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Using the Principle of Least Privilege to Protect Your Data: Key Benefits and Implementation Tips

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Excessive access rights increase the risk of cybersecurity incidents. Implementing the principle of least privilege (POLP) can help you significantly limit the attack surface and protect your organization from the financial and reputational losses that may follow a cybersecurity breach.

This article aims to reveal the importance of POLP and equip you with the best practices for its effective implementation. By enforcing these practices, you’ll be able to minimize the risk of unauthorized access, privilege escalation, and data breaches.

What is the principle of least privilege and why do you need it?

Imagine you have a house with many valuable possessions inside, and you’re the only one with the key. In case of emergency, though, you need to give a copy of your key to trusted people — only for a specific person, only for a limited time. You should apply a similar idea to your IT systems and sensitive data: the fewer “keys” you give away, the lower the chance that someone will abuse your access privileges and steal valuable data. This approach is called the principle of least privilege.

“Least privilege — the principle that a security architecture is designed so that each entity is granted the minimum system resources and authorizations that the entity needs to perform its function.”

NIST Special Publication 800-53 Rev. 5

The principle of least privilege, also known as least privilege access, is the cybersecurity concept of restricting access rights for users and computing processes to only those data and resources they need to perform their direct job duties and functions.

The principle of least privilege is part of a zero trust security model. At the core of zero trust architecture lies the principle that you should treat all users, devices, and other assets as untrusted by default. 

By following the least privilege model, you can significantly reduce the risk of credential compromise, data breach, and other cybersecurity incidents in your organization. If malicious attackers manage to obtain the credentials of your employee account with the minimum permissions, they will have only restricted access to your resources, meaning that the “blast radius” will be limited.

Principle of least privilege

The main concepts explaining and supporting the principle of least privilege include:

  • Need-to-know principle. Provide users with the minimum level of access to the  information or resources that are necessary for them to perform their job functions.
  • Segregation of duties. Separate critical tasks and the corresponding access rights among multiple individuals to reduce the risk of a single user having excessive privileges and abusing them.
  • Role-based access control. Define roles within your organization and assign them specific permissions. According to the principle of least privilege, access should be granted based on a user’s role within your organization to align access permissions with specific responsibilities.
  • Temporary access. Provide users with time-restricted access to sensitive assets when they need it to perform specific tasks.

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Why is the principle of least privilege important?

Without thorough control of access rights within your organization, you leave open some threat vectors that attackers can exploit. For example, some privileged users might abuse their elevated access for personal gain or inadvertently cause data breaches.

Apart from insider threats, there’s always a chance of external attackers using social engineering or other techniques to get hold of a user account and gain access to your system. In the event that an attacker compromises an over-privileged user account, the consequences may be significant.

Consequences of breaches due to unnecessary access privileges

For example, the Medibank data breach has affected around 9.7 million current and former Medibank customers. At first, hackers accessed the company’s systems using stolen privileged credentials procured on the dark web. Then, they obtained more usernames and passwords to access multiple Medibank systems without detection. The hackers managed to steal 200 GB of customer data and release more than 1,500 patient records, including names, birth dates, and passport numbers.

By implementing the least privilege approach to security,  Medibank could have significantly reduced the chances of hackers bypassing the organization’s defenses and escalating the attack.

The main benefits of implementing the principle of least privilege

There are many principle of least privilege benefits to your organization when it’s implemented effectively.

Key advatntages of the principle of least privilege

Reduced attack surface 

According to Gartner, attack surface expansion was one of the main cybersecurity trends in 2022. When you restrict access rights and permissions to only those users who really need them, you can narrow the attack surface. By closely monitoring access privileges, you’ll make it more difficult for malicious insiders or external cyberattackers to exploit them.

In cases of human error, POLP can also help you limit the scope of damage to the data and systems accessed by a negligent user.

Insider threar statistics

Minimized malware infection and propagation

By imposing POLP restrictions on your systems, you can also minimize malware infection and propagation. When you enforce the cybersecurity principle of least privilege on your endpoints, attacks like SQL injections won’t be able to use high-privilege accounts to install malware or damage your systems.

You’ll also minimize lateral movement and prevent cyber attackers from penetrating your system further, seeking higher-privileged accounts in their path. 

Enhanced containment of potential data breaches 

By segmenting identities and keeping track of who has access to what data within your organization, you can effectively contain a potential security breach. If you grant access to specific data based on users’ responsibilities, it’ll be easier for you to find the intruder, perform an incident investigation, and stop the spread.

Better performance of employees and systems

When your employees are granted access only to the specific data and applications required for their tasks, they can concentrate on their work without being overwhelmed by unnecessary information or distractions. 

Additionally, systems will operate more smoothly due to fewer potential security vulnerabilities and conflicts.

Compliance with cybersecurity requirements

HIPAA, PCI DSS, FISMA, SOX, and other IT standards, laws, and regulations require that organizations apply least-privilege access policies to ensure proper data security. So, it’ll be easier for you to pass audits and meet regulatory requirements if you follow the least permissions model within your organization.

Implementing the principle of least privilege is a crucial step in strengthening the security of your systems, protecting sensitive data, and meeting compliance requirements. Now, let’s explore what practices can help you follow the principle of least privilege. 

