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29 May 2024

Privileged Access: What it means and how to manage it

Privileged access is a key area of identity security. In a time when flexible working is changing the nature of who does what and when and where they do it, it’s increasingly becoming a priority for many organisations.  

Every business is unique, meaning there’s no single framework for privileged access. But through privileged access management (PAM), you can unlock a myriad of benefits – from easier and faster audits to increased productivity for IT teams and the broader workforce.  

This blog takes a focused look at how privileged access should work and what best practices around Privileged Access Management (PAM) look like.  

What is privilege? 

First, let’s define what we mean by privilege. Privilege, in a security context, refers to authority provided to an account that exceeds standard security measures and permissions.  

Often referred to as ‘super user accounts,’ privileged accounts have an extra level of access above what is normal. This heightened access enables them to conduct tasks and get into areas that regular users can’t. Privileged accounts are also often able to make backdoor accounts and gain the ability to amend, extract, or delete sensitive data. 

Privileged accounts include: 

  • System Administrators for managing databases, servers, and cloud platforms 

  • Domain Administrators overseeing Active Directory users 

  • Machine-based service accounts for application and service management, including the maintenance of network equipment 

  • Third-party accounts given to vendors and contractors for support or service reasons 

  • Development access for testing, production, and software iteration 

  • Workstation-specific business users that can download and install applications on individual machines 

  • Non-standard accounts for managing operational technology like power grids, electricity boards, and other infrastructure that keep a nation running 

  • Less considered accounts with access to social media platforms, CRMs, and other tools within an organisation’s tech stack 

When we look at the breadth and complexity of these accounts, it’s clear how vital privilege is in enabling the smooth management and operation of business systems. Equally, the critical nature of what’s involved reveals the risks should privileged access be incorrectly provisioned. 

 

What are the risks when privileged access isn’t managed? 

Many businesses try to keep privileged access simple. But often, it’s a bit too simple. 

Because businesses can’t function properly if not enough access is provided, they tend to overprescribe access. As new roles are created, privileges are often simply copied and pasted from similar roles without assessing whether all the access involved is needed. This process of replication is generally done manually and can result in individuals and teams, including third-party vendors, ending up with access to critical systems, data, and applications beyond what is necessary.  

When that happens, it has huge implications on visibility, security, and operations for an organisation, and may result in: 

  • Non-compliance with regulations including ISO 27001, PCI and NIS2;  

  • An inability to gain cyber insurance because of non-compliance; and  

  • Data loss and breaches with the resulting damage to finances, operations, and brand reputation. 

 

What can be gained through privileged access management (PAM)? 

Privileged access management enables organisations to balance access and security more effectively – and derive tangible business benefits. It’s an increasingly critical component in ensuring companies follow cybersecurity best practices, meet compliance requirements, and satisfy the demands of cyber insurance companies. 

Based on the Principle of Least Privilege, PAM ensures privileged access is only granted when it’s necessary for people to do their jobs. In turn, this keeps the attack surface of a potential cyber threat to a realistic minimum by removing any shared accounts or any privilege that is unnecessary or obsolete. 

There are many benefits to deploying a privileged access management strategy beyond mitigating risk. As well as creating a safer, more secure IT estate, having a good PAM strategy in place can also deliver a host of business-driving advantages, including: 

  • Easier and faster audits with greater certainty and predictability over the findings 

  • Quicker integration of new solutions through an overarching, automatic PAM strategy 

  • Smoother mergers through easy implementation of security controls on new users and solutions as they’re onboarded 

  • Increased productivity for the IT team thanks to faster access provisioning and for the wider workforce who get the access they need when they need it 

  • Stronger cost efficiency and time-to-value realised within weeks of a PAM solution’s implementation 

  • Greater reassurance that third-party use of systems is aligned with the requirements of the work and what is specified contractually 

  • Broader opportunities for reviewing privileged access, embracing continuous improvement, and engaging the whole organisation with security best practice 

 

Key takeaways 

Privileged access management doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel from a security perspective. It does, however, represent an important change in balancing access and security in the long term. A strategic approach to PAM will help organisations achieve that balance and support smooth, optimised business operations. 

Eager to learn more about how a strategic approach to PAM can benefit your organization? Join us on 19 June for our live webinar – Boost Security, Productivity, and Compliance with Strategic Privileged Access Management. Click here to register.