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Privileged access management (PAM) refers to the process organizations go through to control, monitor, and secure access to sensitive data and critical infrastructure.

If you’ve ever had to request access to sensitive files or get an admin’s permission to install an app – this is an example of PAM in action. It targets people, processes, and technology, ensuring sensitive data and assets are kept as safe as possible.

In this article, we get into:

  • What is Privileged Access Management
  • Defining Privilege: The What, Who, and How of PAM
  • How to Get Privileged Access Management Right
  • Why Is Privileged Access Management Important
  • Privileged Access Management Benefits
  • Privileged Access Management Best Practices
  • Top Qualities of a Good PAM Solution

What Is Privileged Access Management?

The logic of privileged access management is simple: The less access you allow to sensitive assets, the safer they become. Done right, PAM should operate on the principle of least privilege – meaning access to accounts, applications, systems, devices, and more is only given to those users who absolutely need it.

An effective PAM strategy, therefore, seeks to reduce the overall attack surface in the organization, which has several clear benefits:

  • Limit both the likelihood and scope of a successful attack;
  • Inhibit the ability of hackers to move laterally through an IT environment and elevate their own privileges;
  • Reduce the chance of insider threats;
  • Help meet compliance requirements.

In this blog, we explain the fundamentals of effective privileged user access – and the end-to-end strategy you need to achieve these goals.

Definitions: PAM vs PIM vs. PSM

Before we dive into the details, it’s helpful to first understand some terms. There are a few overlapping concepts here that need clearing up:

  • Privileged access management (PAM) – The task of protecting, restricting, and monitoring access specifically to sensitive assets and data in the organization.
  • Identity and access management (IAM) – This is similar to PAM but refers to any identity controls or policies in the organization – not just those specific to sensitive information. PAM, therefore, is a subset of IAM.
  • Privileged identity management (PIM) – A subset of PAM, this refers specifically to identity-based controls, policies, and tactics.
  • Privileged session management (PSM) – A common feature of PAM tools, this helps to monitor and record the activity of privileged users, helping detect potentially suspicious or malicious activities.

The Challenge of Privileged Access Management

PAM might be simple in theory – but as soon as you start grappling with the details, a number of challenges quickly begin to emerge:

table containing the most common challenges related to privileged access management

  1. Security vs. ease of use: The age-old security dilemma: Every protection puts a barrier between employees and the work they need to get done. Effective security, therefore, needs to target controls to where they’re most needed, to reduce unnecessary barriers.
  2. Lack of visibility: IT admins often lack visibility over what privileges exist in an organization, who they’re assigned to, and how that correlates with the sensitive data and assets being protected. This can often be a result of ‘shadow privilege’; where employees are granted access through non-official channels, making it difficult to track permissions and activity.
  3. Privilege creep: Privileges tend to gradually expand over time in an organization. This is particularly the case where users other than IT admins have the authority to grant elevated permissions. The more access you allow, the larger your attack surface becomes. It’s vital, therefore, to constantly audit and monitor the landscape and regularly remove unnecessary elevated privileges.
  4. Poor PAM processes: Getting PAM right isn’t easy – it relies on a combination of the right training, technology, processes, and controls. Often, organizations rely on overly-manual, error-prone processes for identity management. Without the most up-to-date access management tools and processes, it’s all but impossible to efficiently analyze, monitor, and control access.
  5. IT complexity: Modern IT environments are incredibly complex. The explosion of cloud, AI, and automation technology over the last few years means there’s a lot for IT teams to monitor. Relevant assets could include any combination of cloud and on-premises hosting, systems, DevOps environments, robotic process automation (RPA) workflows, internet of things (IoT) devices, virtual environments, edge computing, and more.

The modern, distributed, and cloud-based nature of modern IT environments creates unique challenges for privileged access management. An effective PAM strategy, therefore, needs to understand the full scope of risks to protect against and the tactics and technology that can help you do it.

Defining Privilege: The What, Who, and How of PAM

Before we can start governing privileged access, we first have to define it. Crucially, that requires an understanding of the specific assets that need protecting and the people that might need access to them. In this section, we break down these basics of how to control privileged access into four sections:

  1. What actions and systems require privilege?
  2. Who in the organization needs privileged access?
  3. Which privileged accounts and identities exist in an organization?
  4. How the most common privilege-based threats occur?

Let’s dive in.

