What Is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

Privileged access management (PAM) is a crucial aspect of cybersecurity that focuses on securing and managing an organisation’s privileged accounts. Privileged accounts have elevated access rights and permissions to the organisation’s critical IT systems and applications. They allow users to perform administrative tasks to those systems.

PAM is a security solution that focuses on the authorisation, monitoring and management of privileged accounts that have elevated permissions to critical systems, data and resources. By using PAM, organisations can help to ensure that only authorised individuals can access privileged accounts and reliably enforce relevant controls and policies.

Deploying and managing privileged access within an organisation requires meticulous planning, adherence to best practices and constant vigilance. While the concept may seem simple, the dynamics of privileged access management calls for a more in-depth understanding of how it works, why it’s important and how organisations can effectively use PAM security.

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How Does PAM Work?

PAM systems provide a platform for a cybersecurity strategy to control, monitor, secure and audit all human and non-human (service accounts) privileged identities and activities across an enterprise IT environment. It enables a combination of people, processes and technology to help organisations protect against the threats posed by credential theft and privileged account misuse.

PAM identifies which accounts have privileged access and then applies stricter policies to these accounts. PAM solutions provide granular visibility, control and auditing over privileged identities and sessions. For instance, PAM software gathers the credentials of privileged accounts into a secure repository to isolate, control, manage and log their usage. This enables organisations to control and monitor privileged user activity much more tightly.

Privileged accounts rely on confidential information (passwords, keys and certificates) to control access to managed systems. By creating, storing and managing this information in a secure vault, PAM solutions help organisations reduce the risk of significant cyber-attacks.

It’s worth noting that PAM is just one component of a broader identity access management (IAM) solution, which itself is just part of a larger security programme. IAM solutions cover cybersecurity matters like password management, multifactor authentication (MFA), directory services, user lifecycle management and single sign-on (SSO) for all accounts, not just those with privileged access.

What Are Privileged Accounts?

At the core of PAM lies the concept of “privileged accounts”, which are essential to controlling and maintaining security in today’s information systems. Privileged accounts are granted greater control and permission levels than standard user accounts. They have the authority to access, modify or manage critical resources, such as user accounts, databases, network devices, servers, applications and more.

Because these accounts possess elevated access privileges, they’re highly valuable targets for cyber attackers and malicious insiders. Compromising them can lead to further unauthorised access, data breaches and other substantial security risks. The two most fundamental forms of privileged accounts are user and machine accounts.

  • User accounts. User accounts refer to accounts assigned to individuals with specific organisational roles. These roles often include different types of administrators, IT and otherwise, and other employees who require administrative access.
  • Machine accounts. Machine accounts are associated with systems or services used for automated processes or communication between integrated systems. These accounts typically do not have human users. Instead, applications, services or network devices deploy them to interact with other systems and carry out assigned tasks, pushing and pulling data, accessing shared folders, authenticating with other systems, or running scheduled tasks.

Privileged accounts form the backbone of an organisation’s IT administration and security infrastructure. But because they come with inherent risks and are prime targets for cyber threats, PAM systems are employed to enforce strict controls, monitor activities, and authenticate users and machines that require access to privileged accounts.

Types of Privileged Accounts

Privileged accounts, often called administrative accounts, come in many forms and offer varying levels of administrative power. Some of the most common types of privileged accounts include:

  • Domain admin. These accounts possess administrative privileges over an entire domain or network, granting extensive control over multiple systems and resources within the organisation.
  • Local administrator. These accounts have administrative privileges on a specific device, endpoint or system. They enable users to manage and configure the specific local machine without requiring domain-wide access.
  • Non-human automation. These accounts are associated with machines, applications or services that require privileged access to execute automated processes. They are typically used to perform specific tasks without direct human intervention.
  • Service. Applications or services use these privileged accounts to interact with the operating system or other applications. Depending on the application’s requirements, they may have domain administrative privileges for seamless integration with various systems.
  • Root. These accounts have the highest level of privileges in Unix and Linux systems and provide complete control over the system. They are critical for system administration and configuration tasks, but they require careful management due to their extensive authority.
  • Network equipment. These accounts are used to access and manage network equipment, such as routers and switches. They enable network administrators to configure, monitor and troubleshoot network devices.
  • Firewall. These accounts are used to manage and configure firewalls, which are critical components for network security. Firewall accounts allow authorised personnel to control traffic flow in and out of the network and enforce specific security policies.
  • Database administrator (DBA). These privileged accounts are assigned to database administrators who are responsible for managing and maintaining databases. DBA accounts allow access to critical data and database configurations.
  • Cloud service provider (CSP). These accounts allow organisations to manage their cloud resources and configurations. They have extensive control over cloud-based infrastructure.
  • Application administrator. These accounts are focused on managing and configuring specific software applications. They facilitate application-level configurations, access controls, and often user account creation and role assignment.

The diversity and significance of privileged accounts underscore their crucial role in maintaining an organisation’s IT landscape. Organisations must prioritise PAM strategies encompassing robust security measures, monitoring mechanisms and authentication protocols to protect these valuable accounts from being exploited.

Best Practices of Privileged Access Management

PAM is integral to securing an organisation’s critical information and resources. However, employing best practices is vital in ensuring an effective PAM strategy and protecting privileged accounts against cyber threats. Here are some of the core best practices of any privileged access strategy.

