As organizational operations have moved beyond the traditional limits of a company network and expanded to include personnel and resources spread across the globe, the number of security threats and vectors of attack has grown exponentially. IT leaders now have to know who has access to what sets of company data, how each application is connected to other applications, what logging and reporting measures are in place to document access to sensitive data, and how to prevent personnel from using unsecured applications.
Any piece of software, cloud application, user account, or employee can become a vector of attack. There is no way to eliminate all threats, but reducing the attack surface and mitigating damage from a breach are two of the most important tasks for any internal or managed IT organization.
Applying the principle of least privilege is one of the most effective methods of protecting your organization. When each employee and application only has access to the minimum number of resources necessary to do their jobs, threat actors have a much smaller number of vectors to exploit.
The threat landscape evolves as fast, if not faster, than the cybersecurity field, with Gartner stating last year that new ransomware was the top threat to organizational security. While security analysts and software developers are always hard at work analyzing each new cyberattack method and developing defense mechanisms, they will always be at least one step behind the threat.
The most effective way to minimize the risk of malware or ransomware finding their way into your organization is to reduce the number of potential entry points. Every single employee, system, user account, application, or piece of software can be exploited in some way. But if sensitive data and resources can only be accessed by specific people at approved times and under rigorously defined circumstances, threats have an exponentially more difficult time finding entry.
Restricting privileges may sound like a great idea, but how does your IT team or managed IT provider do it? How can you ensure that users only access the applications, systems, and processes they need to do their jobs and nothing more?
The most basic Least Privilege Management (LPM) measures involve restricting file access to Read-Only. The Windows operating system’s User Access Control (UAC) capabilities are used heavily by security-conscious organizations to prevent users without admin credentials from downloading or installing high-risk software or applications that could introduce malware.
But the effective application of least privilege requires a holistic approach that encompasses the entire technology portfolio of the organization. The above tools, while useful, are not sufficient to withstand the proliferation of security threats facing most industries. Privileged Access Management (PAM), and especially its subcategory Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management (PEDM), is a rapidly evolving category of tools designed to manage access to sensitive assets. These solutions act as gatekeepers, mediating access requests. PEDM solutions enable IT to finetune access according to an employee’s role in the organization, granting privileges that are much more granular than what can be accomplished using Windows UAC.
So-called “privilege creep,” whereby a user is granted excessive, often permanent privileges on a resource for which they only need temporary access, has been one of the primary culprits in several cybersecurity incidents. PEDM tools help avoid the unnecessary accumulation of rights for regular users while still enabling them to do their jobs.
High-level superuser and administrator accounts are some of the juiciest targets for threat actors, as these accounts often have almost unfettered privileges on many resources in an organization. These users need persistent privileged access to resources, but there need to be layers of accountability to not only prevent them from abusing their power but also limit the scope of damage should they be unintentionally compromised.
The application of least privilege simplifies compliance with government regulations by narrowing the focus of audits to a smaller number of assets and personnel. By keeping privileges within a limited radius, IT organizations or managed IT providers can also more easily adjust workflows to adhere to regulations when they change.
Most PAM and PEDM tools offer extensive logging and reporting capabilities to document each action taken while privileges are in use, and some tools enable video recordings of privileged sessions. This gives organizations the records they need to respond to an incident or satisfy an audit by regulatory agencies.
Further, by looking at access records in which elevated privileges are used, internal and managed IT leaders can analyze where the greatest risks lie and make informed decisions on ways to improve workflows. Having detailed records gives business and IT leaders the information they need to iterate on company policies and processes, strengthening the organization’s security posture by making sure that each access request is warranted.
Tightening your company’s security should never be at the expense of your business goals, and least privilege management should go hand in hand with your digital transformation initiatives.
While least privilege might sound restrictive, it can benefit an organization’s business objectives in the long run. According to a report by Ponemon Institute, data breach costs have risen 13 percent from 2020 to 2022. Preventing the catastrophic disruption caused by a cyberattack can save organizations millions in revenue, protect the company’s reputation in the industry, and decrease IT hours spent troubleshooting.
And as your industry’s standards and best practices evolve, limiting access enables a more agile response to change that matches resources to those who need them. The larger the group of people, the more difficult it can be to change the way they operate.
Just-In-Time (JIT) provisioning of access is offered by many PAM tools. Using either automated triggers based on pre-determined criteria or workflows that request administrative approval, access to resources or elevation of privileges can be given on a temporary basis. Users have access to the resources they need when they need them, and the narrow window of time in which access is available keeps the risk of a security exploit low.
While some large enterprises have the budget to hire an entire IT team focused on cybersecurity and the implementation of least privilege, some smaller organizations—and even some larger ones—might not have the necessary knowledge of the security threat landscape or expertise on mitigation strategies that some managed IT vendors can provide.
One of the most important elements of any least privilege management initiative is that it is aligned with the needs of the business and not just the IT department. What are your most critical resources? What are the most important value drivers for your organization?
You have to identify your greatest risks and prioritize them. Some applications may be easily compromised but don’t offer the same risk of disruption. Some attack vectors are relatively narrow, but because of the potential payday they offer threat actors, they require a higher level of scrutiny and more granular policies regarding access.
At Vudu, we are technology wizards who want to bring IT magic to your business and achieve supernatural results. Are you a company that wants an experienced managed IT provider to help you implement an effective least privilege management initiative? Tell us more about your goals.