1. What Actions and Systems Require Privilege?

There are a number of actions that might be considered privileged, most of which are specific to technical teams and IT admins:

  • Configuring networks and systems;
  • Administrative changes to applications;
  • System updates/restarts;
  • Loading device drivers;
  • Configuring and provisioning cloud instances;
  • Accessing sensitive information like employee salaries or customer contact details.

This isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you a good idea of the activities that require elevated privileges.

2. Who In The Organization Needs Privileged Access?

It’s also important to understand where privileged access should and shouldn’t exist. Remember, ‘least privilege’ requires elevated permissions to only be given where absolutely necessary.

Those who do require privileged access should generally fall into one of these categories:

  • System Administrators: Require privileged access to install, update, and manage servers, network devices, and software – ensuring the smooth operation and security of IT systems.
  • Web Developers: Will need to access and modify web servers and application environments, so they can deploy code, manage databases, and troubleshoot web applications.
  • IT Managers: Privileged access is essential for overseeing IT infrastructure, including the ability to access systems for monitoring, strategic planning, and decision-making on IT policies and security measures.
  • Non-technical users: Generally limited to HR/finance workers or specific line of business managers. These people require access to sensitive financial or personal data about either customers or individuals in order to perform their job effectively.

3. Which Privileged Accounts and Identities Exist in an Organization

Not every privileged user needs access to the same information and assets. It’s important to be aware of the different privileged account types that can exist in an organization and who they are generally assigned to.

Broadly, the different types of accounts are split into two categories, privileged user accounts, and privileged services accounts.

Privileged user accounts are granted to distinct individuals. They include:

  1. Superuser account – Generally used by IT admins to add and remove users, edit privileges, install software, or modify files. This is the highest level of access a person can have within a single system and generally comes with unrestrained access to files, assets, and data. These superuser accounts are therefore a significant security concern.
  2. Local admin – Used by IT teams to install software, change local configurations, and manage local resources. They don’t have network-wide privileges, but can still exercise significant control over individual systems and assets.
  3. Domain admin accounts – These accounts have administrative privileges across the entire domain in a networked environment. They can add or remove users, manage network resources, and set policies across multiple systems within the domain. They are critical in enterprise environments and have extensive control over networked resources.
  4. Emergency accounts – Also known as ‘break glass’ accounts, these are reserved for emergencies. They are used to help respond to outages or security breaches, and generally only have a limited amount of privileges for the specific task at hand.
  5. Privileged business users – This includes any non-technical staff that need access to sensitive business information, usually HR or finance teams. This includes confidential business information, financial data, or personal data of employees/customers. These privileges are usually granted through specific applications or files, rather than the wider IT infrastructure.
  6. Privileged service accounts – Increasingly, privileged access is given to machine identities as well as individual ones – which creates another layer of complexity. A privileged service account is used by applications, services, or automated tools to interact with other parts of the IT system. They include:
  • Application account – These provide applications access to other apps, databases, or running scripts. An example could be users having the ability to access and edit their personal information via a web portal. In this case, the web app’s CMS will need access to information stored in an SQL database, such as order history, addresses, or bank details. These are a particular security risk since these accounts often have access to unencrypted password data.
  • Service account – This interacts with the operating system, via an application or service. They can be specific to a local network or an entire domain. Often, they’re used for routine maintenance tasks like cleaning up log files on an email server, applying security patches, or creating file backups.
  • Active directory or domain service account – This also helps interact with the operating system. These accounts are used to organize data and change passwords. They can interact with email services, database services, file and print services, and much more.
  • Secrets – This refers to digital authentication credentials such as passwords, API/SSH keys, and digital tokens. The exposure of such secrets can give hackers virtually unimpeded access to your IT environment.

4. How the most common privilege-based threats occur

It’s also important to understand the specific threats we’re looking to avoid here. As ever with cybersecurity, there are an almost infinite number of tactics, strategies, and approaches that hackers use to gain access to your system. This could include:

  • Malware Malicious software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system, often seeking to gain unauthorized access to privileged accounts and sensitive data.
  • Credential exploitation – The unauthorized use or manipulation of login credentials, often by attackers, to gain elevated access to systems and sensitive information within an organization.
  • Software vulnerabilities – Flaws or weaknesses in software applications that can be exploited by attackers to gain unauthorized access to systems or data, often bypassing normal access controls.
  • Social engineering – Manipulative tactics used by attackers to deceive employees into divulging confidential information or performing actions that compromise security, such as revealing login credentials.
  • PhishingA deceptive practice where attackers masquerade as trustworthy entities in communications (like emails) to trick individuals into disclosing sensitive information, such as passwords and access codes.