How to implement the principle of least privilege

We recommend these eight essential steps to effectively implement the POLP while striking a balance between functionality and security in your organization.

Key steps for implementing the principle of least privilege

1. Conduct privilege audits on a regular basis

Perform thorough analyses of users, their roles, and data access needs. The goal of these audits is to determine the appropriate level of access for users and ensure that they only have the privileges required to perform their duties. Privilege audits should include reviewing all user accounts, Windows and Linux groups, and passwords for human and machine identities.

Since employees frequently change their roles, you need to perform such audits on a regular basis. Regular user access reviews can help you avoid privilege creep and ensure that you keep user privileges up to date.

2. Start all accounts with the least privilege

It’s better to start all accounts with minimal privilege by default. If and when users need elevated access for performing additional tasks, you can add the appropriate privilege and then revoke it once it’s no longer needed.

With the role-based access control model in place, you can easily set guidelines for positions and roles, making sure that users have the right permissions required for a given task or responsibility by default.

3. Enforce separation of privileges

We suggest separating privileges according to employees’ roles and duties. For example, the same person shouldn’t be able to both create and approve financial transactions. Also, consider segregating administrator accounts from standard ones. Such a distinction creates robust boundaries between high-privilege accounts and standard profiles, thus, reducing an attacker’s ability to cause damage to your systems.

In a least-privileged architecture, standard user accounts prevail and are used by the majority of employees. Your non-IT employees should have standard user account access, whereas network admins may have multiple accounts to log in as standard users for routine tasks and as users with elevated access to perform administrative activities. Third parties and guest users, in turn, should have a minimum of privileges.

4. Create POLP policies 

It’s necessary for your security team to define clear policies for granting, revoking, and managing privileges. By establishing a robust framework for access control, you can maintain consistency in managing user permissions. Ideally, your policies should also be applied to your vendors, contractors, and all other third parties.

Once policies are set, they need to be spread throughout your employees. Consider conducting security awareness training to raise awareness of the importance of the principle of least permissions and help your staff avoid security risks associated with elevated access.

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5. Implement a just-in-time approach

Provide users with just-in-time, granular access to sensitive data only when they need it to perform specific tasks. If you keep aware of always-on privileges as much as possible, you’ll minimize the chance of privilege creep and privilege abuse. 

Replace hardcoded credentials with one-time-use (or disposable) credentials. For example, you can provide users with one-time passwords until an activity is completed. 

6. Use multi-factor authentication

Employ technologies like multi-factor authentication (MFA) to reduce the risk of unauthorized access and protect your sensitive resources. By implementing two or more factors of authentication, you can make sure privileged users are who they claim to be. 

Multi-factor authentication is one of the key elements in a zero trust model where users are not automatically trusted even if they are inside the corporate network. MFA ensures that even if a user’s password is compromised, an additional layer of verification makes it far more challenging for malicious actors to gain entry.

7. Keep track of privileged accounts

Since privileged accounts pose an enhanced risk to your sensitive assets, it’s critical to track how privileged users handle your data and what they do within your corporate network. When you monitor the actions of privileged users, it’s much easier to prevent privilege misuse or abuse.

Effective user activity monitoring solutions can help your organization identify potential insider threats and respond promptly to the suspicious actions of privileged users.

8. Use dedicated tools to ease POLP implementation

Ideally, you should choose comprehensive software that lets you implement the least privilege principle by enabling access control in addition to tracking and auditing all actions of privileged users. It’s important that it allows your administrators to grant elevated access to your employees when they need it.

Leveraging Ekran System to implement the principle of least privilege

Ekran System is an insider risk management platform that can help you implement the principle of least privilege with the help of its access management capabilities. Ekran System enables granular endpoint access provisioning and user activity monitoring within your organization.

Ekran System functionality for POPL implementation

Manage access rights of privileged and regular users. Privileged access management (PAM) capabilities of Ekran System allow you to:

  • Specify which endpoints particular users can access 
  • Limit the time for which access is granted
  • Manually approve access requests for the most critical resources
  • Automatically manage, encrypt, and rotate user passwords and secrets 
  • Provide secure remote access to critical endpoints

Verify user identities. Leverage Ekran System’s two-factor authentication to add another layer of verification by combining user credentials with a time-based passcode sent to the user’s personal mobile device.

Track the activity of privileged users. Ensure real-time monitoring and recording of all regular and privileged user sessions. If you detect any suspicious activity, you can respond to it immediately using Ekran System’s alerts and incident response capabilities.

Generate comprehensive reports on user activity and security alerts for detailed auditing and investigation. Thanks to the Audit Log feature, you can also obtain an audit trail of system administrators’ activities and track access to Ekran System’s monitoring records.

Conclusion

The principle of least privilege is not merely a cybersecurity concept but a fundamental strategy that can help you protect your sensitive data and systems. When implementing the principle of least privilege, access control is significantly enhanced, because users only have the minimum level of permissions necessary to perform their specific tasks. By limiting users’ access to only the resources they need, you fortify your organization’s security posture and reduce the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches

With Ekran System, you can implement POLP by managing access permissions, securing user accounts, and getting full visibility over privileged users. 

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