Privileged Access Management (PAM): What is PAM & Why is it Important?
Privileged access management or PAM can be referred to as privilege identity, privilege account management, or just privilege management.
Users having privileged access to the systems and networks of an organization offer a unique threat. Using phishing and social engineering, external threat actors frequently target privileged accounts, as acquiring access to these credentials enables them to roam more freely across the network.
According to cyber security experts, PAM implementation in an organization is a significant undertaking vital to improving the overall cybersecurity posture.
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What is Private Access Management (PAM), and how can it be used?
Privileged Access Management is a method used by organizations to manage privileged access and permissions across their IT environment. By strategically assigning employees access levels appropriate for their roles and responsibilities within the organization reduces the risk of cyber attacks.
Many strategies can be used to manage privilege access in an organization. However, one key concept is the concept of least privilege. Least privilege refers to the strict assignment and management of access rights and permissions to users, accounts, systems, devices, and computing processes. This is done so that only the most essential organizational activities can be performed.
IAM vs. PAM
Privileged Access Management is part of Identity & Access Management or IAM. These activities can be coordinated to enable organizations to manage credentials and privileges by giving them visibility and audibility.
IAM controls allow organizations to authenticate user access, ensuring that only the right employees have access at the correct times.
PAM, on the other hand, enables an organization to control visibility, auditing, and identities and their activities.
What are privileges?
The term privilege refers to the power a particular account or process has over performing or making changes on a computer network or system.
Users need access to make security-related changes, such as changing networks/systems configurations.
While assigning privileges serves an essential operational purpose and is vital for employees to be capable of performing the tasks they are assigned, there is a significant security risk that privileges could be misused or abused externally or internally to cause harm to an organization.
What are privileged accounts?
Most employees work in an environment with minimum privilege. There are two types of IT System accounts:
These include guest and standard accounts, typically representing a human identity (such as an Active Directory user account). User accounts are restricted in what level of system access is granted but are usually enabled for general applications such as Microsoft Office, Email, and company resources.
The level of access is dependent on the employee’s role. A guest account, in contrast, may be further restricted, for example, only providing limited internet browsing and basic application access.
Any account that gives you more privileges than those described above is privileged. Privileged accounts provide specialized or administrative access to systems and sensitive data based on higher permissions. A superuser account is an example of a privileged account.
These accounts are used by IT and administrative employees who have unlimited privileged access to make changes or execute commands within networks and other systems. A privileged account can be either an employee or a non-human IT system.
Examples of privileged access:
- Superuser account: This account resides on an endpoint or workstation and requires a username and password. It allows users to access and modify their local PCs or gadgets.
- Domain administrative account: A user account grants administrative privileges to all workstations and servers inside a network domain. These accounts are often small in number, but they provide the broadest and most robust network access.
- Local administrative account: This account resides on an endpoint or workstation and requires a username and password. It allows users to access and modify their local PCs or gadgets.
- Secure socket shell (SSH) key: SSH keys are widely employed access control methods that give direct root access to mission-critical systems. On Linux and other Unix-like operating systems, root is the username or account with access to all commands and files by default.
- Emergency account: This account grants users administrative access to protected systems in an emergency. It is also known as a firecall account or a break glass account.
- Privileged business user: A non-IT employee with access to sensitive systems. This could include an individual who requires access to financial, human resources (HR), or marketing systems.
Examples of system accounts with privileged permissions:
- Application account: Typically used to administrate, configure, or manage access to application software.
- Service account: Account used by an application or service to communicate with the operating system. These accounts are used by services to access and modify the operating system or configuration.
- SSH key: (As outlined above). Automated processes also use SSH keys.
- Secret: Development and operations (DevOps) teams frequently need an umbrella word for SSH keys, application program interface (API) keys, and other credentials to grant privileged access.
Why use Privileged Access Management?
When it comes to improving an organization’s cybersecurity position, there are many reasons why managing privilege access is so important. Here is why organizations should implement privileged access management:
- Employees are your weakest link: Your staff is the weakest link in cybersecurity, whether internal privileged users misusing their access or foreign cyber attackers stealing privileges from your employees to function as “privileged insiders.” Privileged access management ensures that only essential access is given to employees. PAM also helps security teams identify malicious privilege abuse and mitigate risk.
