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What is PAM?

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Privileged access management gains the status of a primary approach for protecting sensitive information. This post is devoted to the core of privileged access management, explaining why it is indispensable to the security of organizational assets.

Whether you are an IT professional, a business owner, or someone who cares about digital security, understanding PAM is crucial. This article will help you understand what privileged access management (PAM) is, how it works, and how you can implement this approach.

What is privileged access management?

What is PAM? Privileged access management (PAM) is a crucial security measure organizations need to employ to maintain strict control over and monitor access to their most critical systems, data, and resources. PAM addresses the risks associated with privileged accounts, which can potentially inflict severe damage if breached or misused.

In essence, pam definition involves measures for detecting, managing, and supervising those accounts with a high privilege level within the organization. This includes, for instance, accounts for administrators, IT staff, and other workers with elevated privileges. PAM usually involves the usage of tools for password vaulting, user session monitoring, and just-in-time access provisioning to ensure that privileged access is granted only for the time it’s needed and can be easily audited and tracked.

Why is privileged access management important?

Privileged access management is vital for organizations as it emphasizes protecting privileged accounts with administrative permissions. With PAM, you can safely permit users to make critical configuration changes in services and devices. Organizations without proper PAM mechanisms in place are at risk of being hacked by external attackers or breached by insider threats.

Why do we need privileged access management? Implementation of a powerful PAM strategy enables organizations to build up their security level, diminish the likelihood of data breaches, and meet the requirements of various IT standards and regulations. Other benefits of privileged access management include automation of tasks, reducing the number of malware attacks, securing access, and preventing unauthorized access by former employees.

What are privileged accounts?

Privileged accounts are user accounts that have more permissions and access rights within a computer system or network than standard accounts. Accounts with elevated privileges allow users to execute major system configurations, install software, access sensitive data, create other accounts, and perform high-level functions that regular user accounts can’t do.

Privileged accounts are typically used by system administrators, IT specialists, managers, or other users who require more privileges and access permissions to perform important tasks.

Managing and monitoring such accounts is paramount, as their uncontrolled use and compromise can lead to security breaches and other severe consequences.

Types of privileged accounts

The most common types of privileged accounts include:

Image - Common types of privileged accounts
  • Local administrative accounts. These non-personal accounts only provide administrative access to the local host or instance. The IT staff routinely uses them to perform maintenance on different workstations and systems.
  • Domain admin accounts. In Windows environments with Active Directory, domain admin accounts hold the highest level of authority. They control the entire domain, including user accounts, groups, security policies, and domain-joined devices.
  • Non-human automation accounts. Automation accounts are digital identities used by machines, applications, or services to perform automated tasks. These accounts don’t require human intervention and often run behind the scenes, keeping systems and processes functioning smoothly.
  • Emergency accounts. Organizations may have special break-glass accounts reserved for emergency situations. These accounts have high privileges and are intended to be used only when standard access methods are unavailable in cases like a cyberattack.
  • Database administrator accounts. Database administrators (DBAs) need privileged access to manage databases. These accounts have permissions to create, modify, and delete databases, as well as control access to sensitive data.
  • Root accounts (Linux/Unix). In Unix-based systems, the root account is the ultimate superuser account with unrestricted access to the entire system. This account should be used with utmost caution due to its immense power.

How does privileged access management work?

Dedicated privileged access management solutions enable you to use a single control panel for managing all privileged user accounts. PAM also allows you to keep users with the minimum level of access they need to do their tasks. PAM solutions deliver essential cybersecurity capabilities like user access tracking, access request and approval workflows, and multi-factor authentication, which are vital for securing the whole lifecycle of privileged accounts and preventing unauthorized access.

PAM solutions usually store encrypted privileged passwords in a ‘vault’ and secure the passwords as per the policies set up by the security team. Therefore, PAM is a vital part of a complex cybersecurity and risk management approach, which enables organizations to record and log all privileged access, decrease the risk of security breaches, and shrink the overall attack surface.

