Privileged Access Management (PAM): Why is it important?
Users with privileged access to an organization’s systems and networks pose a special threat. External threat actors often target privileged accounts using phishing schemes and social engineering techniques, since gaining control over these credentials helps them move more freely inside the network. Moreover, people sometimes misuse their own privileged accounts; this type of cyberattack takes the longest to discover, according to the Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report. Privileged Access Management (PAM) tools help network administrators control privileged access to reduce the risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of these powerful accounts.
What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?
Privileged Access Management (PAM) is an information security (infosec) mechanism that safeguards identities with special access or capabilities beyond regular users. Like all other infosec solutions, PAM security works through a combination of people, processes, and technology. We treat privileged accounts with extra care because of the risk they pose to the technology environment. For example, should the credentials of an administrator or service account fall into the wrong hands, it could lead to the compromise of the organization’s systems and confidential data. Data breaches occur when threat actors compromise privileged access accounts. As these accounts hold the keys that unlock every door in a technology environment, we need to add additional layers of protection. That extra security is a Privileged Access Management solution.
How does PAM security prevent cyberattacks?
PAM tools are crucial to increasing security, protecting businesses from hackers, and preventing cyberattacks. Like all people, privileged users, such as domain administrators, struggle to remember passwords across their various account logins. They are also a major target for cybercriminals, which means they especially need to use strong passwords and not recycle credentials over different accounts. PAM solutions monitor privileged accounts and store them in a digital vault to reduce the risk of cyberattacks.
A privileged access management solution reduces the need for users to remember multiple passwords and allows super users to manage privileged access from one location, instead of using multiple applications and systems. It also helps organizations prevent insider attacks by former employees with access rights that have not been effectively deprovisioned. Alerts and session management also allow super admins to identify threats in real-time.
Another key advantage is that it ensures compliance with ever-stringent data and privacy regulations. PAM encourages organizations to restrict access to sensitive data and systems, require further approvals, and deploy additional security tools like multi-factor authentication (MFA) on privileged accounts. PAM auditing tools also provide businesses with a clear audit trail, which is crucial to meeting regulations like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Why does it matter?
Any privileged access is unfortunately an entry point for cybercriminals. For this reason, the common strategy is grounded in the principle of least privilege, where users only receive the minimum amount of access required to get the job done. This way, if a hacker ever gains access to an account, the resulting damage is minimized as well.
There’s also the concept of zero-trust access. A healthy way to approach security is literally to “trust no one.” Because any malicious insider can take advantage of an account’s privileges, it’s a fundamental security practice to assume that all accounts are initially untrustworthy.
Privileged access management protects against the threat of credential theft or privilege misuse. It’s more than just a list of tips; PAM is a comprehensive cybersecurity initiative that involves auditing all the privileges and activities across an IT environment.
Benefits of Privileged Access Management
The more privileges and access a user, account, or process amasses, the greater the potential for abuse, exploitation, or error. Implementing privilege management not only minimizes the potential for a security breach occurs, but also helps limit the scope of a breach should one occur. Implementing PAM best practices (removing admin rights, enforcing least privilege, eliminating default/embedded credentials, etc.) is also an important piece of enterprise IT systems hardening.
One differentiator between PAM and other types of security technologies is that PAM can dismantle multiple points of the cyberattack chain, providing protection against both external attacks as well as attacks that make it within networks and systems.
PAM confers several chief benefits, including:
- A condensed attack surface that protects against both internal and external threats: Limiting privileges for people, processes, and applications means the pathways and entrances for exploitation are also diminished.
- Reduced malware infection and propagation: Many varieties of malware (such as SQL injections, which rely on lack of least privilege) need elevated privileges to install or execute. Removing excessive privileges, such as through least privilege enforcement across the enterprise, can prevent malware from gaining a foothold, or reduce its spread if it does.
- Enhanced operational performance: Restricting privileges to the minimal range of processes to perform an authorized activity reduces the chance of incompatibility issues between applications or systems, and helps reduce the risk of downtime.
- Easier to achieve and prove compliance: By curbing the privileged activities that can possibly be performed, privileged access management helps create a less complex, and thus, more audit-friendly, environment.
- Help satisfy cyber insurance requirements: In recent years, ransomware attacks and ransom payouts have hurt the bottom lines, and threatened the viability, of the cyber insurance industry. Cyber insurers appreciate that PAM controls reduce risk and stop threats, and thus, are a powerful tool in reducing cyber liability. Today, many cyber insurers mandate PAM controls to renew or obtain new cyber liability coverage.
PAM Best Practices
A Privileged Access Management solution is only as effective as its implementation. Therefore, organizations should consider the following best practices:
- Implement the Principle of Least Privilege – You cannot manage privileged accounts without first implementing the Principle of Least Privilege. Locking down an environment so that only privileged accounts can access particular resources is a prerequisite for a successful PAM solution.
- Keep track of all privileged accounts – You cannot manage a privileged account if it is not part of your PAM solution.
- Consider temporary privilege escalation – Instead of granting a user perpetual privileged access, consider only providing access when needed and then removing it.
- Use Role-Based Access Control – Privileged Access Management only works on a system if you have differing role-based access levels. For example, if everyone is an administrator, it is much more challenging to secure and manage.
- Automate – Automation reduces the risk of human error and increases the efficiency of your information security environment.
- Monitor, Log, and Audit – Continuous monitoring and actively logging all privileged account activity is vital in ensuring an organization has the insights it needs to protect its environment. However, it is also crucial that an audit of the logs occurs regularly. Without it, the organization would not have the information it needs to identify potential risks and implement measures to mitigate them.
Challenges of Privileged Access Management
Companies may encounter some challenges when implementing and monitoring their PAM systems:
- Manage account credentials. Many IT shops use manual administrative processes prone to error in their function to rotate and update privileged credentials, making it an inefficient and expensive approach.
- Track privileged activity. Some organizations are unable to track and control privileged sessions from a central location, which can expose them to cybersecurity threats and compliance violations.
- Monitor and analyze threats. Many enterprises don’t implement comprehensive tools to analyze threats, so they can’t proactively uncover suspicious activities and mitigate security incidents.
- Control privileged user access. Companies often struggle to effectively control privileged user access to cloud platforms like infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, software-as-a-service applications, and social media, which creates operational complexity and compliance risks.
- Balance security with ease of use. PAM tools should not only be highly secure but also easy to use for IT admins. They should also enable admins to create accounts, grant and revoke access, handle urgent situations, like user accounts, and lockout as quickly and as easily as possible.
Having PAM in place can take the stress out of working with the critical systems your business depends on. PAM also allows companies to transfer users to a remote location or move workloads to the cloud and fully control these processes from an information security perspective.