What is Least Privilege Access?

The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) is a cybersecurity concept in which users are given just enough network access (aka user privileges) to the information and systems they need to do their jobs, and no more.

Why is the Principle of Least Privilege Important?

The principle of least privilege is important because giving your employees unnecessary privileges increases your organization’s attack surface, and if a breach occurs, makes it easier for threat actors to move laterally throughout the network.

Below are the key benefits of PoLP:

Reduced Attack Surface

Limiting each team member’s user privileges reduces the potential pathways threat actors can use to breach systems and data.

Prevent Lateral Movement by Threat Actors

If a set of credentials is compromised, the PoLP hampers the threat actor’s ability to use them to move laterally throughout the network. The threat actor is restricted to only the systems and data available to that user, reducing their opportunities to spread malware, exfiltrate data or both.

Minimize Insider Threats

Limiting least privilege access also helps minimize insider threats due to malicious activity, mistakes or negligence by company insiders. For example, allowing only system administrators to install applications prevents end users from intentionally or accidentally installing malware.

Enhance Compliance

Least privilege access is essential to restricting user access to data that is subject to industry and regulatory compliance mandates such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

What’s the Difference Between Zero Trust and Least Privilege?

Least privilege and zero trust are different but closely-related cybersecurity concepts. Zero trust is a cybersecurity model with three core components, including the PoLP:

  1. Assume breach. Zero trust assumes that any human user or device could be compromised. Instead of implicitly trusting everyone and everything within the network perimeter, zero trust doesn’t implicitly trust anyone.

  2. Verify explicitly. While older security models, such as castle and moat, focused on where end users were located (inside or outside the network perimeter), zero trust centers around who they are. All humans and machines must prove that they are who they say they are before they can access network resources.

  3. Ensure least privilege access. Once logged onto the network, users should have the minimum amount of network access they need to perform their jobs to ensure productivity, and not one iota more.

Bottom line: While it’s possible to achieve least privilege access without zero trust, the reverse is not true.

How to Implement Least Privilege Access in Your Organization

The following are some tips for successfully implementing the PoLP in your organization.

  1. Use Identity and Access Management (IAM) Solutions

    Identity and access management (IAM) is an umbrella term referring to the policies and processes that ensure authorized users can access the network resources they need to perform their jobs. The least privilege principle falls under the IAM umbrella. IAM solutions employ automation and central dashboards to assist system administrators in administering user identities and controlling access to enterprise resources, particularly sensitive organizational systems and data.

  2. Employ Additional Security Measures

    Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) as an additional security layer to prevent breaches due to compromised credentials. MFA requires a user to provide two or more types of verification before they’re granted access to a network resource. For example, ATMs require bank customers to insert their debit card and then provide a PIN.

    This ensures that, even if a cybercriminal managed to obtain a working password, the bad actor would be unable to use it without additional authentication.

  3. Regularly Audit Network Privileges

    Network privileges should be reviewed on a regular basis to prevent “privilege creep,” which refers to users with higher access levels than necessary. Reviews should also be used to ensure all users have the access they need to do their jobs.

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