What is Privileged Access Management?

Privileged access management (PAM) refers to managing and securing accounts that have permissions to access highly sensitive systems and data, such as IT administration accounts, payroll systems and code repositories. Users who may need privileged access include system and account administrators, upper management, security personnel, HR professionals and finance employees.

Not all privileged users are human. Privileged credentials are also widely used by systems and applications, particularly in DevOps environments. These credentials are also known as secrets.

As organizations expand, managing privileged users becomes complex and time-consuming, and configuration errors can have serious consequences. Because privileged users have access to an organization’s most sensitive systems and data, privileged credentials are highly sought-after by cyber threat actors. Verizon estimates 49% of security breaches involve compromised privileged credentials.

How Privileged Access Management Can Reduce Cyber Risk

A privileged access management system helps IT administrators and security personnel effectively and accurately organize, manage and secure privileged credentials, so that they can avoid configuration errors that may lead to breaches.

What is the Difference Between IAM and PAM?

Identity access management (IAM) and PAM are related but different concepts. Both refer to managing user access within an organizational IT environment. However, IAM is an umbrella term while PAM is more specific.

IAM broadly addresses the administration of all user accounts in an organization. IAM solutions ensure that all users have a unique, trusted digital identity that system administrators can monitor and manage throughout its lifecycle, while giving system administrators controls for policy enforcement, password management, multi-factor authentication, activity monitoring and Role-Based Access Control (RBAC).

PAM is a subset of IAM that focuses on controlling access to an organization’s critical infrastructure, meaning its most sensitive data and IT resources. Because compromise or misuse of privileged accounts can have catastrophic consequences for an organization, privileged user activity is more tightly monitored than activity by regular system users. PAM typically involves controls such as fine-grained authentication, automation and authorization, session recording, auditing and just-in-time access.

Benefits of Privileged Access Management Solutions

A dedicated PAM solution has many advantages, including:

  • Visibility into all network, application, server and device access. PAM solutions give administrators complete visibility into their entire data environment, including both cloud and on-premises systems and infrastructure. PAM also facilitates the tracking and control of all systems and devices that require privileged access to function optimally.

  • Prevent misuse or compromise of privileged credentials. PAM solutions secure privileged accounts, making it harder for external threat actors to compromise them or internal threat actors to misuse them.

  • Simplify compliance. Most regulatory and industry compliance frameworks require special management and auditing for privileged user accounts. PAM solutions have auditing tools that record user sessions and provide organizations with an audit trail. PAM solutions support compliance with frameworks including PCI DSS, HIPAA, FDDC, SOX Government Connect and FISMA, which require organizations to use the principle of least privilege when assigning user permissions.

  • Enhanced productivity. Comprehensive PAM solutions enable system administrators to manage privileged user accounts from a central dashboard rather than having to manually configure access to individual systems or applications, saving time and enhancing productivity for both the IT staff and end users.

  • Fewer configuration errors. About 49% of organizations have users with more access privileges than necessary to perform their jobs, which is a serious security risk. PAM streamlines the access management process, minimizing configuration errors and ensuring that the principle of least privilege is followed.

Privileged Access Management Best Practices

Like IAM, privilege access security isn’t a one-time job, but rather, a continuous process. Here are some best practices to secure access to your organization’s crown jewels.

  • Use privileged task automation (PTA) workflows. PTA entails automating processes that employ privileged credentials or elevated accesses, enabling seamless onboarding and management.

  • Enforce dynamic context-based access control. Also known as just-in-time access, this is a zero-trust principle that involves providing users with just enough access to privileged systems, and just when they need it. This helps prevent compromised credentials and allows security teams to automatically restrict privileges when a known threat to an asset exists.

  • Audit privileged activity. Robust PAM solutions have audit capabilities, such as capturing keystrokes and screenshots. Employing these features to detect and investigate security risks is vital for managing threats. Admin accounts can implement privileged session management to identify suspicious activity.

  • Restrict privileged account use to privileged activities. In addition to their privileged access accounts, privileged users should also have standard user accounts – and they should log into their privileged accounts only when performing a privileged activity.

  • Adopt password security best practices. The same password security best practices that apply to regular user accounts are even more important when dealing with privileged access. For example, all privileged accounts should use strong, unique passwords and be secured with multi-factor authentication.

  • Segment systems and networks. Network segmentation prevents threat actors from moving laterally within a system should a breach occur. It also prevents end users from inadvertently accessing systems and data they don’t need to perform their jobs.

Many organizations address least privileged access by tackling the biggest visible risks first and then honing security practices, such as removing admin rights and deploying user monitoring, over time. However, the most severe security risks may not be the most visible. For this reason, the ideal approach is to conduct a thorough audit of existing privilege risks and rank issues according to threat levels.

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