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Privileged Access Management: Explained

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Privileged access management (PAM) refers to the cybersecurity techniques and technologies used to regulate enhanced (“privileged”) access and authorization for users, accounts, workflows, and systems within an IT environment. PAM helps businesses reduce their attack surface and minimize, or at least lessen, the harm caused by external assaults and insider misbehavior or ignorance by tuning in the proper amount of privileged access restrictions.

Because operations like accessing restricted information, removing or adding people, and reconfiguring apps have security and operational implications, only authorized users should have access to accomplish these tasks.

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What Are Privileges and How Are They Created?

Privileged Access Management (PAM) is an information security strategy that protects identities with unique access or capabilities above and beyond normal users. Like all other information security solutions, PAM relies on a mix of people, procedures, and technology.

We take extra precautions with privileged accounts due to their risk to the technical environment. For example, if the credentials of a service or an administrator account are compromised, the organization’s systems and private data may be jeopardized.

When threat actors hack privileged access accounts, data breaches occur. Because these accounts contain the keys that open every door in a technological environment, we must add extra layers of security. A Privileged Access Management system provides additional protection to operating systems, file systems, programs, databases, cloud management platforms, and other software privileges for multiple user accounts and processes. In addition, certain privileged users, such as system or network administrators, can also grant rights.

Depending on the system, various privileges may be assigned or delegated to people based on role-related qualities such as business unit (e.g., IT, HR, or marketing) as well as a range of other factors (e.g., seniority, time of day, etc.).

What Are Privileged Accounts?

Privileged accounts are generally associated with organizational responsibilities. Some examples are IT administrators, helpdesk specialists, security teams, third-party contractors, application owners, database administrators, operating systems, and service accounts.

A privileged account under identity and access management can also be an application-to-application (A2A) or machine-to-machine (M2M) account that performs automated tasks and access control security without human intervention. Examples are automated payment transactions, smart asset tracking in the transportation business, automated claims management in the insurance industry, or regular backups of critical corporate data.

Superuser accounts are special privileged accounts typically used for administration by specialist IT professionals and allow the nearly unrestricted authority to execute commands and make system modifications. Superuser accounts are called “Administrator” in Windows systems and “Root” in Unix/Linux systems.

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Types of Privileged Accounts

Typical examples of privileged accounts in an organization are:

1. Local administrative accounts are user accounts in Windows that can control a local machine. A local administrator may do anything on the local computer but cannot alter data in the active directory for other devices or users.

2. Domain administrative accounts provide complete control and access to the Active Directory (AD) domain. However, these accounts are incredibly armed and risky since they grant power over all domain workstations, domain controllers, and domain member servers, as well as the ability to alter Active Directory settings or any material stored in Active Directory. This includes adding new users, deleting current users, and changing their rights.

3. A break glass (also called an emergency or firecall) account is used in an emergency to get access to a service or system that is not normally accessible. A systems administrator should maintain every break glass account and audit them regularly to verify that the right individuals have access.

4. Service accounts help web servers, database servers, and application servers conduct their operations. Service accounts can also be created to store data and configuration files.

5. Active Directory or domain service accounts enable account password changes.

6. Application accounts are often associated with specific application software and are used to administer, install, or manage access to that product. Application accounts enable communication between applications and are often executed automatically without human intervention. Maintenance chores done by privileged users are an exception to the norm.

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What Are Privileged Credentials?

Privileged credentials or passwords grant certain users more access and permissions across systems, accounts, and apps. It strengthens access control security. Privileged passwords and credentials can be utilized in various ways in a modern IT environment. They may serve a wide range of privileged account types, including domain admin, root, sysadmin, and systems with administrative privileges. Operating systems, apps, databases, cloud instances, directory services, social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT) all require them.

Improper privileged credential management can have far-reaching effects because these privileged credentials grant heightened access to potentially sensitive data on your clients’ networks.

How Is Privileged Access Management Implemented?

Many organizations wonder where to begin their identity and access management journey. How can you quickly implement a privileged access solution that will lead to success and maturity in your organization?

Enterprises just starting with privileged access protection and security must choose which privileged accounts should be targeted. They must also verify that people using such privileged accounts understand the acceptable usage and responsibilities.

Before adopting a Privileged Access Management strategy, you must first define a privileged account in your business. Access control security is unique to each firm. Thus, it would help if you mapped out which critical business operations rely on data, systems, and access.

Simply reusing your disaster recovery strategy, which usually determines essential systems that must be recovered first and then identifies the privileged accounts for those systems, is a great technique. Classifying privileged accounts at this point is an intelligent practice since it helps define the value of your privileged accounts to the company and makes future security control choices easier.

Privileged Risks & Privileged Threats

An external threat typically acts in the following manner:

  • Attack the perimeter and take advantage of asset weaknesses
  • Hijack credentials and try to get access
  • Use privileges and credentials to go laterally and harvest data or corrupt resources

To get a stronghold, attackers will exploit weaknesses and user rights. They then establish their presence by moving laterally around the network, seeking opportunities to elevate their privileges, get new credentials, and gain control of more assets and confidential data.

Internal privileged risks include a lack of awareness. Unknown privileges and unmanaged privileged accounts create potential security holes for attackers, including former workers who have left the firm but still have access to the system. In addition, applications and service accounts are frequently overlooked. These accounts may run privileged processes to conduct activities and communicate with other programs, services, resources, etc.

Sharing privileged credentials is a common practice across IT teams. Still, tracking privileged activity conducted via an account causes access control security and compliance issues.

Privileged Access Management – Use Cases

User Visibility Is Limited: One of the most important use cases we may address is the supervision of your privileged users. Can you see how they work within your IT environment?

