Understanding Privileged Access Management

by Jake Wengroff

Privileged access management (PAM) is a strategy incorporating policies and processes for the provisioning and monitoring of elevated access to critical resources within the enterprise in order to improve enterprise security. Not solely a strategy to ward off cyber criminals, PAM reduces complexity and helps employees do their jobs better.

How Does Privileged Access Management Work and Why Is It Important?

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. In this manner, PAM helps prevent the spread of malware, reduces the attack surface and ensures that the organization remains compliant.

Without PAM policies in place, the following can occur:

  • Untrained, unauthorized employees might accidentally change the configurations to a piece of software or, worse, delete an important file.
  • Shared credentials and passwords can create confusion, because no one will know who made changes to a file, app or network, even if performed with the right intentions.
  • Disgruntled employees can wreak havoc by sharing sensitive data on purpose.
  • Cybercriminals would target a wider range of employees, thinking everyone has access to privileged data or assets, increasing the likelihood of a breach.

Benefits of Privileged Access Management

PAM strengthens the security of your network because it limits the opportunities for user error and malicious attacks.

Centralizes Access and Reduces Complexity

PAM accomplishes all this by centralizing administrative access. Thanks to reduced operational complexity, admins manage critical accounts from a central location, even if those accounts are located in multiple locations accessing resources from the cloud.

Improves Productivity

The other benefit of PAM is that it improves productivity because employees do not need to worry about whether they are required to have access to certain documents, apps or networks. Users access the systems they need using single sign-on integration, leading to improved workflows.

Reduces Password Frustration

With PAM, a user can gain access to a system using a password without actually needing to know 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.

Further, policies can be utilized to automatically rotate passwords after they’ve been used. If access is compromised, the attacker cannot use previous credentials, as they have already been rotated out and would no longer be valid.

Monitors and Responds to Incidents

Besides access, PAM includes activity monitoring, which is essential for visibility across the network. With privileged session management, superusers can easily identify and respond to problems in real time. Admins 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.

Privileged and Nonprivileged Accounts

An effective PAM strategy includes managing access to both privileged and nonprivileged accounts. This strategy increases the number of accounts across the enterprise, and while it might seem counterintuitive, it can reduce the attack surface and strengthen enterprise security in the process.

For example, a privileged user on the accounting team might have higher-level access to the company’s financial documents and at the same time hold only standard or basic access to the human-resources database, for only the names, titles and locations of employees.

Privileged accounts allow systems administrators to change settings for large groups of users, override security restraints and even provision and configure devices, apps and systems, Privileged accounts exist for both (human) users and (device or app-based) services.

For an effective PAM strategy, IT administrators need to define privileged accounts by division, department and management level, along with policies for offboarding, such as when an employee changes roles or leaves the company. PAM should also take into consideration the access levels for contractors and vendors.

Next Steps

The Migus Group can help you implement or redesign the PAM policies within your organization. Whether you’re just starting out or your PAM has been in place for years, The Migus Group can advise on strategies to strengthen your organization’s security posture while reducing complexity.

Jake Wengroff writes about technology and financial services. A former technology reporter for CBS Radio, Jake covers such topics as security, mobility, e-commerce and IoT.