Privileged access management

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Privileged access management (PAM) refers to the processes and tools used to manage and control privileged users’ access to sensitive information and critical systems. These users include IT administrators, executives, and contractors. PAM involves using specialized software that provides granular access control, monitoring, and auditing of privileged user activities to ensure only authorized personnel can access important resources.

How Does Privileged Access Management Work?

Privileged access management creates a secure environment where access to sensitive information is granted only to verified users with an appropriate level of privileges. It achieves this by employing a combination of authentication, authorization, and auditing processes. The PAM server is placed on the perimeter, enabling access to target systems. PAM functions as a proxy. Users can only access the PAM server; all further access is granted through it.

The main goal of privileged access management is to prevent attackers from gaining access to elevated privileges. It also averts incidents resulting from accidental or unskilled user actions. PAM helps identify the specific individuals who have been granted privileged access, the type of access they’ve obtained, and the duration of their usage.

PAM tools work by implementing a series of security controls, including:

  • Centralized Management of Privileged Accounts: This allows organizations to store and manage credentials, such as passwords and keys, in a secure vault, ensuring they remain confidential.
  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): RBAC enables organizations to define specific employee roles and assign access rights based on the user’s role.
  • Just-In-Time (JIT) Access: JIT access provides temporary access to restricted resources, ensuring access rights are granted only when needed and for the shortest possible duration.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA adds another security layer by requiring users to provide two or more forms of identity verification before granting access to resources.
  • Session Monitoring and Auditing: Recording and monitoring privileged sessions allows for real-time detection of suspicious activity and creates a detailed audit trail for analysis.

As infrastructures grow and become more complex, robust security measures like PAM become vital. PAM helps protect valuable assets from unauthorized access, mitigates insider threats, and lessens data breach risks. It also assists in meeting regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, and others. By deploying an effective privileged access management strategy, organizations can control access to critical systems, monitor user activity, and respond to threats proactively.

PAM is vital for organizations of all sizes, as privileged users exist in every organization and most enterprises store data that requires special protection. PAM goes beyond the company’s scale, securing privileged accounts of not only employees but also contractors, vendors, and partners. To best implement PAM, it’s essential to understand the common types of privileged accounts, the process to follow, and the software to use, as well as learn key benefits and tips.

7 Common Types of Privileged Accounts

Privileged accounts have elevated permissions, allowing them to perform actions and access resources that are restricted for regular users. Privileged accounts come in various forms, each granting a specific level of access to sensitive information and critical systems. The most common types of privileged accounts include domain administrative, domain service, local administrator, service, application, privileged user, and emergency accounts.

  • Domain Administrative Accounts: Centralized accounts with extensive privileges to manage domain-wide resources and configurations.
  • Domain Service Accounts: Specialized accounts that run services, applications, or tasks within a domain environment.
  • Local Administrator Accounts: Individual system accounts with elevated privileges for managing local resources and settings.
  • Service Accounts: Accounts for running and managing specific services, processes, or tasks.
  • Application Accounts: Accounts utilized by applications for authentication, access control, and executing processes.
  • Privileged User Accounts: Accounts with elevated privileges that allow users to perform actions beyond standard account permissions.
  • Emergency Accounts: Accounts activated during critical incidents for restoring systems and responding to security events.

Understanding and categorizing the different types of privileged accounts is essential for implementing a comprehensive PAM system.

How to Implement Privileged Access Management in 8 Steps

Implementing privileged access management requires a strategic approach and a thorough understanding of an organization’s IT infrastructure. Start by selecting a PAM tool and identifying privileged accounts. Next, implement access controls and enable multi-factor authentication. Then, proceed to deploy JIT access. You’ll also need to monitor user sessions regularly, update access policies, and train users.

1. Choose an Appropriate PAM Solution

Select a PAM solution that fits your organization’s needs, considering factors such as the number of privileged accounts, the desired level of automation, and the types of systems and applications that require protection. Consider the pros and cons of agent and agentless solutions, as well as additional modules that expand the solution’s functionality.

If you’re interested in implementing PAM but have a restricted budget, some alternative solutions are available. First, focus on the most critical systems. Start with basic PAM capabilities and small-scale implementation. You can also explore open-source options or use your existing tools — like IAM — that include PAM features. Consider outsourcing to an MSSP or negotiating with vendors for cost-effective options.

2. Identify Privileged Accounts

Create an inventory of all privileged accounts within your organization, including system administrators, database administrators, domain administrators, application administrators, and service accounts. Ensure that privileged accounts are clearly labeled and documented. This info will help you gain a comprehensive understanding of the privileged access within your organization and enable effective PAM deployment.

3. Establish Access Controls

Next, implement role-based access control (RBAC) to ensure users only have access to the resources that are necessary for their job responsibilities. Define specific roles and assign access rights based on those roles. This process should include clear guidelines and approval procedures. It’s advisable to implement the least privilege approach. And remember, users should never be granted elevated privileges once and for all times.

4. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication

To implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) for privileged accounts, start by enabling MFA for all users with elevated access. Choose which authentication factors to use and consider incorporating biometrics or hardware tokens for enhanced security. It’s also important to provide comprehensive training to users on how to use MFA effectively. Additionally, regularly review and update your MFA policies and procedures to ensure their ongoing effectiveness and security.

