If you’re like most IT or security professionals, it seems harder than ever to manage the complexity of user access. Keeping track of access rights, roles, accounts, permissions, entitlements, credentials, and privileges is a never ending—and sometimes thankless—proposition.
And it’s riskier than ever before. In fact, according to the 2021 Cost of a Data Breach Report, compromised credentials are the ‘most common initial attack vector,’ and were responsible for ‘20 percent of breaches at an average breach cost of USD 4.37 million.’
With compromised credentials serving as the initial cause of a majority of data breaches, it’s no wonder that enhancing security protocols and enforcing strong identity and access management (IAM) policies—including the principle of least privilege (PoLP)—is an essential tool in an organization’s overall risk management strategy. Let’s take some time to define what least privilege is and explore how it relates to access management, identity governance, and privileged access management within organizations today.
Defining the Principle of Least Privilege and Its Relationship to Access
Simply defined, the principle of least privilege is a security control that mandates users should only possess the minimum level of access necessary to perform their job functions—and no more. It is based on the foundational concept of restricting privileges within your network and multi-platform environment, and enforcing solid, pre-defined identity governance policies that limit access to data, systems, and assets.
The principle of least privilege is commonly referred to as least privilege access because it hinges on granting the least amount of privileges to an individual required to perform his or her work. But as a comprehensive policy framework, least privilege access has also been extended to devices, applications, programs, bot identities, and systems. Least privilege access plays a critical role in protecting and managing access across your infrastructure. It is often used in relationship to a zero trust security model, where users have the least amount of access required and no access is granted until demonstrated it is necessary. Demonstration of this access requirement is done as often as possible since the access, once granted and used, should revert back to its zero trust state.
Because compromised credentials are frequently the entry point for data breaches, employing the principle of least privilege helps mitigate identity-related access risks by limiting the ability of threat actors to gain a foothold on the variety of privileged accounts that inherently possess elevated access to data or services within your business. Simply, employing least privilege access limits the chances and opportunities for credentials to be compromised—especially those privileges that ‘hold the keys to your kingdom,’ with little to no tracking or control.
What Can Happen If Least Privilege Access Is Not Enforced?
The principle of least privilege is foundational in creating the right identity and access management framework. And it goes a long way towards bolstering risk management and closing the gap on identity-related access risks. Least privilege access enables organizations to mitigate these risks, enhance security, improve compliance, and increase efficiencies.
Yet according to the 2021 Identity and Access Management Report, 77 percent of organizations report having users with more access privileges than required. And that leaves them vulnerable to unauthorized access to sensitive data, applications or systems across their network—even if the unauthorized access is not intentional or by a threat actor.
In fact, according to the 2021 IAM report, organizations indicate the most common negative outcomes from unauthorized access has included disrupted business activities (22 percent), system downtime (21 percent), reduced employee productivity (20 percent), and deployment of IT resources to triage and remediate the issue (19 percent), among others. With so many different areas of access risks and avenues for threat actors to enter, it is critical to understand the role that consistently enforcing least privilege access plays in addressing these risks.
Two Critical Ways to Enforce Least Privilege Access
Organizations today typically enforce the principle of least privilege with a combination of identity governance solutions and privileged access management tools. Together, these solutions support the overall IAM security framework that is critical in enforcing least privilege access in your business. Let’s take a look at two ways these solutions can help you better enforce least privilege access and ensure you are only giving users the access they need.
#1: Protecting Privileged Accounts
Effectively managing privileged access has become a top priority for many organizations seeking to protect their data and systems from unauthorized users. That’s because inappropriate access can expose valuable organizational data, compromise sensitive information, and adversely affect system reliability. But with full control over privileged accounts, IT and security teams can help prevent internal and external attacks on critical systems before they start.
Privileged access management (PAM) is an essential security control that enables organizations to simplify how they define, monitor, and manage privileged access across their IT systems, applications, and infrastructure. Only a few PAM solutions, like Core Privileged Access Manager (BoKS), centralize management of administrator profiles and restrict native privileged commands from being executed by unauthorized users. By offering granular control of privileged account delegation, you can enforce which commands can be executed by role—eliminating password sharing and ensuring least privilege access is better enforced by giving users only the access they need.
Leveraging a comprehensive privileged access management security approach is ideal for combating insider threats because it defines who can have access to each part of a system and specifies what they can do with that access. This enables you to track administrator and account activities in detail, even preventing direct access to privileged commands, so you can specifically identify who has done what.
#2: Prioritizing Role-Based Access
Role-based access control (RBAC) is an identity governance approach for securely managing user access that assigns and restricts access based on established roles. It enables organizations to leverage pre-defined access policies, identifying the access privileges each user needs and determining the access to grant or remove. In most cases, RBAC is used with the principle of least privilege, where defined roles include the least level of access needed to complete necessary job requirements.
Using roles, organizations can have solid, predefined, and preapproved access policies in place, and know specifically which access privileges each person needs, and what access to grant and remove. Roles aren’t necessarily tied directly to the title or position someone has, but rather defined by the access they need. According to the 2021 IAM Report, 60 percent of organizations view role-based access control as the most critical IAM capability within their business. But only 48 percent are, at best, somewhat effective in their ability to design roles.
Embracing a role-based access approach in your business simplifies identity governance, especially as your business grows or changes—whether through individual changes across the user lifecycle, seasonal additions to the workforce, or more institutional changes, like mergers and acquisitions. Plus roles allow you to more quickly and accurately perform business-friendly access reviews and certifications.