Need-based temporary access only recently started to be used in cybersecurity. Simply put, user access should be issued only when requested and for a set amount of time until it expires. This helps to combat zombie accounts that are no longer needed but still retain the permissions into the critical resources.
For this reason, user access management is one of the most important fields in cybersecurity. Let's take a deep dive into what is just-in-time access (JIT) and how it helps to tackle various risks.
What is just-in-time access?
Just-in-time or JIT access is a privileged access management (PAM) component orchestrating users, applications, or systems access privileges for a set duration on an as-needed basis It removes standing privileges that hackers could exploit.
The method is based on the principle of least privilege (PoLP). In this framework, a user is provided only limited access to complete specific tasks. Elimination of connectivity forms like always-on access stops unrestricted access within a network.
As access is time-sensitive, this could be applied across the board to all accounts so that no user would have permanent privileges. Organizations try to limit the number of users with unlimited access as they are the most convenient method. It can severely backfire at a company if compromised.
Administrator access is a prime target for hackers. Social engineering is often used to bypass various security measures to gain administrative privileges. That is why Zero Trust policies are increasingly adopted. JIT access rules help to manage potential risks better.
Types of just-in-time access
Although it sounds homogeneous, just-in-time access can be implemented differently. Here's a list of the most prominent JIT types.
1. Justification-based access control
Also known as "broker and remove access" it uses one or several privileged accounts , storing their credentials in a secure vault. Users must justify requesting access to specific systems for a specific time. Once the administrator approves the requests, the credentials are accessible.
2. Ephemeral accounts
In this setup, no standing privileged access accounts exist. Instead, temporary privileged accounts are created on a need basis and disabled after use. This temporary account is then given to a user to complete a specific task.
The access must be requested for the time required to complete a task that requires elevated permissions. This works best if a low-level account or a third-party user needs access to a resource. Privileged guest accounts left unsupervised constitute a serious cybersecurity risk. Ephemeral accounts solve this problem with an access expiration date.
3. Temporary elevation
Also known as privilege elevation, it gives more permissions to a user account for a limited time when requested. When the time is up, the additionally granted privileges are revoked, and the user returns to the standard permissions. The request is always formed, indicating how long a task is expected to take.
This system is intended to reduce the time that a user is allowed to have access to a critical system. After the set time passes, the system administrator removes the user's privileges to access the system.
Benefits of just-in-time access
Eliminating always-on privileged access in favor of JIT ensures better security. The data is accessible only when there's a valid reason to do it. Here are the principal benefits brought by just-in-time access.
1. Enhances the organization's security posture
The dynamic privileges model improves an organization's security posture and reduces various risks. This leaves fewer loopholes for unauthorized access.
A smaller attack surface is easier to protect, so minimizing it with JIT helps to enforce stricter access controls. Once the task is done, the access is also taken away.
2. Streamlines access workflow
Privileged access request handling can be automated, freeing up network administrators' time. JIT is shown to improve productivity levels for the operations team and the end-users.
Users are granted needed access faster, while administrators don't need to wait around for review cycles. As privileged access requests can be approved automatically independently of location, productivity within a workplace isn't affected.
3. Supports compliance
JIT implementation may have a positive effect on the business pursuit of compliance. As JIT is one technique to approach least-privilege access, this helps meet compliance requirements and stay in line with the audit reports.
As JIT implementation removes all access with standing privileges and replaces it with controlled privileged sessions, it provides more transparency regarding data security. This also allows them to receive detailed audit logs with granular views of all network activities.
4. Introduces credential protection
The JIT system provides a safety net regarding credential difficulty and protection. Once a user is granted access, the system generates credentials in a secret vault. The user doesn't know what the credentials are but can use them.
Used passwords can be rotated, and new accounts can be created or disabled. When attackers target passwords to steal, the system can invalidate the account and its privileges.
5. Eases privileged accounts management
Effectively implemented JIT access means every session has a beginning, end, and set duration. Additionally, as there are no accounts with standing privileges, this streamlines password management, eliminating chores like password resets and recoveries.
Many credential management functions can be automated, including credential rotation, deletion, etc. An administrator doesn't have to be involved in each step, making the service operational and effective without human input.
Drawbacks to JIT access
While as-needed access is a great solution that helps enterprises keep a tight grip on the user's privileges. However, JIT isn't without its flaws, missteps can happen, and this approach isn't foolproof, either.
