What Is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

Forester predicted that by 2024, 70% of companies will have Privileged Access Management (PAM) practices in place and Gartner stated that by 2024, 50% of organizations will introduce the JustInTime privilege access model that implies elevated access only if it is absolutely necessary.
Such focus on privileged access management comes as no surprise. The neglection of privilege access rules can cause companies critical financial and reputational losses in case the security is compromised. So what is PAM, exactly, and why organizations need to make it their top priority?

What Is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

What is privileged access management?

Privileged access management can be defined as a set of strategies and tools that are used to protect an organization against internal and external cyberthreats via strict control of privileged access and privileged users’ actions. Since privileged users have access to company’s critical resources, it is vital to properly guard their actions and monitor who exactly has privileged access and to what extent.

When answering the “what is privileged access management” question, it is important to first understand what a privilege is. It is an authority that a certain user (account) has within a network. It can also be defined as an elevated right to perform certain functions. 

Privileges are normally built in operating systems, file systems, and applications, and are assigned to users by system administrators. It is critical to carefully select privileged users and their level of access, as misuse of privilege can lead to serious consequences such as critical data losses.

Hence, a privileged account is a user account that permits specific, high-level actions. These actions normally go beyond standard user actions and can impact the system and even its security.

Privileged access management definition: a set of processes and solutions to enhance cybersecurity within an organization through better privileged access management.

Types of privileged accounts

If we talk about non-privileged accounts, there are usually two types: standard user account and guest account. You sure have had experience with them, as you are possibly using one or both of these accounts on a daily basis. An example would be a checkout as a guest on an ecommerce website (guest account) or posting a comment on a website as an authorized user (standard account).

In both these cases, you can interact only with certain applications and certain resources, and a guest account is even more limited in actions than the standard one. As for the privileged accounts, some of their types are:

  • Local admin account: provides administrative access to local host only;
  • Domain admin account: provides administrative access to servers / work stations across the whole domain;
  • Emergency account: provides access to non-privileged users in case of an emergency;
  • Root account: also known as a superuser account, it allows everything within a system, including changing its configurations, deleting or adding user accounts, etc.
  • Service account: assist applications in interacting with the OS.

Since the overall PAM strategy is based around the least privilege principle (where users are granted a minimal amount of privileges to minimize security risks), privileged accounts are often used only in case of a necessity and for a short period of time. This helps organizations better control who has access to critical resources and better manage it.

What is PAM and its benefits? 

We’ve mentioned that privilege access management helps minimize the possibility of a cyber threat and helps ensure a high level of security. To be more specific, let’s look at the main benefits of PAM in detail.

Better visibility into privileged accounts 

There is a term “orphan account”, which means a privileged account without an active user. The most common example is an employee who left an organization or shifted to another role – but their privileged account remains active. Normally, companies should deactivate such accounts after a certain period of time, but sometimes, they forget to do so – and “orphan accounts” occur.

This is just one example of lack of visibility into the company’s current resources and privileges. The introduction of PAM helps an organization gain better visibility into its privileged accounts and their statuses and, as a result, take needed measures to secure them.

Reduced number of over-privileged accounts

An employee’s role within an organization is not static and can change over time, requiring more privileges for uninterrupted work. However, if there are too many users with an excessive number of privileges or if they use their privileged accounts for personal use, it greatly increases the potential attack surface. PAM helps track and monitor all privileged accounts and helps determine whether the granted privileges are really needed and whether the user overuses them.

Reduced number of shared accounts and credentials

Privileged accounts are often shared within an organization in order to maintain a seamless workflow and to quickly grant access to needed resources. However, if there are too many people sharing the same privileged account, it becomes nearly impossible to determine who exactly performed a malicious action or who compromised the privileged access management security. PAM resolves this issue by limiting the number of privileged accounts, automating their monitoring, and ensuring the credentials are not reused multiple times.

Reduced entrance for threat actors and minimized damage

Privileged access management helps limit and control the number of privileged accounts and monitor their use. In this way, organizations significantly reduce the attack surface and prevent entrance for potential malicious actors. And if the breach already happened, PAM helps minimize its negative impact by limiting its reach within the system.

