Why Privileged Access Management Matters Now More Than Ever



If the last year has demonstrated any lessons for IT and security teams, it’s this: managing privileged access should be a top priority for the business. When a large portion of the workforce began working remotely, there was a frenzy to extend access so individuals could perform their jobs from home. Yet this may have unintentionally caused inappropriate access levels to be extended to employees. This becomes especially problematic if those access levels are elevated or privileged within the business.

Privileged accounts have access to valuable data and will often be used to execute any application, collaboration tool, or transaction, typically with inadequate to no tracking or control. Often, hundreds of privileged accounts are found within organizations—and they sometimes have little oversight, leaving them with a greater potential of exploit or abuse. 

The 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report indicated that both compromised credentials, either lost or stolen, and privilege abuse, resulting from intentional actions of internal employees, were two major causes of data breaches for organizations during this disruptive environment. And with the average cost of a data breach today around $3.86 million, according to the Cost of a Data Breach Report, it’s certain the effects of a data breach can last for years.

With compromised credentials considered a leading cause of breaches, organizations cannot afford to ignore the importance of privileged access management (PAM). More than ever before, companies are looking for more effective and efficient ways to protect their data with PAM solutions. In this blog, we will examine specific types of privileged accounts, explore why privileged access management is essential, and provide some best practices when it comes to managing privileged access.

What Types of Privileged Accounts Exist?

Privileged accounts hold the 'keys to the kingdom’ within your IT environment. And while they are not frequently tied to specific individuals, these accounts can be used to do virtually anything, with little or no supervision. Examples of elevated privileges include the ability to change system configuration, to install or remove software, or to add, remove or modify user accounts. Elevated privileges can also just simply be access to sensitive data. Below are three specific types of privileged accounts:

  • Root/Administrator Accounts: These accounts possess full authority to systems and have no restriction for accessing services or data residing on a server. They are considered the most valuable targets for threat actors.
  • System Accounts: These accounts are used for running operating system services and can modify the relevant files and configurations. They are typically provisioned with the operating system.
  • Service/Application Accounts: These accounts are used for running processes and applications through automated, often unattended, tasks. They frequently own or have access to data, resources, or configurations not available to non-privileged users. Default credentials for these accounts are often not changed and can pose a significant risk to the organization.

One quick way to determine if an account is privileged is to identify if it can be tied to monetizable data, including protected health information, company trade secrets or intellectual property, credit card numbers, or social security numbers. Privileged accounts ultimately are defined by the organization itself once it has determined what privileged data is, where it resides, and who can have access to it.

Why Is Privileged Access Management Essential?

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. Privileged accounts often provide an easy pathway to the systems, networks, and platforms within a company. And with the considerable upheaval to the workforce during the last year, they represent a major opportunity for threat actors.

The good news is that because of this disruption, organizations are prioritizing their investment in privileged access management. According to the 2020 Identity and Access Management Report, over the coming year, organizations will focus on implementing strong PAM programs. Specifically, 57 percent of respondents indicated it is their top investment priority. Similarly, Gartner predicts that more than two thirds of organizations will implement privileged access management in their enterprise in the coming years. 

Protecting high-level privileged accounts is an essential component of an overall layered approach to security. With full control over privileged accounts, IT and security teams can help prevent internal and external attacks on critical systems before they start.

What Do Privileged Access Management Solutions Do?

Privileged access management is a critical security control that enables organizations to simplify how they define, monitor, and manage privileged access across their IT systems, applications, and infrastructure. PAM solutions centralize management of administrator profiles and ensure least privileged access is enforced to give users only the access they need.

Privileged access management tools reduce or eliminate the need to share passwords because technical controls restrict access only to authorized users, and can leverage stronger authentication methods. It also combats insider threats and privilege misuse by enforcing the principle of least privilege, which mandates that users only have the access necessary to their job functions. Linking access to job roles, and subsequently, individual accounts, eliminates the need for superusers that have universal access. These tools can also require additional authorization for high-risk servers, providing additional protection. Finally, privileged access management provides user accountability through means like keystroke logging.

What Are Privileged Access Management Best Practices? 

Managing privileged accounts can seem daunting at first, but there are a number of best practices that can help organizations effectively manage these higher-level accounts.

  • Centralize Management of User Accounts Across All Real and Virtual Servers: Centralized administration of user accounts across your environment ensures you can monitor and audit which users have access on which machines. 
  • Integrate with Existing Corporate Directories: With multiple corporate directories and identity management systems, privileged account management must integrate seamlessly, so team and group identities can be associated automatically to the correct systems, applications, and data.
  • Ensure Contextual Authentication: Contextual authentication enables organizations to target strong authentication to particular servers and roles that bring a higher level of risk.
  • Enforce Secure Keystroke Logging: For sensitive sessions, you must also have the ability to adapt to enforce full keystroke logging, so administrator activities can be tracked in full detail.
  • Implement Granular Access Control: Instead of allowing functional accounts like 'root' or 'sysdba' to log in, you need to have enforceable authorization rules that mandate the use of individual and auditable user accounts. Implement fine grain security controls to define and enforce who is granted elevated privilege, when, how and from where. 
  • Consolidate Audit Logging: Protecting privileged accounts includes centralized audit logging with a detailed record of user activities. Effective PAM solutions should deliver consolidated audit logs and reports from across your server domains and be kept on a separate security domain.

Ready to Start Protecting Your Privileged Accounts?

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View our on-demand demo of Core Privileged Access Manager (BoKS) to learn how you can increase security for the privileged accounts in your organization.