAM lifecycle doesn’t stop at monitoring. Regularly reviewing and updating access rights is vital to prevent privilege creep – where users gradually accumulate unnecessary access rights. This step ensures users maintain only the necessary access, reducing the attack surface.

In summary, the PAM lifecycle’s key steps of identification, security, control, monitoring, and review form the foundation of an effective PAM strategy. Each phase is integral and essential for maintaining a robust cybersecurity posture.

Top Privileged Access Management Best Practices

Integrating Privileged Access Management into your organization’s cybersecurity strategy is essential. Yet, implementing PAM effectively can be a challenge. Consider these six PAM best practices for a more secure environment.

1. Set Strong Password Policies

Strong password policies serve as a primary defense against cyber threats. For privileged accounts, insist on the use of complex, unique passwords that change regularly. Updated passwords reduce the likelihood of a cyber attacker infiltrating your system.

2. Control Shared Accounts

Shared accounts pose a higher risk of privileged access misuse. Understanding who has access and monitoring their usage can help spot any unusual or unauthorized activities.

3. Use Temporary Privilege Escalation

By granting users elevated privileges only when necessary, you reduce the risk of misuse. After the user finishes the task that requires higher privileges, their access level should return to its normal state.

4. Incorporate Zero Trust and Least Privilege Principles

The Zero Trust and Least Privilege principles involve not trusting anyone blindly, whether inside or outside your organization, and only giving users the minimum access necessary for their jobs. These principles can help lower the risk of a data breach.

5. Monitor Privileged Account Activity

By keeping an eye on privileged account activity, you can spot any unusual behavior or unauthorized access attempts. This monitoring also offers a record of who accessed what, when, and why, which is useful for audit and compliance purposes.

6. Use Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

ABAC controls access based on user attributes like their role, department, or location. Using ABAC restricts user access based on the context of access. This allows you to implement policies where privileged users can only access systems from a trusted network and device.

Master Privileged Access Management with Pathlock

Providing elevated access to production systems poses a considerable risk, and auditors may flag it as a significant deficiency if not properly regulated. And providing that access across an array of business applications can be especially risky. That’s because most PAM vendors operate in a silo, securing one application at a time.

Pathlock breaks down those silos, enabling organizations to enhance the efficiency of their Elevated Access Management (EAM) procedures across multiple business applications, ensuring compliance with audit and security standards. The automated cross-platform system, complete with predefined workflows, minimizes the dependence on extra IT resources while enhancing security through additional layers of protection.

Pathlock’s Elevated Access Management empowers you to promptly and effortlessly bestow temporary elevated access rights—whether urgently needed or scheduled—to a user who typically lacks such permissions. This functionality allows you to swiftly authorize access for a specific duration, automatically rescind the access when the allotted period concludes, and closely monitor and review the user’s activities throughout the access period.

This solution aligns with the imperative for sensitive and elevated access to be granted solely on a need-to-know basis, adhering to the principle of least privilege access. By following this approach, the system ensures that access is only provided for essential daily tasks and strictly follows an approved process for temporarily bestowing elevated access.

Learn more about Pathlock’s Elevated Access Management capabilities. Get in touch with us for a demo.

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