Tools and techniques to help safeguard your critical assets.
TL;DR: In this article, we will take a big-picture look at Privileged Access Management (PAM) and how it compares with other access management concepts. You’ll learn about the different types of privileged accounts, the risks associated with those accounts when they go unmanaged, and how you can use PAM to mitigate these risks. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clearer understanding of how PAM works, the key problems it addresses, and the methods modern businesses use to prevent cyberattacks, improve compliance, and reduce operational complexity.
Privileged access management (PAM) encompasses the policies, strategies, and technologies used to control, monitor, and secure elevated access to critical resources for human and service accounts.
PAM strategies enforce the principle of least privilege, restricting account creation and permissions to the minimum level a person requires to do a job. Least privilege helps prevent the spread of malware, decreases your cyber attack surface, improves workforce productivity, and helps demonstrate compliance.
Privileged access control provides security teams with fine-grained governance over sensitive systems and the ability to monitor how privileged company resources are being used. Whether your organization is a three-person startup or an enterprise giant, privileged access management done correctly will protect you against cybersecurity threats and prevent catastrophic user error while improving workflow and policy compliance.
Privileged access security is a jargon-rich category, so let’s begin with a quick look at similar and related terms. Although there is a clear difference between IAM and PAM, many of these acronyms overlap. Furthermore, industry leaders sometimes use terms interchangeably, leading to greater confusion. The important thing to understand is not the acronyms but the functionality they represent.
This article will focus primarily on the first two terms—namely privileged account management and how it fits into a larger IAM strategy. But first—what qualifies as a privileged account?
An effective IAM strategy includes managed access to both privileged and non-privileged accounts. Although it may seem counterintuitive, increasing the number of accounts in your organization can reduce the attack surface. With PAM best practices, even the highest level users will connect with non-privileged access 90% of the time, with IT staff using non-privileged accounts for day-to-day activities and only using privileged accounts to adjust permissions, change critical data, or perform other critical actions.
Non-privileged accounts include:
Privileged accounts, on the other hand, allow systems administrators to change settings for large groups of users, override or bypass security restraints, and even configure and provision systems, cloud instances, and other accounts. Privileged accounts occur in two broad categories: human (user accounts) and machine (service accounts), and exist in nearly all connected devices, servers, databases, and applications. Let’s take a closer look.
Ultimately, defining privileged accounts is the responsibility of each organization. Activities typically requiring privileged access include:
Which accounts require privileged access will vary by organization and by industry.
Begin by defining roles for users and outlining required privileges and access rights for those roles. Remember to limit access by scope as well as time. DevOps admins need different permissions than summer interns, and privileges change when people leave or change roles within the company.
Next, consider which systems you would need to recover first in the event of an attack—those containing sensitive data, high-level permissions, and the ability to configure and access other systems. Remember that these may be human or service accounts.
Finally, review the access needs of third-party vendors. In the massive 2013 Target breach, hackers gained access to sensitive data through an HVAC contractor. Privileged access should be limited to vendors who need it and revoked when they finish the job.
Taking these steps will help you limit or even eliminate one of the most common weak points organizations face: unmanaged privileged accounts.
In an effort to increase uptime and reduce complexity, IT admins may over-provision users. Employees may retain access when they leave or change roles within the company. And devices and services may retain default privileged access. Furthermore, security blind spots, poor secrets hygiene, and lack of visibility can result in broad, unmanaged access to sensitive assets and data.
Some reasons privileged accounts go unmanaged:
PAM Security matters. Whether through malice or mistake, unmanaged accounts present many privileged risks to your organization.
When admins provide too much access in an effort to reduce friction, users who lack the proper expertise may accidentally mistype a command or delete an important file—causing catastrophic damage to your organization. Too much access may take the form of unnecessary privileges for a single user. It may also result from password sharing, with multiple people using the same privileged account. Additionally, admins may try to simplify network access by allowing a single account within your organization to operate multiple services or applications. A mistyped command on such an account could cause far-reaching damage, impacting systems across your network.
Beyond human error, disgruntled former employees who retain privileged access or cybercriminals who uncover forgotten credentials may gain control over sensitive data, privileged information, and powerful systems. Bad actors can use stolen credentials to gain access to your network and then move laterally, progressively searching for the key data and assets they can use to damage your operations.
Even privilege creep poses a security risk. An employee may change roles and retain unneeded access, gradually accumulating rights beyond what is required. Such employees may connect to an unmanaged account and perform unauthorized tasks, whether in error or intentionally. Privilege creep, especially among bad actors with insider know-how, can cause incalculable harm.