- In modern, digital businesses, privileges are everywhere: Systems must communicate to work together. As enterprises adopt cloud, DevOps, RPA, IoT, and more, the number of devices and applications requiring privileged access has expanded. Non-human entities outweigh people in an average organization and are tougher to monitor, control, or identify. Attackers can exploit off-the-shelf apps that require network access. A strong privileged access management strategy monitors privileges on-premises, in the cloud, and in hybrid settings for the aberrant activity.
- Your endpoints and workstations are a target: Every endpoint (laptop, smartphone, tablet, desktop, server, etc.) in an enterprise has default privilege. Built-in administrator accounts let IT staff solve problems locally, but they’re risky. Attackers can target admin accounts, hop from workstation to workstation, steal credentials, and move laterally through the network. A proactive PAM program should remove local administrative rights to prevent risk.
- PAM is vital for compliance: The firm will stay exposed without a clear focus on what provides the most risk – unmanaged, unmonitored, and unprotected privileged access. PAM allows firms to record and track all operations related to key IT infrastructure and sensitive information, simplifying audit and compliance obligations.
Organizations prioritizing PAM programs as part of their larger cybersecurity strategy can experience several organizational benefits. These include mitigating security risks and reducing the overall cyber attack surface, reducing operational costs and complexity, improving visibility and situational awareness across the enterprise, and enhancing regulatory compliance.
What are the risks associated with unmanaged privileged accounts?
Many high-profile hacks have one thing in common: they were completed via compromising privileged credentials.
Despite the risk, traditional ways of discovering and managing privileged accounts rely on time-consuming manual operations performed infrequently or ad hoc. Even in the most advanced IT environments, privileged accounts are too frequently handled by employing common passwords across different systems, unlawful credential sharing, and default passwords that are never changed, making them easy targets for attack.
Because taking over low-level user accounts is only the initial step for most attackers, these actions can easily compromise security. Their true purpose is to take over privileged accounts to gain access to apps, data, and critical administrative operations.
For example, local domain accounts on end-user devices are frequently hacked using various social engineering approaches. Attacks are then escalated to obtain further access to other systems.
Almost every organization has unknown or mismanaged privileged accounts, increasing their risk. This can happen for several reasons, including:
- An ex-staff member’s access was never disabled
- Account usage decreases until it becomes obsolete and is abandoned
- Default accounts for new devices have never been disabled
Every unknown or unmanaged privileged account makes your business more vulnerable and opens the door to an intrusion. An employee may gain illegal access to it, either purposefully or unintentionally, violating compliance laws and raising your responsibility. An angry ex-employee with privileged access has the potential to wreak harm.
A cyber thief can use the account to access your firm, steal information, and create havoc.
The risk increases tremendously when a single privileged account is utilized across your organization to execute many services or apps. In that circumstance, an attacker only needs one compromised privileged account to access nearly any information on your organization’s IT network.
PAM Best practices
Privileged access management, or PAM, has been a cornerstone of good security hygiene for decades. Organizations have historically maintained dozens of privileged accounts to accomplish key administrative functions in the IT environment.
Organizations should aim to provide each administrator only enough access to the system for as long as it takes to complete a given task. Consequently, businesses should consider the following best practices:
- Implement the Principle of Least Privilege: Without first applying the Principle of Least Privilege, you cannot manage privileged accounts. A successful PAM system must lock down an environment so that only privileged accounts can access specific resources
- Track all privileged accounts: A privileged account cannot be managed if it is not part of your PAM system
- Apply temporary privilege escalation – Instead of allowing a user permanent privileged access, try granting it just when necessary and then withdrawing it
- Implement Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): PAM only works if you have different role-based access levels. For example, if everyone is an administrator, security and management become considerably more difficult
- Automate: Automation decreases the possibility of human error and improves the effectiveness of your information security environment.
- Monitor, Log, and Audit: Continuous monitoring and active logging of all privileged account activity are critical to ensure that an organization has the information it needs to secure its environment. However, it is also essential that the logs are audited regularly. Without it, the organization would be unable to identify possible risks and adopt risk-mitigation procedures.
Many vulnerabilities, from privilege creep and insufficient offboarding to unchanging default credentials, endanger the security of your operations. Unchecked accounts may provide entry points for criminal actors or merely invite user error.
Fortunately, by specifying security measures and enlisting the assistance of PAM tools, you may fortify your network while easing access for privileged users.
PAM and IAM collaborate to guarantee that all users have the proper access when needed, thanks to a robust identity and access management strategy.