5. Deploy Just-In-Time Access

Incorporate the just-in-time (JIT) concept to provide temporary access to privileged resources on an as-needed basis. Create policies that define the conditions under which JIT access can be granted. Consider implementing automated workflows for JIT access requests and approvals. By granting access only when required and for the shortest possible duration, you reduce the number of attack vectors and minimize the potential for sensitive data misuse.

6. Monitor and Audit Privileged Sessions

Define requirements for monitoring tools and regularly review logs. Use a centralized log management system to collect, store, and analyze logs from various sources, making it easier to identify trends, patterns, and anomalies in privileged session activities. Use automated tools to ensure all privileged sessions are recorded, including command input and output. Consider implementing real-time alerts and notifications for suspicious activity or policy violations.

7. Regularly Review and Update Access Policies

Continuously evaluate and update your access policies to ensure they remain relevant and effective. Review user access rights and remove unnecessary privileges. Update policies to reflect changes in the organization’s security posture and regulatory requirements.

Assessing the effectiveness of PAM is crucial to ensure that it continues to meet your needs. Penetration testing can be performed periodically to identify any weak points. Additionally, feedback from users and stakeholders can provide valuable insights into their experience and identify any areas that need improvement.

8. Train and Educate Users

Lastly, educate your users on the importance of PAM and provide training on best practices for securely accessing sensitive resources, including adhering to general internet safety rules to enhance overall security. Provide ongoing support to address user questions and issues. A well-informed user base is essential for maintaining a strong security posture within your organization.

Now that we’ve explored essential steps for implementing privileged access management, it’s time to review the best PAM tools.

3 Best Privileged Access Management Software

Privileged access management software is a security solution that helps organizations manage, control, and monitor privileged access to critical systems, applications, and data. Leading PAM tools offer password management, session monitoring, least privilege enforcement, and comprehensive auditing and reporting capabilities. The best PAM software solutions are BeyondTrust Password Safe, CyberArk Privileged Access Manager, and Delinea Secret Server.

BeyondTrust Password Safe

The BeyondTrust solution portfolio covers the full spectrum of PAM. You can start with any solution and add others for additional controls and synergies. BeyondTrust Password Safe integrates password management and session control. The system can identify accounts with elevated privileges, record sessions, and manage sessions in real time. The system can also discover hardcoded passwords and eliminate them from application source codes and scripts.

A noteworthy feature of BeyondTrust Password Safe is its SSH key management subsystem. The developers have incorporated secure SSH session keys into the security loop alongside account passwords. This ensures that SSH keys are stored securely and updated automatically. SSH sessions are recorded and logged similarly to sessions using other protocols and can be monitored in real time. Licensing is based on assets, not user count, which further sets it apart.

Notable features of BeyondTrust Password Safe include:

  • Integration with BeyondInsight ecosystem: Offers advanced TI capabilities.
  • API for Seamless Integration: Connects systems and apps to the SSO system.
  • Role-Based Access Control: Includes Active Directory and LDAP integration.
  • Agentless Deployment Capability: Simplifies installation and management.
  • Support for the Just-in-Time Concept: Grants privileges based on context.
BeyondTrust Password Safe - Privileged access management

CyberArk Privileged Access Manager

CyberArk Privileged Access Manager provides centralized policy management tools, including options to configure password complexity and renewal frequency. The system ensures users cannot directly connect to target resources; all privileged user actions occur within a secure and isolated session. CyberArk Privileged Access Manager can automatically identify and incorporate unprotected or lost privileged accounts. 

The product detects anomalous behavior and indicators of compromise (IoC) while blocking unauthorized actions based on policies. It can work on endpoints that are not constantly connected to the corporate network. It also offers unified security policies and the ability to monitor privileged user actions. This PAM solution operates without VPN tunnel or agent installation. 

Licensing is based on user count. This solution is not cheap, but you get what you pay for.

These are the key features of CyberArk Privileged Access Manager:

  • Adaptive MFA and SSO systems: Enhances security and streamlines access.
  • Tamper-Resistant Storage: Safeguards privileged account data.
  • Web Portal: Secure user authentication without VPN.
  • Deployment Flexibility: Choose on-premises or public cloud.
  • SOC 2 Type 2 Certified SaaS Model: Ensures a high level of trust and security.
CyberArk - Privileged access management

Delinea Secret Server

Delinea now offers an extensive array of PAM tools, following its acquisition of Thycotic and Centrify (both known for their PAM systems). At the core of Delinea’s PAM ecosystem lies Secret Server, which initiates, proxies, monitors, and records privileged user sessions. The system features a secure repository for storing encrypted credentials and offers advanced password management capabilities.

Delinea Secret Server can automatically discover privileged accounts and applications with elevated permissions. The system employs an RBAC model that allows for the flexible administration of connection requests from external users, such as contractors, freelancers, and employees outside the security perimeter. The product can be deployed within your infrastructure (on-premises) or as a cloud service (SaaS). Pricing is comparable to competing products.

