Privileged accounts guard sensitive data and critical resources, and they are often targets for malicious actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities. Protecting these accounts is key to fortifying organizational security. Privileged Access Management (PAM) serves as the frontline defense, orchestrating access control and monitoring to hinder cyber risks effectively.

Understanding the nuances of PAM and its role in protecting your business is essential. In this article, we’ll explore the intricacies of PAM, its fundamental principles, operational mechanisms, and business benefits

PAM definition

Privileged Access Management (PAM) is a blend of specialized tools designed to secure, control, and monitor access to your organization's critical data and resources.

With PAM, you can ensure employees only access what they need for their work while also keeping important credentials locked away safely. PAM only releases these details when absolutely necessary. This smart combination of controlled access and secure storage is key to protecting your business from different threats.

Key takeaways

  • PAM basics: PAM is about setting rules for user access and accounts with the most privileges, monitoring these accounts, and changing passwords regularly.
  • How PAM works: it includes isolating credentials in a centralized credential storage, with in-depth access control and monitoring for suspicious activities.
  • Types of privileged accounts: human user and machine service accounts have different access levels. Accounts with more control carry greater risks due to their vast powers.
  • Necessity for extra security: privileged accounts need extra security because they can change important system settings and get into sensitive files. Measures like usage restrictions and enhanced monitoring for anomalies are crucial.
  • PAM benefits: PAM is a handy tool that secures privileged accounts, improves productivity, manages passwords effectively, and simplifies access management.
  • Challenges with PAM include managing accounts across various platforms, tracking their activities, and controlling privileged user access without slowing down productivity.
  • PAM in the context of IAM and least privilege: PAM is a specific part of the wider Identity and Access Management (IAM) world, focusing on high-level accounts. It's about giving just enough access—no more than necessary—to keep things secure and straightforward.
  • PAM vs. PIM: while PAM manages identities for secure access, Privileged Identity Management (PIM) deals with temporary role activation to limit exposure.

What are privileged accounts?

All accounts within any given network can be classified as non-privileged and privileged. The former refers to standard and guest accounts with basic application access. Privileged accounts can change settings for other users. Due to their higher profile controls, these accounts also pose the most risks.

Types of privileged account

Superuser accounts are privileged accounts for admins, offering unrestricted access to files, directories, and resources. They can install software, alter configuration and system settings, and they can even remove users and data.

  • Privileged accounts: a step above regular accounts, these accounts provide enhanced access and capabilities not available to standard or guest user accounts.
  • Domain administrator accounts: the peak of system control, these accounts can access and manage all workstations and servers in a domain, including system settings, admin accounts, and group memberships.
  • Local administrator accounts: focused on specific servers or workstations, they are mainly used for tasks like maintenance and localized control.
  • Application administrator accounts: these are dedicated to individual applications and have total access to the application and its data, managing how the application functions and securing its information.
  • Service accounts: designed to enable more secure interactions between applications and the operating system, these accounts play a key role in system operations.
  • Business privileged user accounts: tailored for individuals with significant job responsibilities, they offer high-level privileges needed for their specific roles.
  • Emergency accounts: created for crisis situations, these accounts provide temporary admin access to users without privileges, ensuring system security and continuity during emergencies or disruptions.

Why privileged accounts need extra security

Privileged accounts have permission to change system settings and can freely access files and other resources. Such accounts may also modify settings for non-privileged users, for example, grant or revoke additional permissions. High-level accounts can wreak havoc across the network when misused or breached.

IT administrators are primarily users and distributors of privileged accounts. Other accounts with significant business impact may also warrant increased protection methods. This may include various preventative controls restricting account usage to designated devices, workstations, and intermediaries. Additionally, monitoring for privileged accounts could be increased monitoring for abnormal behavior.

How privileged access management works

A privileged access management strategy begins with the identification of privileged accounts. Their amount will shape the next steps when balancing out convenience and security. Identity confirmation or second-factor requirements must be introduced to create a safe PAM mechanism

The next step involves automating PAM solutions for monitoring and enforcing privileged access. It allows supervising everything within a single privileged access management platform. In the same way, new users can gain access for a fixed duration.

In addition, PAM regularly changes user passwords at regular intervals. That way, the user is eliminated from the equation, and data security is much more prominent. Machine learning algorithms allow for the tracking of abnormal behavior, alerting administrators.

PAM benefits for business

The more privileges an account has, the more crucial it becomes to protect its security. Here are the main benefits that PAM solutions bring to organizations.

1. Helps to secure privileged accounts

As one of the first steps of PAM setup is making a catalog of all privileged accounts, this helps to see the scope of accounts that need to be secured. The usual route is to strip all unused and zombie accounts of the elevated privileges. Then, permissions are added for the accounts that need privileged access and are isolated to contain potential risks.

2. Improves productivity

Implemented PAM removes the need for manual handling by creating a single digital identity for every user. As its credentials always change, privileged users go through PAM and not via their access points. This system is much more streamlined and solves issues like credential leaks. As a reduction of the broad attack surface, this also has an added benefit of enterprise security.

3. Helps to address compliance regulations

Compliance regulations like HIPAA and PCI DSS require a detailed outline of who can access sensitive data. More importantly, access to it should be securely detached from the other users. PAM solutions allow administrators to manage who can access what by approving or denying connections. As everything happens via the same system, it provides detailed audit logs, which could be invaluable in a data breach.

4. Fully manages passwords

PAM solutions store credentials in an encrypted repository. However, as password generation is automated and reset, users don’t have to worry about periodically updating them. A generated password is unique on each login, so it’s very hard to brute force, considering that they are valid for only a fixed amount of time. This model ensures high data security and makes hacker attempts less likely to be successful.

5. Easier access point management

Under PAM, all access points are assigned with role-based identities, limiting the exposure. At the same time, administrators can more easily track what users accessed which resources. Transparency also helps access point auditing later.

The main challenges of PAM

Although PAM can transform credential management within an enterprise, it won’t always be easy. Here are the potential challenges of PAM.

1. Unified account management across the entire threat surface

The modern business IT environment is rarely contained to a single platform. Privileged accounts can be scattered across multiple environments. PAM can rarely solve the management of privileged accounts alone across all of these different in-house and external environments.

2. Tracking privileged activity

The credentials repository is much easier to manage than other systems. Privileges need to be revoked when an employee promptly leaves a company. Otherwise, there’s a risk of amassing many zombie accounts that aren’t used but still have the privileges to enter the PAM.

3. Control privileged user access

It’s important to outline how many permissions privileged accounts should have. Different passwords are required for different resources, making it even more difficult. Having to re-authenticate every step of the way can be extremely daunting. Problems begin when administrators cut corners by giving more permissions than needed. It creates gaps in the processes, which hackers could exploit.

How to implement PAM security

The main benefit of PAM security is that it helps to shrink the potential attack surface. Therefore, even with a globally distributed workforce, it’s possible to safely share superuser accounts among your employees.

Manual solutions to implement PAM are rarely efficient enough to apply in a modern environment. The best approach to implementing PAM security would be turning to a cybersecurity provider.

For PAM best practices, you can explore our guidelines on implementing the tool effectively. Now, before you decide on a PAM solution, consider the following criteria:

  • Security features: look for advanced authentication methods, anomaly detection capabilities, and strong encryption to ensure robust security.
  • Ease of integration: the solution should integrate smoothly with your existing IT infrastructure, minimizing disruptions and compatibility issues.
  • Scalability: choose a provider that can accommodate your business's growth and changing needs, ensuring the solution remains effective over time.
  • Compliance and auditing capabilities: essential for meeting industry regulations, with features like detailed logging and reporting tools.
  • Vendor reputation and reliability: opt for a provider with a proven track record and positive feedback from other businesses, especially those in your sector.
  • Cost-effectiveness: consider the initial investment and the long-term value, including maintenance and operational costs.

Also, remember that privileged account management won’t single-handedly solve all your cybersecurity problems. Addressing infrastructure issues and securing critical flaws is the best route to implement PAM securely


PAM includes a single component of a broader Identity and Access Management (IAM) solution. While PAM mainly focuses on processes and technologies to secure privileged accounts, IAM is much more diverse. Aside from PAM, IAM solutions include:

  • Password management
  • Multi-factor authentication
  • Single sign-on
  • User lifecycle management

The technologies themselves aren’t focused solely on privileged accounts. They encompass all accounts, no matter their access level. The main difference between IAM and PAM is scope. IAM incorporates broader authentication and account management functions.

PAM vs. least privilege

The principle of least privilege means that employees should have no more privileges than are necessary for their job roles. Some overlaps with privileged access management deal with the security of privileged accounts.

In practice, PAM applies the least privilege approach by introducing high security to accounts with the most privileges. However, there is still a requirement that the permissions shouldn’t exceed the capabilities beyond what’s required from the role.

Frequently, other technological solutions are used to implement the least privilege. For example, implementing role-based access control (RBAC) helps safeguard against unauthorized access within an internal network. Various network segmentation options are used to create barriers between networks to control users’ flows and access better.


Privileged Access Management (PIM) manages identities to protect against risks directed at privileged accounts. PIM provides time-sensitive role activation to limit the exposure of used channels. That way, privileged access is granted for a fixed duration. After it expires, all further connection requests are automatically blocked.

While the two have much in common, PAM controls and monitors resource access based on the principle of least privilege. In contrast, PIM deals with granting temporary privileged access to select accounts.


Privileged accounts are the ones that could cause the most damage when hacked. For this reason, their security should match the potential risks, which means introducing a much harder system to crack. Privileged access management helps to secure, control, and monitor high-profile accounts.

The main problems of privileged access management arise from the implementation and shortcomings of the system itself (it needs supplementary solutions to be the most efficient). This is one of the most secure methods to handle account management, especially when there is no human error tolerance.