Privileged Access Management (PAM): The Definite Guide

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Anything in excess is not recommended, and the same holds true for privileged access to organizations' data, accounts, and other assets. In this article, we are going to discuss PAM and how to manage excessive privileges using it.

Privileged access management is used to guard against privileged users by employing certain protocols to safeguard, regulate, and monitor access to key information and resources of an organization.

What are Privileged Users?

Privileged users are those users who have special or admin-level privileges in an IT environment. These privileges allow them to access crucial information and IT devices.

Privileged users have an account that is configured in such a way that allows them the liberty to do things that are not common to standard users. 

Privileged users have access to restricted resources, like data and information that allows them to bypass even the strictest security measures (depending upon privileged level access permissions). On the other hand, standard users do not have access to the company's critical data and information; rather, they have restricted access. They can only make small changes in case permitted.

What is a Privileged Account?

A privileged account is any account that has more access and privileges than a standard user account (non-privileged account). It is commonly used by IT administrators, security teams, helpdesk, application owners, database administrators, developers, third-party contractors, etc. 

And are usually secured by passwords, multi-factor authentications, keys, session recordings, and behavior analytics, to name a few.

Privileges That are Granted to a Privileged User

Privileged users have access to sensitive information like:

  1. To perform administrative tasks

  2. The system that has personally identifiable information (financial records, credit card information, health information)

  3. Ability to manage (add/delete) other users and their access

  4. Add/modify/delete any kind of information

  5. Install any kind of software

  6. Reset anyone’s password

  7. Backup data

  8. Modify and manipulate IT infrastructure

  9. Update patches

  10. Log into every IT device in the network

Privileged Accounts Common Across Organizations

  1. Root

  2. Domain Admin

  3. System Admin

  4. Local Admin

  5. Service Accounts

  6. Emergency Accounts

  7. Active Directory

  8. Batch jobs

  9. Standard user accounts having access to privileged data

Risks with Privileges in an Organization

Risks with Privileges in an Organization

Privileged users or accounts are riskier than standard users or accounts because of their higher capabilities and access.

Privileges grant unrestricted access to data and information with full read/ write/ modify/ execute privileges. They also give the power to make changes across the network, like installing or modifying files and softwares, changing files and settings, and getting rid of users and data. Additionally, privileged users may have the authority to remove or modify any permissions granted to other users. When these privileges are misused, either unintentionally or intentionally, these privileged accounts have the potential to cause significant damage to a system or even an entire organization.

Also, if a threat actor gains access to a standard user account, they will only be able to view the information belonging to that particular user. In contrast, if they manage to gain access to a privileged user account, they will have significantly greater access, and, depending on the account, they may even have the capacity to cause harm.

Insiders or external attackers exploiting or misusing these privileges pose a significant threat to an organization.

Why Is There a Need To Manage Privileged Access 

Since privileges grant its users power to do so much, there is a need to manage these privileges in order to:

  1. Gain visibility on privileged users, accounts, assets, and credentials

  2. Prevent financial frauds

  3. Prevent attacks (data breach, data poisoning, insider threats, ransomware)

  4. Prevent non-compliance

  5. Assign privilege access carefully on a requirement basis

  6. Hold privileged users accountable 

  7. Prevent a service or application from going down

  8. Maintain a positive brand image

  9. Reduce malware attacks (most malware needs special privileged permissions)

  10. Prevent the loss of revenue

Common Challenges Faced by IT Leaders Without PAM in the Events of Breach

  1. Inadequate access control and authorization 

  2. APIs and applications that do not adhere to security standards 

  3. Cloud Storage that has been configured wrongly (using only the default settings) 

  4. DDOS attacks are more common

  5. Users have been granted excessive privileges

  6. Shared identities and credentials

  7. Security controls restricted to just passwords

  8. Securing third party access and remote employees

  9. Shadow IT

PAM Best Practices/Holistic PAM Approach

  1. Define the rights and responsibilities of privileged users.

  2. Automate the process of looking for new privileges on a consistent basis. 

  3. Manage and safeguard privileged access.

  4. Keep an eye on how many people are using privileges and abusing them.

  5. Make PAM accessible in the case of emergency. 

  6. PAM can break down many parts of the cyberattack chain, protecting networks and systems from both outside attacks and inside attacks

  7. Reviewing, auditing, and updating on a continuous basis.

  8. Have a  procedure in place to assess when it is suitable to grant temporary powers to an individual. 

  9. Make use of SaaS discovery to learn about the various permission levels that different users will require. 

  10. Set the permissions users will need to perform their job (read, write, copy, delete). 

  11. From time to time, reevaluate the permissions that have been granted and compare them to how individuals or groups have used them. 

  12. Implement the Zero Trust Model. 

  13. Enforce the least privilege on endpoints.

  14. User behavior while accessing files or performing a task should be recorded and audited on a regular basis.

  15. Have a system in place that sends alerts to super admins when a user attempts to gain access to privileges not authorized to them.

Excessive Privilege Compromises the Security of Business and Data

PAM already has wide usage in the on-prem environment. But with the increased adoption of cloud-based applications, cloud and endpoint devices are becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks, and hence the application of PAM in the hybrid cloud environment is gaining traction. 

Considering that almost all of the software applications used by businesses are now cloud-based, it is critical to have a system in place to manage excessive privileges to safeguard data. 

Businesses will also benefit from a SaaS discovery and management tool such as a Zluri that can provide real-time information on new applications that are being installed in their cloud environment and are alerted whenever this occurs.

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