Navigating IT processes in today’s digital world can be intimidating. With acronyms like MFA, SSL, and API, tech jargon can feel like a foreign language to many people. This is especially the case regarding Privileged Access Management (PAM).
Still, understanding the concepts behind Privileged Access Management is critical in most modern-day businesses, as it’s a crucial security measure that helps to ensure the safety of an organization’s digital assets.
Privileged Access Management, or PAM, is a collection of policies and procedures that can also be embedded into a complete digital security solution to adequately provision, control, secure, and monitor user access in controlled environments.
When you think of the sheer volume of interconnect business solutions available and the number of access points each contains, it’s no surprise that each digital door should be locked securely from potential intruders.
As businesses scale and the amount of connect solutions increases over time, Privileged Access Management plays a vital role in keeping these systems and corporate networks like Active Directory and Samba secure.
This feature allows users to access only the systems, applications, and data they have been given permission to use. In addition, monitoring and recording all user activity logs let administrators know how individuals are using the system and if they are showing any malicious behavior.
But, like with most security systems, it’s not enough to have the technology in place. Proper administration of these solutions is critical to restrict access to those who need it while minimizing the organization’s digital attack surface.
When establishing the policies of your PAM solution, creating privileged accounts is a critical component. But not all user accounts are created equal, and knowing the differences between account categories will help IT administrators make better decisions about granting permissions.
Below are three category groups of user accounts as well as access permission types that can be assigned:
Admin accounts, or root accounts on UNIX/Linux systems, are the highest tier of access you can grant to a user, giving them full permissions to the entire system. Sometimes classified as “superuser” or “super administrator” accounts, most admin permission tiers are highly restricted to only a few high-level users, such as system administrators or IT personnel.
This level of access can have severe consequences if abused, so it’s essential to be vigilant about who holds this type of access in the organization.
Local administrator and NT Authority/System privileged accounts are still considered high-tier but limited to a single server or system. These accounts usually provide the user with access to install applications, modify system settings, and other administrative functions necessary for maintaining that specific machine’s health.
Emergency Break Glass Accounts
Emergency break glass or Firecall, sometimes known as Firecall accounts, are reserved for emergency access to critical systems. Emergency accounts should only be used in emergencies and are usually reserved for restoring critical systems during a major outage and in response to serious cybersecurity incidents. They are typically deactivated or changed into lower permission access levels when not in use.
SSH keys are a type of credential used to perform secure remote logins. They provide an extremely high level of encryption and allow users to log in without needing long passwords.
Privileged business users have limited access to certain systems or data. This tier is usually reserved for employees in non-technical positions and can be restricted if necessary for security reasons.
With modern AI-driven applications and software automation, it is becoming increasingly common for organizations to grant machine accounts access to systems and data.
These non-human accounts can be configured to run automated tasks behind the scenes or integrate with other services without human intervention. But just like real human operators, these accounts should be monitored and restricted to remain secure.
A service account is used to run various web services, databases, and other cloud-connected systems. However, some of these accounts can be highly privileged and should always be monitored similarly to a regular user account.
Organizations can boost security with machine accounts that use SSH key authentication, like user accounts. This eliminates the need for passwords and reduces the risk of brute-force attacks when machines connect to other systems.
Application accounts are used to connect applications and services. Typically, these credentials provide restricted access and only allow specific data sets or services to be accessed.
Secret access keys securely store sensitive information such as passwords and API credentials. These types of credentials should always be kept secure and never shared with anyone outside the organization.
Non-privileged user accounts have limited access to the system and are typically given to employees or external partners who need access to specific areas to complete their tasks.
A standard user account provides basic day-to-day access to various areas of a system. These types of accounts typically belong to company employees and can be escalated or deescalated as needed.
Guest accounts are designed to allow external parties low-level access to specific parts of a system or database through secure RDP connections. The permissions given at this level are usually the lowest possible, and security risks are typically at their lowest with these accounts.
Although each organization’s needs may differ, some basic principles should be followed when defining and managing privileged accounts. Here are some practical steps to take:
- Define Roles for Users – Clearly define and differentiate user roles based on access levels. Create specific roles and permissions for administrative tasks, such as granting access to certain applications or data. This ensures that only authorized personnel have elevated privileges. In addition, regularly audit user roles and access permissions to ensure that users have only the minimum necessary access to perform their work.
- Prioritize Systems that Need to be Recovered in an Attack – Identify the systems critical to your organization’s operations and protect them first. This lets you focus limited resources on the most important assets and prevents attackers from accessing critical systems and data.
- Secure Third-Party Vendor Access – Third-party vendors, such as cloud providers, can create privileged accounts in your organization’s systems. Ensure that these vendors have strict policies for managing privileged accounts and that access to your systems is limited to only what is necessary.
Putting the right processes and procedures into place is crucial for protecting your organization from attackers. Here are some best practices to follow when managing privileged accounts:
The first step in establishing a successful privileged access management program is to create a formal policy that outlines the processes and procedures for granting, modifying, and revoking privileged access.
The policy should include password management, access control, and session monitoring guidelines.
Educate the Workforce
The next step is to educate the workforce on the importance of privileged access management and the organization’s policy. Employees should be trained on the risks of privileged account misuse, best practices for password management, and the principle of least privilege.
Enforce the Principle of Least Privilege
The principle of least privilege states that users should only have access to the resources and systems necessary to perform their job functions. By implementing this Defense in Depth (DiD) approach, organizations can limit the exposure of sensitive data and minimize the risk of a data breach.
Inventory Internal and External Resources
Organizations should maintain an inventory of all internal and external resources that require privileged access. This inventory should include details such as the resource owner, purpose, and access requirements.
Vault and Manage Secrets
Privileged access often requires using secrets such as passwords, certificates, and API keys. These secrets should be stored in a secure location, such as a vault, and managed through a secure system that provides access to authorized users.
Audit Privileged Session Activity
Finally, organizations should implement a system that audits privileged session activity. The system should retain logs of privileged activity and identify any anomalous behavior. This will enable organizations to detect and respond to security threats in real time.
It is critical for organizations to start prioritizing Privileged Access Management as an important part of their security hygiene. By implementing the right processes and procedures, businesses can better protect their systems from malicious actors and ensure user access is managed securely.
When executed correctly, Privileged Access Management can give organizations peace of mind that their data and systems are always protected.
Joseph Carson is a cybersecurity professional with over 25 years of experience in enterprise security and infrastructure. Currently, Carson is the Chief Security Scientist and advisory CISO at Delinea. He is an active member of the cybersecurity community and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Carson is also a cybersecurity adviser to several governments, critical infrastructure organizations, and financial and transportation industries and speaks at conferences globally.