Introduction to Privileged Access Management
PAM(Privileged Access Management) constitutes cybersecurity measures for establishing control over the privileged accounts i.e elevated access and permissions for any user, account, and process across an IT environment.
By devising the right level for privilege access controls, PAM helps the organization to avert or at least mitigate the intensity of the damage caused by external attacks or internal negligence.
In this post, we will look at PAM and understand why it is necessary.
Table of Contents
- What is PAM?
- How are the privileges given and where are they built-in?
- Are there other accounts with fewer privileges?
- The privileged risks and threats
- Why is PAM necessary?
- Winding Up
What is PAM?
Privilege is a special right or authority across a system. It is not a right given to the masses.
PAM is the authority given to an account or a process across an IT architecture. Due to the elevated access that only a few individuals have, accounts that require privileged targets are often targeted by hackers with the intention of getting root access to a system.
Privileged Access in the hands of the wrong person can cause prolific damage to the organization, rupturing the workflow of the organization. So PAM was brought into the picture. It acts as a barrier to privilege accounts by condensing the attacks by cyber attackers.
Privileges arms users, accounts, and applications with the needful rights to access critical resources to complete high-priority tasks.
How are the privileges given and where are they built-in?
Privileges for user accounts or processes are built within operating systems, applications, databases, hypervisors, cloud storage, etc. And privileges are assigned to users based on their role in the respective departments such as network administrator or system admin.
Depending upon the system, privileges are formulated based on a set of attributes that may be role-based such as business unit(HR, Product Admin, or IT) or based on the seniority of the individual, special circumstances, and exceptions.
Are there other accounts with fewer privileges?
In the least privileged environment, most users are working in 90%-100% of accounts. Non-privileged accounts fit in the category of least privileged accounts. They consist of the following accounts:
Standard user accounts
Standard user accounts have a limited set of privileges which includes basic amenities such as internet browsing and accessing limited resources, which is often divided based on role-related policies.
Guest user accounts
Guest user accounts have fewer privileges than standard user accounts and are only accommodated to basic application access and internet browsing.
Special types of privileged accounts are known as superuser accounts. They are handled by specialized administrator professionals who can make system changes and have full read/write file authorization and grant or revoke permissions for other users. Superuser accounts are typically referred to as root in Linux/Unix and administrator in Windows.
The privileged risks and threats
Privileged risks are commonplace in IT organizations due to negligence and poor privileged credentials. Privileged credentials are popularly called “the keys to the IT kingdom”. A survey by Forrester has revealed that about 80% of security breaches involve privileged credentials. Here are the different threats -
Lack of visibility and awareness about privileged assets and credentials
Long forgotten privilege accounts are common in organizations and are the least taken care of. This may open the backdoor for intruders. On many occasions involving former employees leaving the company to retain the access.
Shared passwords and accounts
IT teams commonly share root access and administrator passwords to share workloads and duties with others. However, with several users operating the privileged account, it is impossible to tie actions performed with all accounts to a single account. This creates security and compliance loopholes in addition to auditability issues.
Overprovisioning of privileges across the IT domain
With privilege access controls being restrictive above the threshold level, it can cause frustration among employees, thereby hindering productivity. An employee’s role should be fluidic; It should evolve in such a way that they are awarded more privileges with more responsibilities, also retaining the existing privileges that they no longer require access to.
Such excess privileges lead to a bloated attack surface, leading hackers to steal the privilege credentials or install phishing software on the IT system to gain access, which may adversely affect the interconnected systems across the IT structure.
Privileged credentials are used to provide A2A(Application to Application) access and A2D(Application to Database) communication services, facilitating authentication to the accessed individual. Applications, hardware systems, network drivers, and IoT devices are commonly developed with default embedded credentials that are common and easy to guess. Employees hardcode secrets in plain text within a file, code, or script, which is easily accessible when they need it.
Cloud environment presents new privileged threat vectors
Cloud and other virtualization-packed environments provide boundless superuser capabilities that arm the privileged users with the provisions to configure, alter and delete servers. Users effortlessly toggle between these privileged accounts to manage thousands of virtual machines(Each having its own privileged accounts and credentials).
Why is PAM necessary?
More privileges to an account or process, the greater level of threat to that account. PAM not only minimizes the intensity of an external breach but also limits the scope of the breach that occurs. PAM distinguishes itself from other security technologies in the fact that it disassembles multiple points in a cyber attack chain. This helps to dissolve the threats caused by external parties or internal attacks on internal networks and systems.
PAM offers the following chief benefits -
- A condensed surface that acts as a barrier to both internal and external threats- Fewer privileges to users, accounts, and processes means fewer pathways for attackers to exploit. PAM diminishes the pathways that lead to distortion within the system.
- Reduces malware propagation- Malware such as SQL injection relies upon the lack of minimum privileges and needs elevated privileges to install or get executed.PAM helps in removing excessive privileges, which in turn can prevent malware from gaining a stronghold or contain the spread even if it does.
- Enhances operational performance - Channeling privileges to fewer users can improve the operational efficiency of the entire IT system. It helps eliminate compatibility issues between systems and curb the downtime risk.
- Easily to prove compliance - Less privileged environments mean easy compliance and fewer complex models, leading to an audit-friendly environment.
Privileged access is very dear to any IT organization and is if considered as the primary key into their kingdom. So it is best to incorporate a PAM strategy to reduce the intensity of any attacks on your system. Following a set of best practices in PAM can greatly flavor your system with different access levels fortifying the system.