Two main privileged access management use cases include:

  • Preventing account compromise. PAM enforces strong authentication methods like multi-factor authentication, making it much harder for attackers to steal and use privileged credentials. Just-in-time access provisioning also allows you to reduce the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit compromised credentials.
  • Meeting IT compliance requirements. Specific IT cybersecurity standards, laws, and regulations, such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, and FISMA, mandate strict controls around privileged access. Implementing PAM can help your organization achieve compliance with these requirements.

Additional use cases for PAM include monitoring privileged user activity, automating account management, and securing remote access to your infrastructure.

Privileged access management best practices

PAM is a vital security practice that organizations should use to defend their most critical data and systems. Following PAM best practices allows you to track and control privileged account usage, thus lowering the probability of a data breach or unauthorized access.

Essential best practices for privileged access management include:

1. Establish strong access control policies. This practice involves creating clear guidelines around who can access privileged accounts, what they can do with them, and under what circumstances. These policies should define permission levels, acceptable uses, and emergency access procedures. For your policies to be effective, consider regularly updating them.

2. Centralize privileged account management. Don’t scatter privileged credentials across various systems and applications. Instead, utilize a central repository, like a PAM vault, to store and manage all privileged accounts securely. This centralizes control and simplifies access management. Consider using a dedicated PAM solution to manage and monitor all privileged accounts from a single, secure platform.

3. Regularly review and revoke unnecessary privileges. User roles and responsibilities can change over time. Conduct periodic user access reviews to ensure privileged users only have the minimum level of access they require. Revoke unnecessary privileges to minimize possible damage from compromised accounts.

4. Implement the principle of least privilege. The principle of least privilege involves granting users only the minimum permissions necessary to perform their jobs. Avoid giving everyone extensive access. By implementing the principle of least privilege, you’ll significantly reduce the possible attack surface.

5. Monitor privileged user sessions. Keep a watchful eye on privileged access sessions. This can involve monitoring and recording user activity, as well as maintaining detailed logs. The logs of all privileged account activities should include login attempts, access to sensitive resources, and changes made to systems. Session monitoring helps detect suspicious behavior and identify potential security breaches.

6. Implement just-in-time (JIT) access provisioning. Move away from the concept of “always-on” privileged access. With just-in-time privileged access management (JIT PAM), users request temporary access for specific tasks and durations. The system grants access only for the approved timeframe and with the minimum required permissions. Once the task is complete, access is automatically revoked.

7. Take control of password management. Don’t rely on employees to create and manage their passwords. Implement a PAM solution that enforces strong password policies, automates password rotation, and securely stores all passwords in an encrypted vault. This eliminates the risk of weak or reused passwords and prevents unauthorized access through compromised credentials.

8. Secure privileged user authentication. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds additional layers of security beyond just a username and password. An example is two-factor authentication (2FA), which requires a second verification factor such as a code from a Google Authenticator app. Additionally, consider using privileged access workstations (PAWs) – secure, isolated machines dedicated solely to privileged user activities. This adds another layer of protection for privileged credentials.

9. Practice segmentation and separation of duties. Network segmentation involves creating isolated zones within a computer network. Critical systems with privileged accounts are placed in a separate segment with restricted access, reducing the attack surface if another part of the network is breached. In addition to this, you can leverage the separation of duties that involves dividing privileged account tasks among different individuals. This minimizes the risk of a single compromised account granting complete control to a malicious actor.

10. Conduct cybersecurity training. Educate your employees about PAM principles and best practices. Train them to maintain the security of critical privileged accounts, acquire strong password habits, recognize phishing attempts, and report suspicious activity. Regular training helps raise awareness and fosters a culture of security within the organization.

By following these PAM best practices, your organization can effectively mitigate the risks associated with privileged access and protect its most valuable assets from unauthorized use or compromise.

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