Privileged access management (PAM) consists of the cybersecurity strategies and technologies for exerting control over the elevated (“privileged”) access and permissions for users, accounts, processes, and systems across an IT environment. By dialing in the appropriate level of privileged access controls, PAM helps organizations condense their organization’s attack surface, and prevent, or at least mitigate, the damage arising from external attacks as well as from insider malfeasance or negligence.

While privilege management encompasses many strategies, a central goal is the enforcement of least privilege, defined as the restriction of access rights and permissions for users, accounts, applications, systems, devices (such as IoT) and computing processes to the absolute minimum necessary to perform routine, authorized activities.

Alternatively referred to as privileged account management, privileged identity management (PIM), or just privilege management, PAM is considered by many analysts and technologists as one of the most important security projects for reducing cyber risk and achieving high security ROI.

The domain of privilege management is generally accepted as falling within the broader scope of identity and access management (IAM). Together, PAM and IAM help to provide fined-grained control, visibility, and auditability over all credentials and privileges.

While IAM controls provide authentication of identities to ensure that the right user has the right access as the right time, PAM layers on more granular visibility, control, and auditing over privileged identities and activities.

In this glossary post, we will cover: what privilege refers to in a computing context, types of privileges and privileged accounts/credentials, common privilege-related risks and threat vectors, privilege security best practices, and how PAM is implemented.

What are privileges and how are they created?

Privilege, in an information technology context, can be defined as the authority a given account or process has within a computing system or network. Privilege provides the authorization to override, or bypass, certain security restraints, and may include permissions to perform such actions as shutting down systems, loading device drivers, configuring networks or systems, provisioning and configuring accounts and cloud instances, etc.

In their book, Privileged Attack Vectors, authors and industry thought leaders Morey Haber and Brad Hibbert (both of BeyondTrust) offer the basic definition; “privilege is a special right or an advantage. It is an elevation above the normal and not a setting or permission given to the masses.”

Privileges serve an important operational purpose by enabling users, applications, and other system processes elevated rights to access certain resources and complete work-related tasks. At the same time, the potential for misuse or abuse of privilege by insiders or outside attackers presents organizations with a formidable security risk.

Privileges for various user accounts and processes are built into operating systems, file systems, applications, databases, hypervisors, cloud management platforms, etc. Privileges can be also assigned by certain types of privileged users, such as by a system or network administrator.

Depending on the system, some privilege assignment, or delegation, to people may be based on attributes that are role-based, such as business unit, (e.g., marketing, HR, or IT) as well as a variety of other parameters (e.g., seniority, time of day, special circumstance, etc.).

What are privileged accounts?

In a least privilege environment, most users are operating with non-privileged accounts 90-100% of the time. Non-privileged accounts, also called least privileged accounts (LUA) general consist of the following two types:

A privileged account is considered to be any account that provides access and privileges beyond those of non-privileged accounts. A privileged user is any user currently leveraging privileged access, such as through a privileged account. Because of their elevated capabilities and access, privileged users/privileged accounts pose considerably larger risks than non-privileged accounts / non-privileged users.

Special types of privileged accounts, known as superuser accounts, are primarily used for administration by specialized IT employees and provide virtually unrestrained power to execute commands and make system changes. Superuser accounts are typically known as “Root” in Unix/Linux and “Administrator” in Windows systems.

Superuser account privileges can provide unrestricted access to files, directories, and resources with full read / write / execute privileges, and the power to render systemic changes across a network, such as creating or installing files or software, modifying files and settings, and deleting users and data. Superusers may even grant and revoke any permissions for other users. If misused, either in error (such as accidentally deleting an important file or mistyping a powerful command) or with malicious intent, these highly privileged accounts can easily wreak catastrophic damage across a system—or even the entire enterprise.

In Windows systems, each Windows computer has at least one administrator account. The Administrator account allows the user to perform such activities as installing software and changing local configurations and settings.

