What Is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

Privileged Access Management (PAM) is a crucial aspect of cybersecurity that focuses on securing and managing an organization’s privileged accounts. Privileged accounts have elevated access rights and permissions, allowing users to perform critical tasks and access sensitive information.

PAM is a security solution focusing on the authorization, monitoring, and management of privileged accounts with elevated permissions to critical systems, data, and resources. By utilizing PAM, organizations can ensure that only authorized individuals can access privileged accounts and effectively enforce controls and policies.

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

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How Does PAM Work?

PAM is a cybersecurity strategy to control, monitor, secure, and audit all human and non-human privileged identities and activities across an enterprise IT environment. It’s a combination of people, processes, and technology that helps organizations protect against the threats posed by credential theft and privilege misuse.

PAM identifies which accounts have privileged access and then applies 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 their use and log their activity. This enables organizations to control and monitor privileged user activity.

Privileged accounts rely on confidential information (passwords, keys, and certificates) to control access. By creating, storing, and managing this information in a secure vault, PAM solutions help organizations reduce the risk of cyber-attacks. However, it’s worth noting that PAM is just one component of a broader Identity and Access Management (IAM) solution. IAM solutions cover cybersecurity matters like password management, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), 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,” essential elements of 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 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, as compromising them can lead to unauthorized 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 organizational roles. These roles often include different types of administrators and employees who require administrative access to perform their duties effectively.
  • Machine Accounts: Machine accounts are associated with systems or services used for automated processes or communication between 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, like accessing shared folders, authenticating with other systems, or running scheduled tasks.

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

Types of Privileged Accounts

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

  • Domain Admin Accounts: These accounts possess administrative privileges over an entire domain or network, granting extensive control over multiple systems and resources within the organization.
  • Privileged User Accounts: Named credentials with administrative privileges on one or more specific systems. These accounts often have unique and complex passwords to enhance security and prevent unauthorized access.
  • Local Administrator Accounts: Accounts with administrative privileges on a specific device or system. These accounts enable users to manage and configure the local machine without requiring domain-wide access.
  • Non-human Automation Accounts: Accounts associated with machines, applications, or services that require privileged access to execute automated processes. These accounts are typically used to perform specific tasks without direct human intervention.
  • Service Accounts: Applications or services use these privileged accounts to interact with the operating system or other applications. Depending on the application’s requirements, these accounts may have domain administrative privileges for seamless integration with various systems.
  • Root Accounts: Accounts with the highest level of privileges in Unix and Linux systems, providing complete control over the system. Root accounts are critical for system administration and configuration tasks but require careful management due to their extensive authority.
  • Network Equipment Accounts: Accounts used to access and manage network equipment, such as routers and switches. These accounts enable network administrators to configure, monitor, and troubleshoot network devices.
  • Firewall Accounts: Accounts used to manage and configure firewalls, critical components for network security. Firewall accounts allow authorized personnel to control traffic flow and enforce security policies.
  • Database Administrator (DBA) Accounts: Privileged accounts assigned to database administrators responsible for managing and maintaining databases. DBA accounts allow access to critical data and database configurations.
  • Cloud Service Provider (CSP) Accounts: Accounts associated with cloud service providers allow organizations to manage their cloud resources and configurations. These accounts have extensive control over cloud-based infrastructure.
  • Application Administrator Accounts: Accounts with administrative privileges specific to managing and configuring software applications. These accounts facilitate application-level configurations and access controls.

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

Best Practices of Privileged Access Management

PAM is integral to securing an organization’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 and applications 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: Organizations should assess privileged accounts based on risk and eliminate orphaned accounts. Users should be held accountable for their credentials.
  • Write a formal privileged account password policy: Organizations should write a formal privileged account password policy and change default usernames and passwords.
  • Implement just-in-time access: JIT privileged access is a preferred method wherein a user is granted access for a short, defined period, and then the access is revoked.
  • Configure and review user access rights: Organizations should configure and review user access rights and enforce access control policies.
  • Establish effective life cycle processes: This practice ensures all privileged access accounts, their changes, and what they can access are known and properly tracked.
  • Periodically audit the configured privileges: Periodically conduct audits and security assessments of privileged accounts and PAM controls. External audits help identify vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with industry standards and regulations.