Privileged Access Management provides one-of-a-kind capabilities for increasing visibility into your IT environment and superusers. For example, if an account begins to behave in a way inconsistent with its baseline, it raises the alert and initiates an inquiry.

Excessive Privileges: Every privileged user serves as a possible attack route. However, the impact of a hacked superuser account in the wrong hands varies. It fluctuates depending on one crucial variable: an account’s number of rights.

Authentication Problems: Nothing else matters if you can’t prevent hackers from just walking into your IT ecosystem. Password-only security for privileged users is still one of the most crucial privileged access management use cases; organizations continue to rely on it despite its proven and inherent unreliability.

Benefits of Privileged Access Management

PAM comprises three parts: an access manager, a session manager, and a password manager. All three components operate in tandem to give you the PAM benefits you require to safeguard your business.

Access Management: Administrators may use access management to see who is accessing their systems and data, allowing them to discover vulnerabilities and avoid threats. It provides all users with a consolidated solution that will enable them to access all the systems and data they require through a single HTTPS access point.

Benefits:

  • Manage and secure all credentials from a single point
  • Rapid deployment with minimal operational disruption
  • Adapts to existing security systems, allowing you to take advantage of all their features

Session Management: This allows administrators to limit system access in real time. It works with other security technologies, including security automation and orchestration (SAO) solutions and security information and event management (SIEM) systems, to detect and eliminate threats as they happen.

Password Manager: Password management prevents access to essential systems, significantly lowering the possible attack footprint.

Administrators may automate password management and cycling effortlessly while maintaining comprehensive control and tracking across all privileges. Furthermore, password certification is assured even if your password manager connects with other systems.

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Privileged Access Management Best Practices

The following is a summary of the essential PAM best practices.

Create and implement a comprehensive privilege management policy: The policy should control how privileged access is granted and de-provisioned, cover the inventory and grouping of privileged credentials and accounts, and enforce access control security and management practices.

Determine and manage any privileged accounts and credentials: The PAM system should be able to discover and manage all local, service, application, database, cloud, and social media accounts. It should also include other privileged credentials such as SSH keys or default and hard-coded passwords.

Apply the least privilege to end users, endpoints, accounts, apps, services, and systems, among other things: A critical component of a good least privilege implementation is the complete removal of privileges from your environment. Then, using rules-based technology, raise rights as needed to conduct certain activities, removing credentials after the privileged activity is completed.

Separate privileges and obligations must be enforced: Splitting administrative account functions from regular account needs, separating auditing/logging capabilities inside administrative accounts, and separating system operations are all examples of privilege separation methods.

System and network segmentation: People and processes are separated based on different levels of trust, requirements, and privilege sets. Systems and networks that require higher degrees of trust should use more rigorous security safeguards.

Secure infrastructure: Extend PAM concepts to build robust infrastructure access management. Model infrastructure access using VPN-less PAM solutions for on-premise, cloud, or OT settings.

Audit and track all privileged activity: This may be done through user IDs, audits, and other techniques. Use privileged session management and monitoring (PSM) to spot fraudulent behavior and analyze problematic privileged sessions easily and quickly.

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Conclusion

As a cyber defense measure, PAM should be prioritized. It is critical to allow zero trust and defense-in-depth methods beyond compliance. In response to an audit finding, some businesses may implement minimal PAM controls to fulfill their compliance responsibilities.

These businesses, however, are still vulnerable to attack pathways such as service accounts, privilege escalation, and lateral movement. Although minimum controls are preferable to none, increasing PAM control coverage can reduce a more extensive range of hazards and fight against sophisticated intrusions.

FAQs

1. How do I set up privileged access management?

Create a reliable privileged account discovery procedure and a password policy for privileged accounts. Implement the least privilege and select the best solution. Finally, use analytics to keep track of your accounts.

User lifecycle management is also essential for successful access management. Lifecycle Management enables enterprises to issue and deprovision privileged accounts automatically and securely grant direct access to important assets. The solution secures an organization’s IT environment while easing the effort of account administration by guaranteeing that only privileged accounts stay active.

2. Who is a privileged user?

A privileged user has been allowed (and hence trusted) to conduct security-related duties that regular users are not permitted to perform.

Local Admin Accounts are non-personal accounts that offer administrative access to the local host. IT personnel generally uses these accounts to perform maintenance or to set up new machines.

Privileged User Accounts grant administrative access to one or more systems. They are the most prevalent type and generally have unique and complicated passwords.

Domain Admin Accounts have administrative privileges on all servers and workstations in a Windows domain. Because they have total authority over all domain controllers and the power to alter the membership of every administrative account inside the domain, they are the most versatile and robust accounts on your network.

3. How can you monitor privileged accounts?

Determine which user accounts have access control security privileges. Then, configure the advanced audit policy and enable the relevant audit policies. After activating auditing, you may see logs and analyze incidents using the Event Viewer.

PAM should log activities, including the user ID, time, database object, specific action performed, and list of records accessed or modified.

By hosting the logs apart from the databases and blocking write access for those users, you can ensure that the logs cannot be edited by the people being watched.

Create policies that specify acceptable activity for the privileged user and then detect policy violations in real-time. Identify any sensitive acts and confirm their authorization. When there are violations, either block the suspected activity or send an alert.

4. What is the difference between Identity Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management?

While both cover user, access, and role management, identity and access management (IAM) extend to all users in your business. IAM policies govern how broad access to resources like devices, network files, applications, and environments is managed. IAM replaces shared accounts with trusted digital identities (username and password) that must be controlled and monitored.

Privileged access management (PAM) is a variant of IAM that focuses on privileged users—those with the ability to modify a network, device, or application. Business users with higher access requirements (such as HR or finance personnel), application service accounts, system administrators, and other high-level users are examples of privileged users.

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