Privileged accounts are accounts with the ability to make fundamental changes to network infrastructure or applications. When hackers gain access to privileged accounts, they can easily damage systems and steal data. This makes privileged access management (PAM) a critical security issue for all organizations.

PAM seeks to secure all privileged accounts within a network community. These accounts include system admins, root accounts, domain administrators, and service accounts. They include all staff members with access to firewalls and routers. And privileged accounts may also apply to database admins.

A robust PAM setup makes it possible to:

  • Authenticate all privileged user access requests
  • Authorize privileged users according to the principle of least privilege
  • Supply temporary privileges as required for system tasks
  • Monitor user activity and alert IT teams about suspicious behavior
  • Document user sessions and supply an audit trail for compliance purposes

How can you create a PAM setup that delivers these features? This article will discuss several PAM best practices to manage privileged accounts without compromising the productivity of users.

Privileged access management best practices

PAM best practices

1. Understand your privileged access landscape

The starting point for protecting privileged access is knowing which accounts to control. To apply controls, planners must also categorize privileged accounts accurately.

The definition of a "privileged user" varies between organizations. Assess your network and application environment. Determine which accounts have far-reaching powers, and which users pose the greatest security risk.

Now, create an inventory of high-priority accounts with administrative roles. Include Active Directory domains, business app owners, hardware maintenance teams, and any root account holders.

Clearly identify who owns the privileged account, and why they have those privileges. Risk assess each account based on the scope of their privileges. This risk assessment should consider the potential security risks attached to each account. Focus on the riskiest accounts first, and work down to less critical privileged accounts.

Document everything and create a register of privileges. Use this register as a foundation for extra controls in the future.

2. Prohibit account sharing for admins

Blocking shared accounts is an easy win for any PAM architect. Shared accounts pose a serious access control risk, providing an open door for hackers to gain access and steal sensitive data.

It's a good idea to name individual account holders and specify their responsibilities. Holders must know the policy about sharing accounts. Tracking systems should check who is using high-privileged accounts and whether sharing exists.

3. Assign minimal privileges for each account

Use the account inventory to apply the principle of least privilege across all admin accounts.

This principle states that users should have the permissions needed to access relevant workloads. Beyond that point, access to network controls and resources should be limited. In line with Zero Trust concepts, users should have limited access rights without authorization and authentication.

Role-based and attribute-based controls allow admins to distribute privileges in granular detail. Attributes include read/write privileges for databases, as well as deletion rights and the ability to create app instances. Roles make it easy to limit administrative privileges to specific tasks.

Cloud-based controls are also important in modern network settings. IT teams can use Active Directory to assign role-based privileges for cloud services. This reduces their workload and limits the risk of human error.

Managers should also focus on machine or service accounts. These accounts need password access to carry out their duties. Limit their privileges and bring service accounts under automated management. Remember to audit them as thoroughly as human-operated accounts.

4. Use temporary privilege escalation

IT teams can enhance their privileged account management by operating temporary privilege escalation. This provides privileges on a just-in-time basis. Escalation applies for a defined period. Permissions are limited to specific object attributes, devices, or network operations.

Record all requests for privilege escalation. And ensure that requests are approved. This creates a solid audit trail and adds another layer of scrutiny to avoid security incidents.

Escalation is also a useful tool when applying Zero Trust ideas. Users cannot exercise privileges outside of set periods. And they can only use permissions after supplying verified credentials.

5. Separate duties to limit individual risks

Separation of duties is a core risk management principle and a key aspect of privileged account management. No user should have wide-ranging powers to make system-wide changes. Any high-privileged actions should require approval before execution.

Network managers should divide privileged actions for applications or systems. Dividing access rights limits the ability of a single attacker to breach critical resources or steal data.

6. Prioritize password management

Password management is a critical part of protecting privileged access. With a single set of privileged credentials, hackers can launch data breach attacks and damage systems. These attacks can pass unnoticed under the cover of legitimate privileged activity, making them very hard to counter.

Weak, rarely changed privileged account passwords expand the attack surface. Enforce a strict password policy for privileged accounts. Include strong passwords, with regular changes. And make sure users with access to several accounts use different passwords for each.

Sometimes IT teams keep default passwords for routers or firewall appliances. This is risky, as default passwords are easy to guess and widely known. Require strong passwords for all newly installed network assets.

Bring together these issues in a robust password security policy. This document should explain the definition of a strong password. It should explain rules about changing passwords. And it should state the penalties for unsafe password management. Make this policy available and integrate it into staff security training.

7. Integrate PAM with authentication systems

Privileged Account Management deals with access control inside the network perimeter. But it's equally important to control access when privileged users log into resources.

Every privileged session should start with multifactor authentication (MFA). Supply account holders with secure authentication tokens or biometric scanners. Or choose a smartphone-based alternative.

Extra authentication factors make it much harder to breach critical resources. They should work alongside PAM in a company's security policies.

8. Leverage PAM analytics and audits

Recording privileged activity is a critical part of the PAM toolkit. Security teams must document all sessions, both historically and in real time.

Log data must be clearly recorded and legible. Monitoring data should provide timely alerts when security issues arise. And logging feeds into auditing and compliance work streams. This supplies valuable evidence of privileged account protection while strengthening general data protection.

Audits can detect dormant privileged accounts. Admins should delete these accounts immediately. They can also pick up areas of privileges creep, where users have more access rights than they need.

Rule-based access controls are less effective once users are within the network boundary. Advanced analytics detect unusual patterns of behavior that rules often miss.

For example, data like mouse movements, key presses, and time of access can flag up potential security incidents. Without PAM, companies can overlook intrusions before it's too late.

Implement privileged access management on your critical assets

Managing privileged accounts is a constant challenge. A single poorly-secured admin account can bring down an entire eCommerce platform or company network. Efficient PAM systems provide reassurance and enhanced security. Use our best practices to design a system that maximizes security and boosts productivity.