Understanding Privileged Access Management

by Marty Aquino
Understanding Privileged Access Management

Privileged access management (PAM) is a high-priority cybersecurity defense strategy. Privileged access, by definition, allows your predetermined users or machines to access more sensitive areas of your infrastructure. The authorized user can do expected tasks such as system maintenance, related changes or other job functions. Strong PAM helps your organization reduce complexity, helps your team do their jobs better and helps prevent cyber incidents. PAM is a critical infrastructure service because it plays a key role in zero-trust architecture and responsible risk mitigation.

Why Is Privileged Access Management Important?

There’s an old saying, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” In this case, your data is the gold and whoever has access to your data can unknowingly (or knowingly) lose or steal your critical information. According to the Bitglass 2020 Insider Threat Report, the top five most commonly cited insider threats were:

  • Loss of critical data
  • Operational disruption or outage
  • Brand damage
  • Expenses from remediation
  • Loss in competitive positioning

The top five most vulnerable types of data to insider attacks were:

  • Customer data
  • Intellectual property
  • Financial data
  • Employee data
  • Company data

Additionally, with respect to who presents the most risk:

  • 63% of companies believe that privileged users present the biggest security threat.
  • 60% of companies believe that managers with access to sensitive data pose the biggest security threat.
  • 57% believe that contractors and consultants are the biggest threat.

Cybercriminals are opting to deploy cyber-physical attacks on critical infrastructure which can lead to outages and can even be fatal. According to Gartner, attackers will have weaponized a critical infrastructure cyber-physical system (CPS) to successfully harm or kill humans by 2025. For example, Russia’s cyberattacks on the Ukrainian government are underscoring the need to shore up defenses against bad actors. More than 2,000 cyberattacks were aimed at Ukrainian organizations in 2022, according to Politico. And, many of those cyberattacks included phishing, denial of service and taking advantage of software vulnerabilities — with the goal of sowing and exploiting the chaos.

These are steep risks for what seems to be a straightforward process of giving the right people on your team access to your digital gold. However, the world is increasingly more and more interdependent. For instance, if wastewater facilities were compromised, then it could have a knock-on effect on community drinking water, and first responders via fire hoses and hospitals could all be adversely affected. What happens to your company will likely have similar domino effects on your customers, employees and your community footprint.

Benefits of Privileged Access Management

Besides helping prevent the aforementioned potential catastrophic cyber incidents, robust PAM solutions can help your organization operate at a much more effective level, saving money and time. According to Bitglass, the cost per insider attack is between $100,000 and $2,000,000.

However, 73% of survey respondents said their internal security budgets are staying the same or even decreasing over the next 12 months. Clearly, many organizations will have to do more defending — with fewer resources.

PAM strengthens the security of your network because it limits the opportunities for user error and malicious attacks and provides a whole host of other benefits:

Centralizes Access and Reduces Complexity

PAM enhances security by centralizing administrative access. Thanks to reduced operational complexity, administrators manage critical accounts from a central location, even if those accounts are located in multiple locations that access resources from the cloud.

Improves Productivity The other benefit of PAM is that it improves productivity by simplifying workflows and practices for engineers to access systems securely without reducing security. Not only that, but it reduces human error. This simplification of workflow and reduction of human error pairs to improve productivity for your business.

Reduces Password Frustration With PAM, a user can gain access to a system using a password without actually knowing what that password is. In this manner, PAM reduces risk, as users don’t need to increase vulnerabilities by writing down multiple passwords on sticky notes or in other apps.

Monitors and Responds to Incidents Besides access, PAM includes activity monitoring, which is essential for visibility across the network. With privileged session management, system administrators or auditors can easily identify and respond to problems in real-time. Administrators can observe the activity of every privileged user, whether employees, outside vendors or even devices.

Ensures Compliance Privileged session management improves more than just security. With monitoring tools in place, a comprehensive PAM solution simplifies auditing and compliance requirements, helping organizations comply with such regulations as SOC 2, ISO 27001, GDPR, HIPAA and DSS.

PAM Is More Frequently Helpful than You Think

The majority of all cyber breaches involve credentials. According to the 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, a cybersecurity analysis of over 23,000 incidents and 5,200 confirmed breaches from around the world:

  • 82% of breaches involved people, including social attacks, errors and misuse.
  • There have been more ransomware breaches in 2022 than in the previous five years combined.
  • 61% of all breaches involve credentials, regardless of source: social engineering or brute force attacks.

Despite its name, PAM enforces the principle of least privilege, or the idea that account access and permissions should be granted to the minimum level an employee or outsider needs to perform a task. This also includes temporary elevation of privilege, based on approval workflows and policy. In this manner, PAM helps prevent the spread of malware, reduces the attack surface and ensures that the organization remains compliant.

PAM Should Be a Part of Your Family

Privileged access management, in combination with your other cyber defense tools like multifactor authentication (MFA), is a part of your critical infrastructure. Prioritizing PAM helps enable zero trust and helps ensure compliance, but more importantly, it can defend against more complex cyberattacks. Consider the following sample PAM architecture strategy, from Gartner:

  • Determine Use Cases: Create a PAM control coverage solution set that satisfies your organization’s cybersecurity needs.
  • Define Requirements: Identify your cybersecurity framework, operating ecosystem, user segmentation and whether your organization will deploy light versus full PAM solutions.
  • Develop Architecture: Implement PAM capabilities by integrating it with other security management tools.
    • Core PAM Capabilities:
      • Governance, administration and compliance
      • Onboarding
      • Credentials management
      • Session management
      • Logging, reporting and auditing
    • Advanced PAM Capabilities: - Remote privileged access - Task automation - Vulnerability assessment and remediation - Secretless brokering - Cloud infrastructure
  • Ensure Resilience: Test and retest under different scenarios to ensure effectiveness in the event of a disaster or cyber incident. Then integrate the PAM solutions throughout your digital architecture to allow for optimal availability.

Effective privileged access management is more than just assigning high-level access to certain key users or machines. Every time you allow privileged access, you allow that user to bypass standard security controls and protocols. Ironically, this is exactly what exposes your system, or systems, to higher risks. Thankfully, thoughtful and strategic PAM solution sets can mitigate risks by ensuring that your privileged users receive “just enough” privileges — just in time. Work with a trusted strategic partner to deploy risk-mitigating and optimal PAM solutions.

Want to learn more about how The Migus Group can help your company with privileged access management?

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Marty Aquino has been a passionate writer on venture capital, technology, forecasting, risk mitigation, wealth and entrepreneurial topics since 2009. He is the founder of Carbonwolf Energy, a venture capital firm specializing in world-changing and status-quo-defying technologies and people.