Because privileged account holders can make administrative-level changes to your network, and because they can access confidential and sensitive data, they represent an elevated threat vector for your organization. A comprehensive PAM policy will help limit this vulnerability.
A privileged management system secures your network and enhances visibility while reducing operational complexity.
Managing access privileges increases security at the most basic level by limiting the opportunities for user error and malicious attacks. PAM allows organizations to prevent and respond to external and insider threats. It reduces the cyber attack surface by establishing least-privilege access for humans, processes, and applications. This diminishes the routes and entries an attacker can use to gain a foothold and limits the scope of damage should a breach occur.
Centralizing administrative access reduces operational complexity. As we’ve seen, granting broad access to privileged accounts could result in security breaches and major disruptions. PAM takes a more holistic approach to improving workflow. Without PAM, administrators may follow a different protocol for each system, often across multiple networks. With an effective privileged access management framework in place, admins manage critical accounts from a central location. Additionally, users access the systems they need without having to remember multiple passwords using single sign-on integration. This leads to greater productivity and reduced frustration.
Privileged activity monitoring enhances visibility across your network. With privileged session management, the superuser can easily identify and respond to problems in real time. Admins can observe the activity of every privileged user—from employees to devices to third-party vendors—from beginning to end. Privileged session management improves more than just security. With monitoring tools in place, a comprehensive PAM solution simplifies auditing and compliance requirements, helping your organization comply with regulations like SOC 2, ISO 27001, GDPR, HIPAA, and DSS.
Privilege Management secures cloud-forward and hybrid remote access. Distributed and even fully-remote workforces are becoming the norm—this means more software as a service (SaaS) applications, infrastructure automation tools, and service accounts connecting from multiple locations. With these privileged accounts increasingly outnumbering humans in an organization, companies require something more granular than a VPN to secure access to cloud and hybrid environments.
So far, we’ve taken a zoomed-out look at PAM. We identified a few important terms, including the definition of privileged access management as well as IAM, PIM, and PSM. Next, we summarized different types of privileged accounts, common threat vectors, and the benefits of privileged access management for organizations of any size.
The next few sections will dig deeper into the requirements and best practices for your privileged access management solution and cover strategies for implementing them, with a special focus on the important features of PAM tools.
Today, organizations must manage access in a fast-moving technical landscape comprising multi-cloud and hybrid environments, a distributed workforce, reliance on contractors and third-party vendors, and rapid technological innovation. While these changes lead to enhanced productivity, collaboration, and growth, they also increase the number of security weak points that you may overlook.
How you manage privileged accounts matters. Manual solutions for implementing PAM best practices are insufficient in a modern environment. Even well-intentioned humans are error-prone and may fail to enforce all written policies. Spreadsheets can only track passwords when kept up to date, and they make credential rotation difficult. Moreover, session monitoring and recording—an essential task when auditing privileged access management—must be done on an ongoing basis. Manual auditing enforcement of PAM protocols is inefficient, and may even become impossible in the long term.
This is why businesses of all sizes include PAM tools as part of a privileged access management architecture. Using tools for PAM control allows admins to grant and revoke least-privilege access without disrupting workflow; record privileged sessions; ensure credentials are well handled; and monitor sessions to assist with auditing and compliance.
So, what exactly does a PAM tool do?
PAM tools provide a centralized, secure, and observable platform to manage the most sensitive access. They come in many forms. Ultimately, it is up to you to discover which tool is right for your organization.
A quick side note: Some readers have asked if Active Directory is a privileged access management tool. The answer is no—at least, not on its own. Active Directory allows administrators to manage permissions and control access to network resources, but you will need additional support to implement a comprehensive PAM strategy. Fortunately, with the right tool, you can integrate Active Directory with privileged systems and streamline access management for your organization.
As we’ve seen, managing access in the cloud presents many challenges. The right tools will help your organization control and audit access for all users with confidence, integrating the robust features of PAM within the wider framework of your IAM strategy. A centralized control plane expands on PAM to help you:
Increase peace of mind. Diminish operational complexity from onboarding to termination, and know that users have exactly the access they need—no more, no less.
Many factors threaten the security of your operations—from privilege creep and insufficient offboarding to unchanged default credentials. Accounts left unchecked may create entry points for bad actors or simply open the door to user error.
Thankfully, by outlining security strategies and enlisting the help of PAM tools, you can strengthen your network while smoothing access for privileged users.
And with a comprehensive identity and access management strategy, PAM and IAM work together to ensure all users have the right access when they need it.
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