Mac OS X, on the other hand is Unix-like, but unlike Unix and Linux, is rarely deployed as a server. Users of Mac endpoints may run with root access as a default. However, as a best security practice, a non-privileged account should be created and used for routine computing to limit the likelihood and scope of privileged threats.

Here are examples of privileged accounts commonly in use across an organization:

Local administrative accounts

Non-personal accounts providing administrative access to the local host or instance only.

Domain administrative accounts

Privileged administrative access across all workstations and servers within the domain.

Break glass (also called emergency or firecall) accounts

Unprivileged users with administrative access to secure systems in the case of an emergency.

Service accounts

Privileged local or domain accounts that are used by an application or service to interact with the operating system.

Active Directory or domain service accounts

Enable password changes to accounts, etc.

Application accounts

Used by applications to access databases, run batch jobs or scripts, or provide access to other applications.

While most non-IT users should, as a best practice, only have standard user account access, some IT employees may possess multiple accounts, logging in as a standard user to perform routine tasks, while logging into a superuser account to perform administrative activities.

Because administrative accounts possess more privileges, and thus, pose a heightened risk if misused or abused compared to standard user accounts, a PAM best practice is to only use these administrator accounts when absolutely necessary, and for the shortest time needed.

What Are Privileged Credentials?

Privileged credentials (also called privileged passwords) are a subset of credentials that provide elevated access and permissions across accounts, applications, and systems. Privileged passwords can be associated with human, application, service accounts, and more. SSH keys are one type of privileged credential used across enterprises to access servers and open pathways to highly sensitive assets.

Sometimes, especially across DevOps environments, privileged credentials are referred to as “secrets.”

Privileged account passwords are often referred to as “the keys to the IT kingdom,” as, in the case of superuser passwords, they can provide the authenticated user with almost limitless privileged access rights across an organization’s most critical systems and data. With so much power inherent of these privileges, they are ripe for abuse by insiders, and are highly coveted by hackers. Forrester Research estimates that 80% of security breaches involve privileged credentials.

Privileged Risks & Privileged Threats – Why PAM is Needed

Some of the top privilege-related risks and challenges include:

IoT, DevOps, and cloud environments present new privileged threat vectors and privilege management use cases:

Privileged Threat Vectors—External & Internal

Hackers, malware, partners, insiders gone rogue, and simple user errors—especially in the case of superuser accounts—comprise the most common privileged threat vectors.

External hackers covet privileged accounts and credentials, knowing that, once obtained, they provide a fast track to an organization’s most critical systems and sensitive data. With privileged credentials in hand, a hacker essentially becomes an “insider”—and that’s a dangerous scenario, as they can easily erase their tracks to avoid detection while they traverse the compromised IT environment.

Hackers often gain an initial foothold through a low-level exploit, such as through a phishing attack on a standard user account, and then skulk laterally through the network until they find a dormant or orphaned account that allows them to escalate their privileges.

Unlike external hackers, insiders already start within the perimeter, while also benefitting from know-how of where sensitive assets and data lie and how to zero in on them. Insider threats take the longest to uncover—as employees, and other insiders, generally benefit from some level of trust by default, which may help them avoid detection. The protracted time-to-discovery also translates into higher potential for damage. Many of the most catastrophic breaches in recent years have been perpetrated by insiders.

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Benefits of Privileged Access Management

The more privileges and access a user, account, or process amasses, the greater the potential for abuse, exploit, or error. Implementing privilege management not only minimizes the potential for a security breach occurring, it also helps limit the scope of a breach should one occur.

One differentiator between PAM and other types of security technologies is that PAM can dismantle multiple points of the cyberattack chain, providing protection against both external attack as well as attacks that make it within networks and systems.

PAM confers several chief benefits, including:

Additionally, many compliance regulations (including HIPAA, PCI DSS, FDDC, Government Connect, FISMA, and SOX) require that organizations apply least privilege access policies to ensure proper data stewardship and systems security. For instance, the US federal government’s FDCC mandate states that federal employees must log in to PCs with standard user privileges.

