Does access control terminology puzzle you? Many people often mistake PIM, PAM, and IAM – privileged identity management, privileged access management, and identity and access management. Oftentimes, they also believe that privileged access management (PAM) and privileged account management (also PAM) are interchangeable terms – which is not entirely true. To shed some light on this topic, in this article, I will take a look at PIM vs PAM vs IAM, explain how these terms differ, and how and why you should integrate them into your environment.

Defining PIM, PAM, and IAM

To begin with, below I will explain what PIM, PAM, and IAM mean and why they are crucial for your organization’s safety.

All these concepts are built upon the concept of granting specific rights to user groups. In essence, certain users can have particular privileges and can be given access to data and systems in accordance with the policy they have been assigned.

To configure a safe environment, in the first instance, you need to define the data, applications, and users that need privileged access and maintain permissions under strict control.

Concept image of PIM vs PAM vs IAM by Heimdal

Defining PIM vs PAM vs IAM

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper and try to understand each of these access management concepts.

PIM

According to Oxford Computer Training, Privileged Identity Management can be defined as follows:

“Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is a capability within identity management focused on the special requirements of managing highly privileged access. PIM is an information security and governance tool to help companies meet compliance regulations and to prevent system and data breaches through the improper use of privileged accounts.”

PIM also alludes to the monitoring and protection of superuser accounts.

A superuser is an account with privileges well above that of regular user accounts. This type of network identity is typically allocated to system or database administrators and is used for platform management functions.

As superuser accounts have elevated privileges, the internal restrictions of a network can be bypassed by those with access. Consequently, users might intentionally or inadvertently leak sensitive records, alter transactions, and delete data. Thus, these accounts do need to be carefully managed and monitored, with PIM procedures and systems being set up to protect an enterprise’s networks from exploitation.

Here are the main points you can follow to implement Privileged Identity Management in your organization:

  • Identify and keep track of all superuser accounts.
  • Define how superuser accounts will be managed and what their corresponding users can and can’t do.
  • Set up procedures and deploy tools for superuser account management.

In short, Privileged Identity Management is the most efficient approach for the organization-wide management of superuser accounts. C-level company members and senior management may also have admin rights and access to classified information. To prevent any compromise, certain privileges and access require close supervision and appropriate controls.

PIM guarantees a specific distribution of identity and rights for each user, ensuring that they can only access data under their privilege boundaries, and only perform certain actions.

PAM

What does PAM stand for – Privileged Account Management or Privileged Access Management? Well, this is the acronym used for both terms, but keep in mind these are not exactly synonyms.

Privileged Account Management is part of Identity and Access Management (short for IAM, which I will explain a bit later), focused on safeguarding an organization’s privileged accounts. My colleague Elena has extensively covered the topic of Privileged Account Management and privileged accounts, so I advise you to check out her article as well.

On the other hand, Privileged Access Management includes all security strategies and tools that enable organizations to manage elevated access and approvals for users, accounts, applications, and networks. In a nutshell, PAM lets companies limit their attack surface by granting a certain level of privileged access, thus helping them avoid and minimize the potential harm that may result from external or internal threats.

Here is a definition of PAM provided by TechTarget:

“Privileged access management (PAM) is the combination of tools and technology used to secure, control and monitor access to an organization’s critical information and resources. Subcategories of PAM include shared access password management, privileged session management, vendor privileged access management and application access management.”

PAM is deemed as a major security project that needs to be implemented by any organization.

Privileged Access Management requires multiple tactics, with the key purpose of upholding the Principle of Least Privilege, described as restricting access rights and permissions to the bare minimum required for normal, daily operations of users, programs, systems, endpoints, and computational processes.

The PAM field falls under IAM. Jointly, PAM and IAM enable organizations to gain absolute control and easily manage all user privileges.

To better understand how to implement PAM in your company, I recommend you check out the following articles:

One of the main concerns within the PAM area that affects organizations refers to the struggle to fulfill all requests coming from users who would like to have their permissions elevated to be able to complete certain tasks. To end this hassle, Heimdal™ has come up with a cutting-edge PAM solution – Heimdal™ Privileged Access Management – that helps organizations easily handle user rights, while enhancing their endpoint security. As it’s the only tool to auto-deny/de-escalate admin rights on infected machines (when used alongside the Heimdal™ Threat Prevention or Endpoint Detection suite), it substantially increases the cybersecurity in your organization.

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IAM

Identity and Access Management recognizes the need to enable adequate access to services and to satisfy stringent regulatory required standards. IAM is a vital endeavor in every organization, requiring technological competence and a high-level understanding and overview of the business.

Here’s how Gartner defines Identity and Access Management:

“Identity and access management (IAM) is the discipline that enables the right individuals to access the right resources at the right times for the right reasons.”

Basically, a more granular control, monitoring, and auditing of privileged accounts and actions are offered by PAM, while IAM checks identities to confirm that a certain user has the right access at the right time.

How to implement Identity and Access Management:

  • Appoint identity as one of your main protections.
  • Label access rights, find unnecessary privileges, accounts, and irrelevant user groups.
  • Conduct a risk evaluation of corporate applications and networks to start building your IAM project on a solid foundation.
  • Use multi-factor authentication and Single Sign-On (SSO).
  • Have a strong password policy.
  • Implement the Principle of Least Privilege and the Zero Trust Model.

Further recommended reading:

PIM vs PAM vs IAM explained

Next, let’s take a look at PIM vs PAM vs IAM.

PIM, PAM, and IAM are acronyms that are sometimes used interchangeably. These concepts reflect numerous security aspects that function in tandem to safeguard an organization’s data and systems.

Below you can see a comparison of these terms:

PIMPAMIAM
Concentrates on the rights assigned (typically set by IT departments or System Admins) to various identities.

Also assists in the control of unchecked IAM areas.
The layer that secures a certain access level and the data that can be accessed by a privilege.

Maintains privileged identities under protection and ensures the ones with admin rights do not engage in abuse of privileges.
Applies to all users in the organization who have an identity, which will be monitored and handled.

Keeps the overall network safe.

To Sum Up

As the network perimeter lines are now blurring due to the increasing popularity of remote work, network security alone may not suffice. One of the potential risks for all companies are unmanaged accounts, which means that all users must always be recognizable and permanently monitored for adequate rights. Lack of access controls will increase threats and can lead to the abuse of highly sensitive data. For instance, an ex-employee may still have access to your confidential data, an attacker may compromise an account and misuse it, or insider threats could exist in your company. This is where, PIM, PAM, and IAM come into play, protecting your organization against various types of identity management dangers.

Have you ever had issues with users misusing their administrative rights or with admin rights-abusing malware? Join the conversation in the comments section below!

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