All networks have specific rules based on which users are allowed or denied entry. Moreover, users are classified and given different network access levels. That way, network administrators control the network's entries and the most sensitive resources.
However, administrative access is problematic as it's a user group with the most privileges. Organizations must be cautious, as numerous accounts with privileged access can quickly spin out of control. Additional IT security measures should be taken to control access to privileged accounts. As these accounts pose the most risks, they need matching security.
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.
Privileged accounts are in two main categories: human user accounts and machine service accounts. They can also exist in nearly every connected device, server, database, or application. Some privileged accounts have superuser account statuses and are used only by administrators. Keep in mind that different operating systems have different naming conventions. While Windows calls their superusers Administrators, Unix and Linux systems superusers are called Root users.
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.
What is PAM?
Privileged access management solution combines security, control, management, and monitoring solutions for an organization's critical assets. PAM isolates credentials in a secure vault to prevent them from being stolen. Credentials are accessible after passing the Privileged access management system.
A centralized credentials storage location makes it easier to ensure a high level of security for them. This includes in-depth privileged access control, usage logs, and monitoring for suspicious actions. Hackers always target credentials first, which makes vault security a top priority.
How does privileged access management work?
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 tracking of abnormal behavior, alerting administrators.
Benefits of PAM
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, the permissions are added for the accounts that need privileged access and 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 is happening 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.
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 across all of these different in-house and external environments alone.
2. Tracking privileged activity
Credentials repository is much easier to manage than other systems. Privileges need to be revoked when an employee leaves a company and promptly. 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 could be exploited by hackers.
PAM vs. IAM
Privileged access management constitutes 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, identity and access management solutions include:
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 it's 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. Though, 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, Role-based access control (RBAC) implementation helps to have safeguards against unauthorized access within an internal network. Various network segmentation options are used to create barriers in-between networks to control users' flows and access better.
PAM vs. PIM
Privileged access management manages identities to protect against risks directed at privileged accounts. Privileged identity management (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 a lot 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.
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 share superuser accounts among your employees safely.
Manual solutions to implement PAM are rarely efficient enough to apply in a modern environment. The best course of action for implementing PAM security would be turning to a cybersecurity provider. Likely, PAM will function the best when implemented alongside other improvements.
Privileged account management won't single-handedly solve all your cybersecurity problems. Addressing underlying infrastructure issues as well as securing critical shortcomings is the best route to implement PAM securely.
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 in cases where there is no tolerance for human error.