Privileged Access Management Best Practices

The more mature and holistic your privilege security policies and enforcement, the better you will be able to prevent and react to insider and external threats, while also meeting compliance mandates.

Here is an overview of the nine most important PAM best practices:

1. Establish and enforce a comprehensive privilege management policy: The policy should govern how privileged access and accounts are provisioned/de-provisioned; address the inventory and classification of privileged identities and accounts; and enforce best practices for security and management.

2. Identify and bring under management all privileged accounts and credentials: This should include all user and local accounts; application and service accounts database accounts; cloud and social media accounts; SSH keys; default and hard-coded passwords; and other privileged credentials – including those used by third parties/vendors. Discovery should also include platforms (e.g., Windows, Unix, Linux, Cloud, on-prem, etc.), directories, hardware devices, applications, services / daemons, firewalls, routers, etc.

The privilege discovery process should illuminate where and how privileged passwords are being used, and help reveal security blind spots and malpractice, such as:

3. Enforce least privilege over end users, endpoints, accounts, applications, services, systems, etc.: A key piece of a successful least privilege implementation involves wholesale elimination of privileges everywhere they exist across your environment. Then, apply rules-based technology to elevate privileges as needed to perform specific actions, revoking privileges upon completion of the privileged activity.

Broken down to the tactical level, least privilege enforcement should encompass the following:

4. Enforce separation of privileges and separation of duties: Privilege separation measures include separating administrative account functions from standard account requirements, separating auditing/logging capabilities within the administrative accounts, and separating system functions (e.g., read, edit, write, execute, etc.).

When least privilege and separation of privilege are in place, you can enforce separation of duties. Each privileged account should have privileges finely tuned to perform only a distinct set of tasks, with little overlap between various accounts.

With these security controls enforced, although an IT worker may have access to a standard user account and several admin accounts, they should be restricted to using the standard account for all routine computing, and only have access to various admin accounts to accomplish authorized tasks that can only be performed with the elevated privileges of those accounts.

5. Segment systems and networks to broadly separate users and processes based on different levels of trust, needs, and privilege sets. Systems and networks requiring higher trust levels should implement more robust security controls. The more segmentation of networks and systems, the easier it is to contain any potential breach from spreading beyond its own segment.

6. Enforce password security best practices:

7. Monitor and audit all privileged activity: This can be accomplished through user IDs as well as auditing and other tools. Implement privileged session management and monitoring (PSM) to detect suspicious activities and efficiently investigate risky privileged sessions in a timely manner. Privileged session management involves monitoring, recording, and controlling privileged sessions. Auditing activities should include capturing keystrokes and screens (allowing for live view and playback). PSM should cover the period of time during which elevated privileges/privileged access is granted to an account, service, or process.

PSM capabilities are also essential for compliance. SOX, HIPAA, GLBA, PCI DSS, FDCC, FISMA, and other regulations increasingly require organizations to not only secure and protect data, but also be capable of proving the effectiveness of those measures.

8. Enforce vulnerability-based least-privilege access: Apply real-time vulnerability and threat data about a user or an asset to enable dynamic risk-based access decisions. For instance, this capability can allow you to automatically restrict privileges and prevent unsafe operations when a known threat or potential compromise exists for the user, asset, or system.

9. Implement privileged threat/user analytics: Establish baselines for privileged user activities and privileged access, and monitor and alert to any deviations that meet a defined risk threshold. Also incorporate other risk data for a more three-dimensional view of privilege risks. Accumulating as much data as possible is not necessarily the answer. What is most important is that you have the data you need in a form that allows you to make prompt, precise decisions to steer your organization to optimal cybersecurity outcomes.