Here are Delinea Secret Server’s top features:

  • Flexible Scaling: Easily scales from small PAM clusters to large, distributed solutions.
  • Out-of-the-Box Integration: Works well with databases, apps, and network devices.
  • Extended PAM Concept: Treats all users as privileged.
  • Access Request Management: Both manual and automatic options are available.
  • Behavioral Analysis Module: Integrates with SIEM systems for enhanced security.
Delinea Secret Server - Privileged access management

Pricing for each of the three PAM vendors previously mentioned is determined based on various factors, including deployment scale, customization requirements, and desired support level. To obtain a detailed quote, we recommend reaching out to the vendor(s) you’re most interested in to discuss your specific requirements.

The careful evaluation of PAM solutions — considering factors such as ease of use, scalability, compatibility with your organization’s existing IT infrastructure, and pricing options — can empower you to select the software that best aligns with your organization’s specific needs. By investing time into choosing the right PAM software, you lay a solid foundation for a secure and resilient organization, prepared to face the ever-changing cybersecurity threat landscape.

Benefits of Privileged Access Management

There are several benefits to implementing privileged access management. Top benefits include lowered risk of unauthorized access, better visibility and control, centralized access management, more operational efficiency, improved incident response, consistent regulatory compliance, and simplified third-party access. We’ll dive deeper into each of these advantages below:

  • Reduced Risk of Unauthorized Access: By managing and restricting privileged access to sensitive systems and data, PAM reduces the risk of cyberattacks, insider threats, and data breaches.
  • Enhanced Visibility and Control: PAM solutions offer real-time monitoring and auditing of all privileged user activities, providing organizations with increased visibility into the entire IT environment. This enables security teams to promptly detect hidden threats and respond to suspicious activity, minimizing potential damage.
  • Streamlined Access Management: Centralized management of privileged accounts simplifies the process for granting, revoking, and updating access rights, saving time and reducing the potential for human error.
  • Increased Operational Efficiency: By automating various access management tasks, PAM solutions can improve operational efficiency, allowing IT and security teams to focus on other critical aspects of the organization’s security.
  • Better Incident Response: By providing security teams with real-time visibility, alerts, and comprehensive auditing capabilities, PAM solutions enable organizations to analyze security incidents, determine their root cause, and implement remediation measures more effectively.
  • Maintained Regulatory Compliance: PAM helps organizations maintain regulatory compliance by providing robust access controls, auditing capabilities, and secure management for privileged accounts.
  • Simplified Third-Party Access: PAM solutions enable organizations to grant temporary, secure access to external contractors and vendors, ensuring that third-party users have necessary permissions without posing significant security risks.

By first recognizing and understanding all major privileged access management advantages, organizations can make informed decisions when adopting PAM solutions.

Top 7 Tips for Privileged Access Management

To further enhance your privileged access management strategy and gain deeper insights, consider these expert tips: connect PAM with SIEM, make use of behavioral analytics, separate duties and privileges, and automatically manage passwords. Also be sure to plan for incidents, consider ways to boost resiliency, and consider PAM’s cost-effectiveness.

  • Integrate PAM with Security Information and Event Management (SIEM): Leverage the integration of your PAM solution with SIEM systems to centralize the monitoring, analysis, and reporting of security events, enabling a more comprehensive and proactive security approach.
  • Use Behavioral Analytics to Detect Anomalies: Implement behavioral analytics to analyze privileged user activities and detect unusual patterns that may indicate potential security incidents or policy violations.
  • Segregate Duties and Enforce Separation of Privileges: Ensure that no user or role has excessive privileges by segregating duties and enforcing separation of privileges. This helps minimize potential damage in case of a data breach.
  • Automate Password Management: Use PAM solutions to automate password management tasks, such as password rotation, secure password storage, and password policy enforcement. This helps reduce the risk of password-related security breaches and simplifies the management process.
  • Plan for Incident Response: Develop and maintain an incident response plan that includes procedures for detecting, containing, and remediating security incidents involving privileged access. Regularly test and update the plan to ensure its effectiveness.
  • Improve Resiliency: PAM infrastructure should be arranged in a manner that prevents circumvention, as bypassing it would negate its purpose. For success, it’s essential to maintain a high level of PAM availability. Deploying two PAM servers simultaneously may be necessary, ensuring 24/7 infrastructure support.
  • Calculate the Cost-Effectiveness of PAM: To gauge PAM’s cost-effectiveness, evaluate risks and possible harm from related security events in the industry, considering current cyberattack trends. Cost-effectiveness analysis should also consider labor savings that come from automating tasks such as password changes, access control, and other admin functions.

To ensure the highest level of security, it’s essential to go beyond the basic steps and implement additional expert tips that optimize your strategy. As your organization gains more experience with privileged access management, you will likely develop your best practices to optimize your PAM strategy.

Bottom Line: Privileged Access Management

Privileged access management is vital for safeguarding an organization’s sensitive data and systems. PAM has evolved from specialized admin tools to all-encompassing security solutions, combining password management, user activity monitoring, and behavior analysis. By first understanding the principles behind PAM, following proper implementation steps, and choosing the right solution, you can significantly boost your organization’s security.