These are the most common types of external malicious tactics. In all these cases, an effective least privilege model can limit the success and scope of an attack.

Now we’ve gained an understanding of the fundamentals of privileged access management, we can start to construct an effective strategy to achieve it.

Step by Step: How to Get Privileged Access Management Right

Now we’ve outlined the basics, we can construct a complete process to effectively manage privileged access:

a step-by-step guide listing all the processes necessary for a company to implement an effective privileged access management (PAM) strategy

1.   Audit and identify all privileged users

The first step is to understand the full scope of permissions in your organization, as well as where privileged access exists, to whom it is granted, and how it is used.

As will be the case in much of this blog, the solution here is simply to have access to cloud-native privileged access management solutions, which can run discovery scans across all key assets. This includes all the privileged user and service accounts we mentioned above, as well as any relevant active directory services and/or secrets.

In this discovery phase, the PAM solution is effectively scanning the IT environment to identify all privileged accounts – including any that might be inactive. The end product should be an inventory of all relevant privileges that can make it easier to manage privileged accounts.

This is the fundamental stage of an effective PAM strategy. All the protections and policies we discuss below won’t be any use if there are shadow or undetected privileges in the organization that they don’t apply to. Once you’ve got this in place, we can start implementing effective controls.

2.   Enforce the principle of least privilege

The next stage is to enforce the principle of least privilege at every level of the IT environment – including both user and service accounts. This involves applying two key principles:

  • Separation of privileges – The idea that no single user, process, or program has privileges they don’t require.
  • Separation of duties – Avoid any single user having sole, complete control or access to critical IT assets. This requires splitting privileged access among different roles in an organization and having certain roles or assets that require approval from multiple people.

To implement these policies, you need to look through the privileges audit we generated in the last stage and remove any unnecessary elevated permissions. This includes:

  • Limiting all elevated permissions to only those privileged users and accounts who absolutely need it.
  • Removing administrator rights on end-user devices and setting all users to standard privileges as default.
  • Reducing the rights associated with each privileged account. HR managers shouldn’t be able to modify servers and IT admins shouldn’t be accessing confidential employee information. Each account should only have the specific access it requires.
  • Eliminating always-on privileges where possible, ensuring access is conditional and time-limited. (See ‘just in time’ privilege management below.)

All this effectively ensures that there are fewer privileged accounts for hackers to target and that lateral movement after a successful attack is much more difficult.

3.   Enforce efficient, modern password policies

Weak password management remains one of the key entry points for hackers trying to target privileged accounts. The reason for this is very simple: effective passwords are difficult to remember. But it’s important to get it right – even if there are incredibly few privileged accounts in an organization, you’re still at risk if they’re comparatively easy to hack.

Effective password management requires people to create, remember, and regularly change complex and distinct passwords for each of their accounts. To put it simply, humans are simply not very good at this.

By its nature, therefore, any password-based authentication requires back doors (eg, ‘forgot your password’?) to protect against user error – and these back doors themselves require protection. Thus, the cycle continues.

This is why, increasingly, the world of technology is moving away from password-first authentication. This is particularly the case among the biggest players in tech – the most notable example being Google’s recent announcement that they’re making passwordless login the default. Instead, passkeys, single sign-on, and multi-factor authentication are becoming increasingly common alternatives.

Despite this, the reality is that a modern IT environment will almost certainly rely on password-first authentication in many areas – and probably still will for some years to come. But there are a range of policies you can implement that will help mitigate the challenges that passwords throw up:

  • Enforce strict password strength standards, including length, numbers, special characters etc. All passwords should be unique.
  • Train end users on the basics of effective password management, including avoiding dates of birth, names, anything involving the word ‘password’ etc.
  • Regularly rotate all passwords – particularly those involving privileged accounts.
  • If possible, use a password manager to securely share encrypted passwords. Many popular tools do not require users to see or know the password in order to securely authenticate them.
  • Remove any hard-coded credentials or logins, ensuring access can be monitored, rotated, and audited.

