Privileged access management (PAM) is a strategy to secure, control and monitor access to an organization’s critical information and resources.
PAM solutions evolved because of the increasing volume and complexity of user access needs as well as cyberthreats. While requiring passwords to access apps and services has been around for more than 20 years, organizations quickly learned that there could not be a one-size-fits-all approach to identity management and security. Further, the use of devices (especially smartphones) proliferated, requiring software and policies to regulate access to documents and services wherever employees found themselves carrying out their work.
Breaches increased as well, as bad actors recognized that not all devices or networks would be secured equally. Seeking vulnerabilities in the attack, cyberattackers could compromise a password and easily gain entry inside the organization. According to IBM, the average cost of a breach reached an all-time high of $4.25 million in 2022, with stolen or compromised credentials responsible for 19% of breaches.
As such, organizations recognized the need to regulate access management, assigning privileges based on roles, responsibilities, seniority, job needs and other factors.
PAM Protects Against Threats and Human Error
A PAM system is one of the best ways for an organization to protect against external threats by preventing malicious parties from accessing sensitive corporate data through internal accounts. A PAM solution effectively manages the credentials for all devices on the network and provides insight into which users have access to what data.
PAM is critical because privileged accounts can pose major security risks to businesses. For example, a cybercriminal who compromises a standard user account will only have access to that specific user’s information. However, if a hacker compromises a privileged user account, the hacker will have far greater access to a wider range of devices, apps and networks, possibly causing significant damage.
In addition to combating external attacks, PAM can help companies combat threats — either malicious or inadvertent — originating from employees and other internal people with access to corporate data. Human error is often the cause of a breach, so PAM can step in when employees are caught off-guard by a phishing email or inadvertently click on a download link.
PAM can also help organizations achieve and maintain compliance with industry and government regulations. With a PAM solution in place, enterprises can record and log every activity related to their critical IT infrastructure and sensitive corporate data, helping to simplify audit and compliance requirements.
How To Secure Credentials With a PAM Solution
While there is no universal strategy, the following best practices can help organizations ensure that their PAM implementations are effective:
- Maintain a tight inventory of all privileged accounts and document any changes.
- Allow for accounts to be shared, but record all “check-in” and “check-out” activity, rotating passwords between each account use accounts. With proper policies and configurations in place, account sharing can be done in a way that doesn’t threaten security, but rather, enhances it.
- Establish and enforce a password policy.
- Change all the passwords on all company devices so users aren’t using default passwords.
- Ensure that privileged account passwords change regularly to lessen the risk that employees who leave the company could compromise its systems.
- Secure privileged accounts with two-factor or multifactor authentication.
- Limit the scope of permissions for all privileged accounts.
- Enforce separation of duties among employees.
- Enforce the concept of least privilege — i.e., employees are only given the privileges they need to do their jobs.
- When needing to elevate users who need extra access rights, document all requests and approval processes.
- Install several network-access monitoring tools to obtain an automated, ongoing picture of the actions privileged users take.
- Update employees about changes in privileged access policies and procedures to ensure they understand how to correctly use and manage their privileged credentials.
- Document account management rules and processes, and require verification from C-level IT leadership, such as the CTO, CIO or CISO.
Considerations When Implementing PAM
However, implementing PAM is not without its challenges. Let’s look at a few considerations when implementing and monitoring PAM solutions:
- Manage account credentials. Upgrade and streamline the management of account credentials and not just passwords, moving away from manual processes that are prone to errors.
- Centralize and track privileged activity. By centralizing and tracking privileged sessions from a single location, the tiniest threats and compliance violations, even if by human error, can be identified and quickly addressed.
- Monitor and analyze threats. Employ an enterprise-wide, comprehensive tool to monitor and analyze threats so that any suspicious or unusual activities can be addressed.
- Control privileged user access. Companies often struggle to effectively control privileged user access to cloud platforms like infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, software-as-a-service applications and social media, notes TechTarget, which creates operational complexity and compliance risks. Find the right balance within your organization by leaning on experts (like The Migus Group) with decades of experience in PAM.
- Balance security with ease of use. PAM tools should not only be highly secure but also easy to use for IT admins. They should also make it easy for admins to manage accounts (such as by syncing with current users’ domain accounts or the server’s credentials), grant and revoke access and handle urgent situations like user account lockout, as quickly and as easily as possible.
Your Privileged Access Management Solution
The Migus Group can help you better understand privileged access management and how its implementation fits into your identity and access-management policies across your organization. Contact us today to learn more.
Jake Wengroff writes about technology and financial services. A former technology reporter for CBS Radio, he covers such topics as security, mobility, e-commerce and the Internet of Things.