What is Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management?

Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management (PEDM), also known as Endpoint Privilege Management (EPM), entails applying granular control of privileges on endpoints (desktops, servers, etc.). PEDM tools involve granting specific privileges on the managed system by host-based agents to logged-in users. These tools may also provide host-based command control (filtering), application allow/deny/isolate controls and/or privilege elevation.

Together, Privileged Account and Session Management (PASM) and PEDM comprise the two most traditional sub-disciplines of Privileged Access Management (PAM). Complete endpoint privilege management solutions should provide centralized administrative control and incorporate robust monitoring and reporting features for all privileged access activities.

Core PEDM Capabilities

PEDM functionalities might be offered as a complete solution or as distinct tools, encompassing various capabilities such as:

Endpoint least privilege management tools control privilege elevation and delegation across Windows and macOS endpoints (e.g., desktops, laptops, etc.). These solutions can remove local admin rights for users and elevate access as needed for applications.

Server and infrastructure privilege management toolsets enable organizations to finely delineate authorized access to Unix, Linux, and Windows servers, along with specifying permissible actions linked to that access. These solutions go far beyond native and open source tools, such as sudo, in the level of control, auditing, and centralized management capabilities that they provide. Some mature enterprise server privilege management solutions can extend privilege management to include network devices and OT / SCADA systems. These solutions may also layer on file integrity monitoring for added protection against unwanted modifications of critical files and systems.

Application Control includes allowlisting, blocklisting, and greylisting. Application control may implement both broad and granular control over which applications can execute, how they can execute, and under what parameters.

Active Directory (AD) Bridging solutions integrate Unix and Linux into Windows, facilitating uniform administration, policy enforcement, and streamlined single sign-on. AD bridging generally centralizes authentication for Unix and Linux by extending Microsoft Active Directory's Kerberos authentication and single sign-on (SSO) functionalities to these systems. By extending Group Policy features to these non-Windows platforms, centralized configuration management is achieved, thereby streamlining identity management across platforms, and ensuring more consistent policy enforcement and better oversight, while reducing administrative complexity.

Why is PEDM needed?

Privileged access, while sometimes necessary for workers, applications, and computing processes, can be misused by attackers to cause great damage. The larger the number of privileged accounts and privileged access rights, the larger the attack surface and more potential pathways for a threat actor to conduct their attack. A least privilege approach, which entails minimizing the amount of excess privileged accounts and privileged access rights and entitlements, is one of the most powerful ways to reduce cyberthreat risk and improve baseline enterprise security.

A true least privilege approach entails restricting privileges by both amount and duration. PEDM tools can further help achieve this by enforcing a just-in-time access model, meaning access is provisioned only for the finite moments it is needed. This approach entails eliminating standing privileges (always-on / persistent), with the ideal goal of reaching a zero standing privileges (ZSP) state.

Privilege elevation and delegation management mitigates both external and internal threats. Removing local admin rights, and controlling execution, has historically mitigated 75% of Microsoft’s critical vulnerabilities, as cited in the 2023 Microsoft Vulnerabilities Report.

PEDM capabilities are needed to:

Examples of threats mitigated by PEDM

Here’s a shortlist of some attack vectors PEDM can prevent or mitigate:

For some specific examples on PEDM mitigation of real-world threats, check out these blogs:

How does PEDM work?

With PEDM, any commands that require additional privilege(s) would have to pass through these tools, blocking administrators or users from carrying out potentially unwanted or unsafe activities.

Organizations typically define access control policies that specify the ‘who’ (employees, third-party vendors, etc.) has access to ‘what’ resources (servers, endpoints, applications, etc.). These policies often are created in accordance with the principle of least privilege (PoLP), meaning individuals are only granted the minimum access necessary to perform their jobs.

One commonly used provisioning model is role-based access control (RBAC), where permissions are assigned to groups on their role. Users are provisioned based on the permissions of their assigned groups. This is one type of model that PEDM can help enforce, though in practice, custom policies unique to an organization will also generally be needed.

Broadly speaking, there are four main parts to PEDM:

Authorization: When users log into a network or systems, they need to have their identity verified. Post-authentication, an authorization mechanism will come into play to determine whether the authenticated user (I.e. - what resources and/or level of privilege is this user allowed).

Privilege Elevation: A user may require higher privileges temporarily to perform specific tasks (software installation, system maintenance, etc.). PEDM allows organizations to grant temporary access (time-limited, monitored, and auditable).

Delegation: Specific individuals—these could be users, vendors, or third parties—all with various roles, can be granted authority to perform certain administrative tasks (password resets, account creation, software installations, etc.) without having full administrative rights.

Access Reviews and Auditing: Regular access reviews are conducted to ensure that access privileges are up-to-date and still necessary for each user. The ability to audit is a crucial component of PEDM, providing a detailed record of who accessed what, when, and for what purpose.

An example of how this might play out in an organization’s IT estate would be a user adding a printer; with PEDM, they would be given momentary elevation of privilege for that single task, and afterward (as described by the policy), the elevation would no longer apply. Since the user is using their own credentials and not an Admin account, it’s the task itself being analyzed by the PEDM solution, and it only manages the elevation tied to a specific action.

When implemented properly, PEDM can enhance your existing PASM solution, making it more effective and manageable.

Managing Endpoint Privileges as Part of the PAM Journey

The primary goal of Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management is to minimize the risk of privilege abuse, unauthorized access, and the potential misuse of administrative rights within an organization's IT framework. This approach is integral to adhering to the principle of least privilege (PoLP). In a broader context, PEDM plays a crucial role in the Privileged Access Management (PAM) journey, which encompasses a comprehensive strategy for safeguarding sensitive data and critical systems.

PEDM is one of the most proactive defenses against cyber threats. By implementing granular controls over privileges and employing strategies like privilege elevation, delegation, and role-based access control (RBAC), organizations can systematically reduce the attack surface and mitigate both external and internal threats. Removing unnecessary privileges, tracking actions for accountability, and streamlining access controls not only enhance an enterprise’s security posture, but also help organizations achieve compliance with various regulatory standards, such as SOX, PCI-DSS, and HIPAA.

Learn more about PEDM

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