  • Implement the principle of least privilege (PoLP). Follow the PoLP approach, granting users only the least privileges necessary to perform their specific tasks. Avoid providing excessive access to privileged accounts to reduce the potential attack surface.
  • Assess privileged accounts based on risk. Organisations should assess privileged accounts based on risk and eliminate orphaned accounts—those live accounts for which there is no current actual human user.
  • Write a formal privileged account password policy. Organisations should write a formal privileged account password policy that can then be enforced and eliminate the usage of default usernames and passwords that are not mapped to particular users.
  • Implement just-in-time access. JIT privileged access is a preferred method wherein a user is granted access to accounts for a short, defined period and then the access is revoked.
  • Configure and review user access rights. Organisations should configure and review user access rights and strictly enforce access control policies.
  • Establish effective account life cycle processes. This practice ensures all privileged access accounts, their changes and what they can access are known and properly managed and tracked.
  • Periodically audit the configured privileges. Periodically conduct audits and security assessments of privileged accounts and the associated PAM controls. Audits help identify vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with industry and organisational standards and regulations.

It’s important to note that no single one-size-fits-all technical solution will fully mitigate privileged access risk. Organisations must combine multiple technologies and strategic PAM-related practices into a holistic solution that protects against numerous attacker techniques.

Importance of Privileged Access Management

PAM is a critical cybersecurity pillar for many organisations for several reasons. Here are a few:

  • Controlling access to privileged accounts. PAM helps organisations control access to privileged accounts, which have access to sensitive data and systems. This minimises the number and severity of unauthorised access and data breaches.
  • Preventing privileged account attacks. Privileged accounts are a prime target for cybercriminals. PAM solutions help prevent cyber attacks by enforcing strong authentication and authorisation policies, by monitoring privileged account activity, and by detecting and responding to suspicious behaviour.
  • Improving compliance. Many industries must have least privileged access policies to adhere to regulations. PAM solutions help organisations achieve compliance by enforcing least access control policies, tracking privileged account activity and generating audit reports.
  • Increasing productivity. PAM solutions can automate tasks such as password creation and password vaulting, which saves time and increases productivity.
  • Integrating tools and processes. PAM solutions help organisations integrate their processes and tools across their environments, which reduces cybersecurity silos and improves their overall security posture.
  • Establishing effective life cycle processes. PAM solutions establish effective life cycle processes to ensure all privileged access account changes are known and properly tracked.

Overall, PAM systems help to protect an organisation’s critical data and resources from unauthorised access and data breaches.

What’s the Difference Between PIM vs. PAM?

Privileged access management (PAM) and privileged identity management (PIM) are both essential components of an organisation’s security strategy. However, their focus and functionality differ.

PAM is a toolkit that enables organisations to safeguard, limit and track access to sensitive data and resources. PAM solutions manage credentials, authenticate user identities and provide just-in-time access to identities that typically can’t access specific resources. PAM solutions also provide session monitoring and access logs to give organisations insight into usage patterns while meeting compliance standards.

PIM addresses what access a user is already granted and focuses on managing and securing privileged identities. PIM solutions manage and secure privileged accounts, enforce multifactor authentication, control authentication into privileged accounts, and schedule and trigger password changes. PIM solutions also capture event and session logs and record access to privileged accounts.

In summary, PAM focuses on managing and controlling access to sensitive data and resources. And PIM focuses on managing and securing privileged identities. PAM and PIM are essential components of an organisation’s security strategy. When you combine both solutions, you can get more comprehensive protection against privileged access risks.

How to Implement PAM Solutions?

Here’s an overview of the steps involved with implementing a privileged access management solution:

  1. Understand the PAM landscape. Before implementing a PAM solution, first understand the organisation’s privileged accounts and systems and the access requirements for each account.
  2. Define access control policies. Outline access control policies to employ the principle of least privilege and limit access to sensitive data and resources.
  3. Configure user access rights. Configure user access rights and enforce access control policies to ensure users are restricted to the minimum required access to perform their job functions.
  4. Implement just-in-time access. Some situations call for an escalation in privileges for a user just to complete a specific task or project. In this case, grant the user access for a restricted period and then remove it to ensure the user no longer has access.
  5. Establish effective life cycle processes. Establish effective life cycle processes to ensure that all privileged access account changes are known. Make sure to track every privileged account and what it can access.
  6. Audit the PAM system. Regularly audit the PAM system to ensure that the system is functioning correctly and enforcing access control policies.
  7. Communicate and control quality. Communication is key to the success of a PAM solution. Organisations should communicate with stakeholders about the importance and benefits of PAM.
  8. Evaluate compliance. Organisations should audit compliance with the company’s security policies and ensure the PAM solution meets regulatory requirements.

Keep in mind that implementing a PAM solution is not a one-time event. Rather, it’s a continuous process that requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Proofpoint has partnered with CyberArk, the No. 1 leader in privileged access management. Proofpoint prevents attacks from gaining access to your users and helps identify who may be at the highest risk. CyberArk then takes this insight and applies adaptive controls and policies to high-risk privileged users. This ensures that they are only accessing what they need and nothing more.

Here’s how our solutions work together to help you respond to threats faster and more efficiently:

  • Integration. Proofpoint integrates with CyberArk Privileged Access Security to enhance security for users with privileged access. This integration enables you to respond to today’s most severe threats more quickly and efficiently.
  • Layered defences. This partnership combines our respective security capabilities to provide layered defences against threats targeting privileged users and high-risk assets. This multilayered approach prevents attacks and stops threats before they reach users.
  • People-centric protection. Our collaboration employs a people-centric approach to security. By emphasising the human element in privileged access management, this approach aims to protect users with privileged access and mitigate the risks associated with their accounts.
  • Threat containment and remediation. Proofpoint and CyberArk work together to help organisations quickly contain and remediate attacks that target privileged users and high-risk assets. This enables efficient response and mitigation of security incidents.
  • Extended partnership. Our ongoing collaboration demonstrates our commitment to continuously improving PAM security and addressing emerging threats.

To learn more, contact Proofpoint.

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