Figure 1: Privileged threat analytics: aggregating, correlating, and reporting

How PAM Is Implemented / Key Solutions

Organizations with immature, and largely manual, PAM processes struggle to control privilege risk. Automated, pre-packaged PAM solutions are able to scale across millions of privileged accounts, users, and assets to improve security and compliance. The best solutions can automate discovery, management, and monitoring to eliminate gaps in privileged account/credential coverage, while streamlining workflows to vastly reduce administrative complexity.

The more automated and mature a privilege management implementation, the more effective an organization will be in condensing the attack surface, mitigating the impact of attacks (by hackers, malware, and insiders), enhancing operational performance, and reducing the risk from user errors.

While PAM solutions may be fully integrated within a single platform and manage the complete privileged access lifecycle, or be served by a la carte solutions across dozens of distinct unique use classes, they are generally organized across the following primary disciplines:

Privileged Account and Session Management (PASM): These solutions are generally comprised of privileged password management (also called privileged credential management or enterprise password management) and privileged session management components.

Privileged password management protects all accounts (human and non-human) and assets that provide elevated access by centralizing discovery, onboarding, and management of privileged credentials from within a tamper-proof password safe. Application password management (AAPM) capabilities are an important piece of this, enabling the removal of embedded credentials from within code, vaulting them, and applying best practices as with other types of privileged credentials.

Privileged session management (PSM) entails the monitoring and management of all sessions for users, systems, applications, and services that involve elevated access and permissions. As described above in the best practices session, PSM allows for advanced oversight and control that can be used to better protect the environment against insider threats or potential external attacks, while also maintaining critical forensic information that is increasingly required for regulatory and compliance mandates.

Figure 2: Representation of privileged password management worklow

Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management (PEDM): As opposed to PASM, which manages access to accounts with always-on privileges, PEDM applies more granular privilege elevation activities controls on a case-by-case basis. Usually, based on the broadly different use cases and environments, PEDM solutions are split into two components:

Endpoint least privilege management

These solutions typically encompasses least privilege enforcement, including privilege elevation and delegation, across Windows and Mac endpoints (e.g., desktops, laptops, etc.).

Server and infrastructure privilege management

These solutions empower organizations to granularly define who can access Unix, Linux and Windows servers – and what they can do with that access. These solutions may also include the capability to extend privilege management for network devices and SCADA systems.

PEDM solutions should also deliver centralized management and overlay deep monitoring and reporting capabilities over any privileged access. These solutions are an essential piece of endpoint security.

Active Directory (AD) Bridging

AD Bridging solutions integrate Unix, Linux, and Mac into Windows, enabling consistent management, policy, and single sign-on. AD bridging solutions typically centralize authentication for Unix, Linux, and Mac environments by extending Microsoft Active Directory’s Kerberos authentication and single sign-on capabilities to these platforms. Extension of Group Policy to these non-Windows platforms also enables centralized configuration management, further reducing the risk and complexity of managing a heterogeneous environment.

Real-time change auditing

These solutions provide more fine-grained auditing tools that allow organizations to zero in on changes made to highly privileged systems and files, such as Active Directory and Windows Exchange. Change auditing and file integrity monitoring capabilities can provide a clear picture of the “Who, What, When, and Where” of changes across the infrastructure. Ideally, these tools will also provide the ability to rollback unwanted changes, such as a user error, or a file system change by a malicious actor.

Secure Remote Access software

In too many use cases, VPN solutions provide more access than needed and simply lack sufficient controls for privileged use cases. This is why it’s increasingly critical to deploy solutions that not only facilitate remote access for vendors and employees, but also tightly enforce privilege management best practices. Cyber attackers frequently target remote access instances as these have historically presented exploitable security gaps.

The Best Path to Maturing Privileged Access Security Controls

Many organizations chart a similar path to privilege maturity, prioritizing easy wins and the biggest risks first, and then incrementally improving privileged security controls across the enterprise. However, the best approach for any organization will be best determined after performing a comprehensive audit of privileged risks, and then mapping out the steps it will take to get to an ideal privileged access security policy state.