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

Importance of Privileged Access Management

PAM is a critical cybersecurity pillar for many organizations for several reasons, including:

  • Control access to privileged accounts: PAM helps organizations control access to privileged accounts, which are accounts with elevated privileges, to access sensitive data and systems. This minimizes the incidents of unauthorized access and data breaches.
  • Prevent privileged account attacks: Privileged accounts are a prime target for cybercriminals because they provide access to sensitive data and systems. PAM solutions help prevent these cyber-attacks by enforcing strong authentication and authorization policies, monitoring privileged account activity, and detecting and responding to suspicious behavior.
  • Improved compliance: Many industries, such as healthcare and finance, must maintain compliance with least privileged access to adhere to regulations. PAM solutions help organizations achieve compliance by enforcing access control policies, tracking privileged account activity, and generating audit reports.
  • Increased productivity: PAM solutions can automate tasks such as password creation and password vaulting, saving time and increasing productivity.
  • Integration across the environment: PAM solutions help organizations integrate their processes and tools across the group, reducing cybersecurity silos and improving overall security posture.
  • Establish effective life cycle processes: PAM solutions establish effective life cycle processes to ensure all privileged access account changes are known and properly tracked to report every privileged account and what it can access.

Overall, PAM protects an organization’s critical information and resources from unauthorized 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 organization’s security strategy, but their focus and functionality differ.

PAM is a toolkit that enables organizations 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 organizations 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 multi-factor 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, while PIM focuses on managing and securing privileged identities. PAM and PIM are essential components of an organization’s security strategy, and combining both provides comprehensive protection against privileged access risks.

How to Implement PAM Solutions?

Implementing a Privileged Access Management (PAM) solution involves several steps to do it right, including:

  1. Understand the PAM landscape: Before implementing a PAM solution, understand the organization’s privileged accounts 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 task or project. In this case, grant the user access for a restricted period and then remove it and 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 and properly 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 enforce access control policies.
  7. Communicate and control quality: Communication is key to the success of a PAM solution. Organizations should communicate with stakeholders about the importance and benefits of PAM. Additionally, organizations should control the quality of the PAM system and ensure that IT general controls are executed with precision.
  8. Evaluate compliance: Organizations should evaluate compliance with the company’s security policies and ensure the PAM solution meets regulatory requirements.

Note that implementing a PAM solution is not a one-time event but a continuous process that requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Proofpoint and CyberArk, the No. 1 leader in privileged access management, have formed a powerful partnership to optimize PAM security through a combination of layered defenses. Here’s how they collaborate:

  • 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 than ever.
  • Layered Defenses: The partnership between Proofpoint and CyberArk combines their respective security capabilities to provide layered defenses against threats targeting privileged users and high-risk assets. This multi-layered approach prevents attacks and stops threats before they reach users.
  • People-Centric Protection: The collaboration between Proofpoint and CyberArk employs a people-centric approach to security. By emphasizing the human element in privileged access management, they aim 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 organizations quickly contain and remediate attacks that target privileged users and high-risk assets. This collaborative effort enables efficient response and mitigation of security incidents.
  • Extended Partnership: Proofpoint and CyberArk have extended their partnership to further safeguard high-risk users. This ongoing collaboration demonstrates their commitment to continuously improving PAM security and addressing emerging threats.

By leveraging the strengths of both Proofpoint and CyberArk, organizations can benefit from a comprehensive and robust PAM solution that helps protect privileged accounts, prevent attacks, and ensure the security of critical assets. To learn more, contact Proofpoint.

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