Privileged access management, also known as “PAM”, is a tool that gives businesses tighter control over access to privileged accounts, as well as visibility into the activities of their privileged users once logged in.
To better understand how a PAM tool works, you first need to know what a privileged account is. Most companies organize their IT systems and applications in tiers, according to the severity of the consequences should that system or application be breached; the higher the tier, the more severe the consequences. Privileged accounts provide administrative levels of access to these high-tier systems and applications, based on being granted higher levels of permissions than standard user accounts.
PAM solutions enable admins to monitor access to high-tier business systems, providing an additional layer of protection between bad actors and critical corporate data, as well as ensuring better governance. They do this by storing the login credentials of privileged accounts in a secure vault, to which users can only gain access after verifying their identity via multi-factor authentication (MFA). This prevents cybercriminals or unauthorized users from gaining access to privileged credentials. The authentication process also records the fact that the user has accessed the vault. Once the user is logged in, the PAM solution records their session, both for auditing purposes and to help pinpoint suspicious activity.
Implementing PAM provides organizations clear visibility into who is accessing privileged accounts. This helps improve their overall posture with regards to access permissions, while enabling them to monitor any suspicious or malicious activity across privileged accounts.
So now you know what PAM is and how it works… But why does your business need privileged access management?
Prevent Account Takeover Attacks
Privileged accounts provide administrative access to critical business systems and data. This makes them a lucrative target for hackers that want to access this data, either to hold hostage as part of a ransomware attack, or to sell on the dark web.
And unfortunately, not enough organizations are taking steps to secure these business-critical accounts: a quarter of all cybercrime victims across the US and UK have privileged managerial positions or own a business. Additionally, 34% of identity-related breaches in the last two years have involved compromised privileged accounts.
If a hacker gains access to a privileged account, they can change the login details of that account, effectively locking the “real” user out of it and taking the account over themselves. Account takeover is a particularly dangerous attack method as, from that account, the attacker can install malware or carry out social engineering attacks to tap into further privileged accounts. They could even infiltrate one of your organization’s partners in a so-called “island hopping” attack.
PAM solutions secure your critical business data against unauthorized access by requesting that users authenticate using MFA each time they want to access a privileged account. Multi-factor authentication, as the name suggests, requires users to verify their identities via two or more methods (or “factors”) before they’re granted access to a business system or application. If a user fails to authenticate, they’re denied access to the system. This means that cybercriminals can’t access privileged accounts with just a stolen password.
PAM solutions usually implement MFA at vault-level. They also record details of each login attempt, including the user’s name and location, and the time of login, for auditing purposes and to enable admins to check for any anomalous login activity retrospectively.
Reduce Malware Infection
If a cybercriminal manages to hack into a privileged account, they gain the access they need to install or execute certain types of malware, such as SQL injections, which require elevated privileges to run.
PAM solutions can help prevent malware from being installed via a privileged account by minimizing the number of users with access to high-tier accounts, thereby greatly decreasing the attack surface. Additionally, regularly rotating privileged credentials means that a bad actor would have far less time to carry out their attack if they did manage to get hold of login credentials. It also mitigates the risk of a repeat attack by stopping the bad actor from signing in more than once using the same password.
Because of this, it’s important that you look for a PAM solution that offers “just in time” or “zero standing privileges” access, which means that the solution rotates privileged credentials to provide access as needed.
Increase Visibility Of Privileged Users And Accounts
Almost half of all organizations have at least some users with more access privileges than are required for them to carry out their work. It’s common to see these types of account among organizations with lots of applications hosted in the cloud, because many cloud storage platforms and applications come with pre-configured administrative-level privileges.
These forgotten, unused privileges make it possible for attackers to access critical privileged systems via a standard user account. As such, it’s important for security teams to have a detailed insight into who has access to which privileged accounts, so that they can revoke or reduce privileges where they aren’t being used.
As well as reducing the threat surface in this way, PAM solutions also give security teams an overview of privileged login activity, helping to link account actions to a single individual. This is a particularly useful feature when it comes to compliance and auditing, as well as locating security vulnerabilities.
Some PAM solutions take this feature further by offering session monitoring and recording which, when enabled, allows admins to track exactly what a user does once logged into a privileged account, right down to their keystrokes. While this enables quick risk mitigation and can help IT teams to generate comprehensive audit trails, some users may not be comfortable with the use of such a tool. Because of this, it’s important to decide exactly what level of session monitoring and forensics you need before choosing a solution.
Reduce The Risk Of Standing Privilege
“Standing privilege”, as termed by Gartner, refers to accounts that have continuous privileged access across a set of systems or applications. Standing privileges enable attackers to carry out repeat attacks, signing into an account unauthorized and undetected multiple times using stolen credentials. The longer the hacker has access to an account, the more damage they can do to your organization.
To mitigate the risk associated with standing privileges, organizations should invest in a PAM solution that offers “just-in-time” or “zero standing privilege” (ZSP) technology. ZSP enforces the principle of least privilege, i.e., that users are only granted the minimum privilege they need to do their job, for the minimum amount of time they require to do it. Once the user has completed their work, their higher access privileges are revoked and the credentials to that account are rotated, preventing them—or an attacker—from logging back in.
PAM is absolutely critical for achieving compliance with regulatory standards that require high levels of management and supervision of sensitive data, such as that stored in privileged accounts. Some standards, including HIPAA, PCI, FISMA and SOX, among others, require that companies apply least privileges access policies (such as ZSP) to high-tier accounts; something which a strong PAM solution will achieve.
As well as ensuring least privilege access, PAM solutions enable businesses to monitor and record all user activity relating to confidential or sensitive data, sometimes including video recordings of account sessions. This makes it much easier for IT and security teams to keep on top of auditing and compliance requirements.
Implementing a privileged access management solution will help to keep your organization’s most critical data secure, whilst enabling you to generate detailed reports into privileged account activity for quicker threat remediation and a simpler auditing process.
All in all, they’ll let you take control of the data stored in your company’s most valuable accounts.
There are numerous powerful privileged access management solutions on the market, each with a slightly different feature set to meet different business needs. To help you find the right one for your organization, we’ve put together a guide to the top PAM solutions for business, outlining the key benefits and features for each solution, as well as our recommended target audience. You can read this guide via the link below: