Privileged access management (PAM), sometimes referred to as privileged account management, is the process of assigning, monitoring, and securing administrative-level access to critical business systems and applications. It also encompasses monitoring the activities carried out by privileged users once logged into those systems.
Most organizations organize their systems in tiers, according to the severity of the consequences should the system be breached or misused; the higher the tier, the more damage a breach would cause. Privileged accounts, such as domain admin accounts, are granted higher levels of permissions than standard user accounts, which give them administrative levels of access to high-tier systems.
If a cybercriminal were to compromise a privileged account by stealing or cracking its credentials, they could easily access critical business systems and applications undetected. Depending on the level of privilege of the compromised account, the attacker could even make changes to the account or to business data. This makes privileged accounts attractive targets for cybercriminals.
Despite this, many businesses don’t have adequate protection around their privileged accounts—some don’t even have visibility into which accounts have elevated privileges. This is most common amongst organizations that use multiple cloud applications, which often deploy with default admin privileges assigned. This means IT and security admins need to be proactive in identifying privileged users and ensuring they have a reasonable level of access or removing them.
PAM solutions help IT and security admins to monitor and secure privileged access by enabling them to grant “just-in-time” access to high-tier systems. That means that users are only granted elevated permissions for as long as they need them to do their job. Once signed out of the high-tier system, the permissions are revoked. These permissions can also be time restricted; a user will have access for a set length of time before having to seek renewed permission. This protects critical business systems against unauthorized access and encourages better governance in line with data protection regulations.
In this article, we’ll explore the top ten PAM solutions. We’ll look at features such as password management, multi-factor authentication, real-time notifications, session activity monitoring, and reporting. We’ll also give you some background information on the provider and recommend which type of customer they are best suited to.
Privileged Access Management Solutions: Everything You Need To Know
What Is Privileged Access?
“Privileged access” refers to the elevated access permissions that IT and security admins can assign to user accounts, that give those accounts administrative levels of access to high-tier systems and applications.
What Are Standing Privileges?
“Standing privileges” are elevated access privileges that are always on. If a user has standing privileges, it means that they always have those privileges assigned to their account, even if they’re not currently using them. A user may not even be aware that they have those privileges. A common example of standing privilege is the “admin” account that often comes pre-made with a new laptop or desktop, or when you install a new cloud application.
The problem with standing privileges is that if an attacker were to compromise a privileged account by stealing or hacking the user’s login credentials, they would be able to use that account to access critical business resources multiple times.
The best way to eliminate standing privileges is by implementing a “just-in-time” approach to elevating access privileges, also known as the “principle of least privilege”. This states that IT and security admins should only grant elevated permissions when they’re needed, and for the amount of time they’re needed. Once the user logs out of the system, the elevated permissions and revoked. So, if an attacker compromises an account with just in time privileges, they’ll only be able to utilize those elevated permissions once— this greatly limits the amount of damage they can do.
How Does Privileged Access Management (PAM) Software Work?
PAM software enables IT and security admins to assign, monitor, and secure privileged access to high-tier business systems and applications. This involves securely elevating privileges in line with the principle of least privilege, eliminating standing privileges, and monitoring user activity within high-tier systems.
PAM tools usually work in one of two ways to achieve this:
- The PAM solution stores privileged login credentials in a secure vault that is only accessible after identity has been verified through multi-factor authentication. This ensures that only legitimate, authorized users can access privileged credentials. Some PAM solutions give users access to the credential vault, others inject the credentials directly into the user’s login session once they’ve authenticated, so that they never see the credentials. This prevents users from exposing credentials in a phishing attack. In both cases, the PAM solution logs who requested access, when, from where, and for how long.
- The PAM solution offers a system by which users can submit a request for elevated privileges on-demand. The solution then notifies IT or security admins of the request, and they can grant or deny the user access on a case-by-case basis or set up automatic, role-based provisioning.
The best PAM tools take access management a step further by enabling admins to monitor a user’s activities during their privileged session. This can help to identify malicious activity and can also be used for compliance and auditing. The level of monitoring varies between solutions; some offer activity logs, while others offer full video recordings and keystroke monitoring.
What Are The Benefits Of Privileged Access Management?
There are numerous benefits to implementing a PAM solution:
- Secure your data. By reducing the number of accounts that have elevated privileges, a PAM solution can help you minimize the likelihood of an attacker gaining access to a privileged account using stolen credentials. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of a data breach, or a malware attack that requires elevated privileges to run, such as an SQL injection.
- Identify compromised accounts. PAM solutions provide greater visibility into account use, thereby making it much easier to spot an attack.
- Reduce repeat attacks. By eliminating standing privileges and rotating login credentials in between privileged sessions, PAM solutions prevent attackers from using the same credentials to access your company’s systems twice, greatly limiting the damage they can do.
- Prove compliance. PAM solutions generate reports explaining which users have elevated access privileges and for which applications. These reports should detail when those privileges are used, and what activities the user performs during a privileged session. These reports can be used to prove compliance with strict data protection regulations such as HIPAA, PCI-DSS, and SOX—all of which require that businesses apply least-privilege access policies to critical accounts containing sensitive data.
What Features Should You Look For In A PAM Solution?
The features offered by PAM solutions will vary between different products, but there are some features that any good PAM solutions should offer. These include:
- Support for “just-in-time” or “zero standing privilege” (ZSP) access that only grants users the minimum level of privilege they need to carry out their task, and only for as long as they actively need it
- A credential vault that encrypts and securely stores privileged credentials
- Credential rotation after each privileged session, to prevent users (and attackers) from being able to sign into a critical system multiple times, using the same credentials
- In-built multi-factor authentication (MFA) or integrations with MFA providers to verify users’ identities before they’re granted access to high-tier systems, and to verify admins’ identities before signing into the PAM solution and granting other users’ elevated privileges
- Session tracking either via a breadcrumb-based audit trail or full session recording, to enable IT and security admins to detect anomalous or malicious activity in real-time and prove compliance with data protection standards such as HIPAA, PCI-DSS, and SOX
- Real-time alerts that notify admins of anomalous account activity, and on-demand access requests
- In-depth reporting into privileged access across the organization, including who has access to which systems, and when a user “checks out” a password from the credential vault or is assigned elevated privileges by an admin
PAM Vs. IAM: What’s The Difference?
Identity and access management (IAM) and privileged access management are similar, but not the same. IAM is a series of tools and processes (such as multi-factor authentication and single sign-on) that are used to verify and authorize users across an entire organization. These processes enable IT and security teams to decide who can access what, from which locations, when, and how. In IAM, the verification process usually takes place when a user first signs into their user account. A user’s credentials (including alternative authentication factors) are used to verify their identity.
PAM, on the other hand, is a subset of IAM that focuses solely on privileged users who need to access more sensitive data. In PAM, verification takes place when a user tries to access a specific resource. And while PAM solutions often include MFA as a means of verifying users before they can be granted elevated privileges, PAM ultimately bases its identity validation on attributes, rather than credentials.