H Priveleged Accesss

Let’s debunk and demystify privileged access for non-IT users, machines and all

July 21, 2023
"By leveraging privileged-access management solutions, you can provide the necessary security protocols to ensure the safety of your digital assets."

Not everyone in an industrial enterprise is well-versed in important IT strategies and protocols when executing digital transition into cloud environments. 

Even so, it's critical that all members of an organization, regardless of the department they're in or the role they play, have a clear understanding of what privileged-access management (PAM) is and why it's a critical component in modern business operations. 

Defining privileged-access management

Privileged-access management (PAM) is an important part of securing digital access points in both on-premise and off-premise environments. PAM represents the policies and procedures that are established and put in place to provision, control, secure and monitor access to critical business systems and secure databases.

PAM secures access to sensitive data and applications by restricting unauthorized users and reducing the risk of data breaches and cyber-attacks. By preventing cybercriminals from gaining the access needed to steal valuable information from corporate networks and directory services, PAM solutions help organizations comply with regulatory requirements that require management and security of privileged accounts to safeguard data.

PAM solutions utilize  technologies such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), role-based access control (RBAC), workflow approvals, and privileged session management to provide maximum security. Additionally, PAM audits, analyzes, and reports access activities, providing visibility into how privileged accounts are accessing sensitive data and helping trace the source of any potential security incidents.

What are the types of privileged accounts?

When setting up the policies of your PAM solution, there are a few different types of privileged accounts and categories that need to be considered to ensure that the correct users have access to the appropriate data. Below are three classifications of accounts and applicable user types that should be considered:

Privileged-user accounts

Admin: Superuser accounts, also known as admin accounts or root on UNIX/Linux systems, hold the highest level of privilege within a system and come with complete administrative access. They possess the ability to manage all users and processes on the network, making them extremely powerful, and this is why there should be very few individuals in the organization who have this type of user account.

Local administrator: Local administrator and NT authority/system privileged accounts provide administrative access to a specific endpoint device, such as a laptop or PC. Access to these accounts can be controlled centrally through a local administrators group. However, these accounts should be used carefully and monitored closely, as they can still provide full control over the local device as well as give attackers an opportunity to elevate privileges to full domain-administrator accounts. 

Emergency break-glass accounts: Emergency break glass (sometimes known as Firecall) accounts provide authorized staff with emergency access to the system or a particular aspect of the system in critical circumstances, such as an unprecedented system shutdown, an unexpected power outage or a disaster-recovery event. Having emergency accounts helps organizations to quickly resolve system issues while ensuring sensitive data and system resources are adequately protected.

SSH keys: Secure-shell keys, known as SSH keys, refer to a type of privileged access that is used to authenticate and encrypt communication between two computers. SSH keys are widely used in data centers, web-hosting providers’ networks, Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), and other IT environments.

Privileged-business users

Privileged-business user accounts are used to give elevated access to non-administrative users who need a higher level of access to perform their job functions. This type of account only grants access to business applications, networks, and other resources that are necessary for the user’s job and is typically locked down to prevent any unauthorized access.

Privileged-machine accounts

Like privileged-user accounts, privileged-machine accounts provide access to systems and services critical to an organization's operation and typically run behind the scenes in the background. This type of account is typically configured and enabled by system administrators or service providers who need to manage the networks and infrastructure of an organization. They can include these types of classifications:

Service account: Service accounts are special accounts that provide programs, services, or systems access control through unique identities, supposed to grant services that system users do not acquire. With the assistance of these accounts, IT administrators can delegate specialized duties to applications and services that are running on individual computers or the cloud.

SSH key: Secure-shell keys provide privileged access to a source control system, enabling developers to make changes and manage their code. These keys allow certain levels of automation, making them a powerful tool for developers when running machine-to-machine code deployments. 

Application account: Application accounts provide access to specific applications or services within a network and enable organizations to control who has access to these applications. These accounts can also be used to provide additional privileges, such as the ability to read or write files from a specific server or network resource.

Secrets: Secrets, as the name implies, are pieces of sensitive information that give access to privileged accounts or resources. They are essentials, such as passwords, API keys, or other credentials, which are used to acquire elevated rights to carry out specialized systems or network tasks.

Non-privileged accounts

Non-privileged accounts are accounts that are granted the least amount of access needed to perform a set of tasks. These are regularly used by end users and lower-level staff, such as part-time employees. They usually come in two types:

Standard-user accounts: The most common account type given to employees. They have basic permissions that allow the user to perform various tasks within their designated department. 

Guest accounts: Guest accounts are often used to provide temporary access to employees or visitors who need to access internal resources. These accounts have limited permissions and are usually only operational for a short period.

How to define privileged accounts for users

Defining privileged accounts for your users is an essential step in securing your organization's systems and minimizing the risk of a data breach. Here are some key steps to take when defining privileged accounts for your users:

Define roles for all users: A fundamental aspect of PAM is role-definition. Before randomly assigning permissions, businesses need to map out all their users and associated responsibilities to clearly outline how they should access connected systems. It’s also critical to regularly audit user permissions as job roles change in the organization to ensure you’re maximizing security at all times.

Prioritize systems and service risks: While many systems can be important, some are more critical than others. When defining privileged access, it's important to prioritize based on a risk assessment those systems that require the most stringent security controls. This will help ensure that the most important assets are protected in the event of a security breach.

Secure third-party vendors access: Third-party vendors can also have access to privileged accounts. It's important to secure and monitor the vendors' access to ensure they are only accessing the systems and data they need to perform their job duties. Additionally, regular audits of their access can help ensure that they are not overstepping their bounds.

Privileged access best practices

Although PAM solutions are essential for any organization that handles sensitive data, they can be challenging to implement and manage. To ensure your organization is properly managing privileged accounts, here are a few key best practices:

Create a formal policy around privileged access: A formal policy will provide a framework for managing privileged accounts, including how to grant access, monitor activities, and ensure compliance with regulations. It should also outline the risks from violating the policy.

Educate and train your workforce: Employee-negligence is a significant cause of data breaches. Therefore, it's crucial to educate and train your workforce on how to recognize security threats, follow security policies and best practices, and report suspicious activities.

Enforce the principle of least privilege: The principle of least privilege requires that everyone only gets access to the resources necessary to perform their job duties, and only for the time needed to perform the task. This principle prevents employees or attackers from accessing resources they do not need, or having privileges left open for long periods.  The principle of least privilege is an important strategy when implementing a zero-trust framework.

Take note of internal and external resources: An inventory of internal and external resources that can access your organization's network is necessary. This includes personal devices, third-party contractors, and vendors. This awareness will help prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information.

Protect and manage secrets: It's important to keep privileged account secrets such as passwords, passphrases, API keys, and other credentials secure. Encrypted storage, restricted access, and routine changes of privileged secrets help to prevent unauthorized access.

 Audit activities with privileged-session recordings: Tracking privileged-session activities ensures that there is accountability with respect to privileged access. This monitoring will help identify any suspicious activities by authorized personnel and external threats.

Start leveraging PAM for a more security business infrastructure: Securing your organization's systems and minimizing the risk of a data breach requires careful planning and a defense-in-depth (DiD) approach. By leveraging privileged-access management solutions, you can help to streamline the process of managing credentials in your organization and provide the necessary security protocols to ensure the safety of your digital assets.

About the Author

Joseph Carson

Chief security scientist & advisory CISO at Delinea