JIT systems can be prone to misconfiguration risks like any other cybersecurity tool. Indicating long durations can invalidate the credential rotation, rendering the whole system useless. In the same way, this can create pockets of stagnant credentials that hackers could use to infiltrate the organization without anyone noticing. Various automation for provisioning and de-provisioning needs to be set up to thwart those risks.
Dependency on the providers
If an organization uses a third-party JIT system, there's always a risk of being cornered into becoming heavily dependent on the service provider. This can affect your organization in various ways that would be hard to expect. For instance, if a vulnerability is found in the system, and the provider doesn't inform its clients about it, the organization could be protected under a false impression of security. The potential solution could be to do a lot of background research before sticking with any particular solution.
Requires some internal reorganization
As user access is related to most work functions, this is one of the most difficult improvements to implement. Various used standing access accounts need to be removed, and just-in-time privileged access management systems should be rolled out. Simultaneously this may strain network administrators, take a while to prepare infrastructure, and require some effort before the employees start using it. The whole journey could be a big challenge.
How does just-in-time access work?
Just-in-time access requires an organization to transition into zero standing privileges approach. This requires clearly defining the network perimeter and documenting user privilege levels and contexts in which they should be used. Usually, for a company, this means abandoning the previously used model for permissions management and adopting JIT.
A typical JIT workflow involves users requesting access to some work resource, servers, networks, or a privilege. The request is submitted for approval: when it's automated, the system grants or denies it based on security policies. Otherwise, it's confirmed manually by an administrator.
After approval, a user is provided with a resource or access for a fixed amount of time to complete some task. After the task is completed, the access rights are revoked, and a user must go through the approval process anew the next time.
As no sensitive credentials are passed around, they can't be leaked, which shrinks the attack surface. Even in cases when the hackers could compromise system passwords, time-sensitive mechanisms make them outdated.
Importance of just-in-time access for your business
As data breaches are getting increasingly expensive and frequent, businesses are looking into ways to better protect against cyber risks. Exposing sensitive customer data is not the publicity any company would want, as it can cause irreparable damage to the brand. Often, it's also followed by various legal fees as well as regulatory fines.
Ensuring the security of a modern enterprise is also getting harder due to the outsourced nature of current infrastructure models. Shadow IT assets, cloud, and legacy solutions work in tandem, which gives hackers a window of opportunity. User privilege management, therefore, is a critical area that needs increased attention and security.
Just-in-time access provisioning shrinks the attack surface, reducing the risks that businesses need to tackle. In addition, automated access provisioning and more airtight credentials handling model moves organizations closer to Zero Trust design. It also increases the organization's transparency as each user access request is logged.
Just-in-time access best practices
There are some good practices to remember when planning to transition to just-in-time access.
1. Establish control policies
JIT solutions merge well with supplementary solutions like attribute-based access control (ABAC) or role-based access control (RBAC) policies. This helps to outline what tasks are allowed for what types of users.
User accounts can be differentiated according to their needed access level to perform their job roles. Each must be assigned a corresponding control policy ensuring the least privileged access needed. As JIT becomes operational, each additional access request will be monitored, increasing transparency.
2. Start with the most elevated accounts
Prioritization is often a good habit when reorganizing IT infrastructure. However, when restructuring your organization's most sensitive credentials, starting from accounts with the most privileges is paramount.
Usually, this means service and administrator accounts and proceeding to go through the remaining accounts taking care of those with the most privileges first. Taking care of the most high-risk accounts patches up the most dangerous gaps in your cybersecurity defense.
3. Seal credentials in a secure vault
A centralized vault with the highest security clearance access level credentials helps to manage the most important organization's assets. The JIT system helps to rotate the password, phasing out the ones that have been used, making the system much more secure.
The users don't know their passwords, nor do hackers. This setup allows auditing privileged access activities and discovering vulnerabilities in the system much easier.
4. Establish a monitoring system
A just-in-time privileged access management system can record all privileged activities within the vault. This helps to build a reliable and consistent logging system that can be later used for audits and operations improvements.
The same mechanism can be used to develop an alerts-based system when abnormal user behavior is detected. The feed on privileged activities and everything related can instantly be transferred to administrators.
Just-in-time access can transform an organization's privileged account management. Heavily relying on Zero Trust fundamentals, JIT treats privileged accounts with the caution that this area deserves. Higher privilege access is granted only after formal requests and lasts only as long as it has to, not a minute longer.
This approach is gaining more popularity among businesses that want to secure their organizations from risks like data breaches. As cyber risks are increasing, so does the probability of cyber attacks, and securing the credentials should be the number one priority, which can become much easier by transitioning to the JIT framework.