Privilege threat vectors to know about

After discussing the “what is PAMin cyber security?” question, let’s look at the main attack vectors. When talking about security breaches and malicious attacks, the main types of attacks that most people immediately think of are external and internal. But what exactly is meant by them and are there any other threat vectors to consider, especially in the light of privileged access? Let’s take a look.

External threats

External threats are quite simple to understand: these are the ones coming from outside your organization. But what do they have to do with privileged access?

Attackers usually manipulate privileged users into providing information that would allow threat agents to access the system or internal resources. The most common forms of manipulation in this case are phishing and spoofed websites. As a result, the attacker is inside the system and has privileged access to critical resources – how bad does it sound?

How to manage and prevent: log in incoming requests, keep privileged credentials in an encrypted vault, implement role-based access control.

Internal threats

As an opposite to external threats, internal threats are the ones coming from inside your organization, most often from employees. Note though that many internal threats are not intentional and may occur due to various reasons, including orphan accounts or misuse of privileged credentials. However, you should not overlook the significance and damage that an intentional internal attack may cause. If an employee is seeking personal gain and has privileged access to critical resources, the damage caused by such user can be tremendous. 

How to manage and prevent: constantly monitor the activity of privileged users, implement privileged access management solutions for detecting user behavior anomalies, use threat analytics, limit privileged access.

Third parties 

Third parties, such as your company’s vendors, partners, or consultants, extend your business network and can pose a serious threat to the security of your organization. They normally have a certain amount of access to your system in order to facilitate workflows, share information, or enable collaboration. But in this case, third parties can be the same threat as external attackers, as they are located outside your organization but have access to internal resources.

How to manage and prevent: conduct regular review of privileges, introduce zero trust model, update privileged rights and access.

Forgotten and excessive privileges

Last but not least are privileges that were either forgotten or were granted in an excessive amount.  Examples include existing privileged access for an employee who left the company, or granting more privileges than necessary to a specific employee. Lack of privilege monitoring, especially in these cases, can lead to serious consequences as employees may intentionally perform a malicious action.

How to manage and prevent: implement a privileged access management solution, monitor user actions, review existing privileges.

Privilege access management best practices: an overview 

Now that we know what benefits PAM brings and how it helps protect an organization against potential threats, it’s time to discuss privilege access management best practices. Note though that the processes listed below can be tailored to your specific organization, since every company has a different approach to cybersecurity.

Review your assets and consolidate privileged accounts

The first step towards more secure environment and PAM (privileged access management) implementation is similar to inventory review: you take a look at your existing privileged accounts and bring them together in a central and secure vault. This step is aimed at identifying orphan accounts, excessive privileges, and similar issues, and at ensuring that all privileged accounts are stored together in a secure place. Note that access to the vault should be restricted and most preferably, in a time-sensitive manner.

Apply the least privilege and zero trust policies

Though these two policies often get confused, they are different and both are crucial for your cybersecurity. Zero trust implies the “never trust, always verify” strategy and aims to verify every access request. The main focus of the least privilege approach is to minimize and limit access, so a user can perform only those actions that are needed for the current task. 

Examples of implementing the least privilege include:

  • Defaulting all users with standard access
  • Reducing every user to a standard user
  • Eliminating excessive privileges
  • Limiting privileged account membership
  • Reducing the number of rights for privileged accounts

Segment your networks and/or systems

Some system within an organization require a higher level of security than others, and they also require different user roles to work with them. To protect such systems and networks, separate and segment them, so you can apply suitable security measures and better manage user access. 

Do not overlook password security

Password security is one of the biggest pain points in cybersecurity, and it is especially critical for PAM. To ensure that your passwords are protected, you can implement the following practices:

  • Centralize management of all credentials, especially privileged ones;
  • Enforce strong password generation parameters;
  • Perform regular changes of privileged passwords;
  • Implement unique credentials for every account and eliminate password sharing;
  • Eliminate hard-coded credentials.

Consistently monitor privileged activity

We’ve mentioned it, but nevertheless:  monitoring of privileged accounts and their activity remains a very important factor in the overall PAM strategy. By adding transparency and automation to the process, organizations can faster and more effectively identify whether any malicious action takes place and can quickly resolve the issue before it causes too much harm.

Summing up

After answering the “what is PAM?” question, we hope the process and its implementation became clearer to you. Privileged access management system is an integral part of one’s cybersecurity strategy and helps companies retain their reputation and avoid major financial losses, related to security breaches.

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