With these protections in place, you can help eliminate the most obvious weak links in your authentication strategy. But there are also a variety of tools that you can use alongside or instead of passwords, to create an extra layer of protection:

  1. Multi-factor authentication (MFA): This requires several different authentication methods, generally mixing something the user has (a physical token), something they are (biometrics), and something they know (password). This can either include or entirely replace traditional passwords, depending on the authentication factors you choose. A common method is to have users log in via a password or digital token, and then authenticate again on their smartphone – via a push notification, fingerprint scan, or one-time passcode.
  2. Biometrics: Biometric authentication can also be used both alongside and instead of passwords. This can include fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans.
  3. Single Sign-On (SSO): This is a session and user authentication service that lets users access multiple applications via a single set of login credentials. A common example might be linking an end user’s SaaS login (e.g. Slack, Salesforce, Dropbox etc.) to their Windows or Google accounts. This helps reduce the number of passwords that users need and simplifies the login process across different platforms and services.
  4. Digital Tokens: Digital tokens are a type of security token that represents a set of rights in the digital realm. They can be used to supplement traditional passwords. In this case, they act as a form of two-factor authentication, where the token generates a one-time password or code to be used alongside the regular password. This enhances security against unauthorized access.

These authentication methods are increasingly becoming the industry standard for effective, secure authentication. It’s important to use the most up-to-date privileged access management solutions to implement these methods into your IT environment.

4. Optimize your IT environment and architecture

The next step is to ensure your IT environment is set up in the best possible way to reduce both the risk and damage of an effective escalation of privilege attack.

It’s common for hackers to target non-privileged, low-security accounts, then take advantage of poorly-architected systems to elevate their own privileges and move laterally through the IT environment towards critical assets and data.

Your goal in this stage should be to make lateral movement as difficult as possible. If done right, this will ensure a successful attack is incredibly limited in scope. This involves a few key steps:

Segment systems and networks

This involves physically and virtually dividing the network into smaller parts, so each can act as its own self-contained unit. This might mean having self-contained IT networks (such as servers, databases, WiFi networks) for different offices or regions. It could also involve segmenting assets within a single network, such as separating guest from corporate Wi-Fi and splitting up development and production environments.

Today’s cloud-based businesses will also increasingly rely on virtualized, software-defined networking to achieve this kind of segmentation. Done right, this can split up virtual environments in the same way as an on-premises business might separate out physical wires and servers.

Separate and secure infrastructure

You should also apply a robust least privilege policy to your infrastructure. This can involve traditional physical security, particularly regarding on-premises infrastructure.

It also involves tightly controlling the people, accounts, and services that have access to that infrastructure. You might choose to implement privileged access workstations (PAW) here. These are single, dedicated machines that have exclusive access for specific tasks. These machines can have strict segmentation and security controls, making it difficult for hackers to access them. 

Implement dynamic, context-based access

Another solution is to implement ‘just in time’ privilege – another feature offered by the most up-to-date privileged access management solutions. This essentially removes any standing or permanent privileges and ensures users can only be granted access for a time-limited period on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, you can take advantage of realtime vulnerability and threat data to identify suspicious behaviors (ie. new location, device, irregular login activity). The right technology can then dynamically assign and prevent access to privileged accounts, based on the perceived realtime risk factor.

5. Adopt continuous auditing and monitoring for privileged actions

By now, we’ve identified most of the levers that an IT team can pull to achieve effective privileged access management. Now, it’s a case of continually monitoring, auditing, and restricting privileged access so you’re always operating under the principle of least privilege.

This is important because privileges and access will naturally expand as new people, processes, and technology are added to the IT environment. Continual monitoring can be achieved through several key tactics:

  • Implement privileged session management and privileged user behavior analytics. These can run realtime detection, investigation, and auditing of privileged sessions and revoke access when suspicious activity is detected.
  • Regularly audit and revoke unnecessary permissions. You can do this by following sections one and two in this blog.
  • Keep an inventory of privileged accounts, types, and the identities associated with them.

The goal here is to ensure least privilege is consistently and constantly applied and reduce ‘privilege creep’ wherever possible.

6. Get the right technology

Without the most up-to-date privileged access management tools, effective PAM is next to impossible. The sheer scope of assets, accounts, and systems in a modern IT environment means automation is really the only show in town when it comes to an effective PAM response. Here are some of the features you need to look out for in a modern PAM solution:

  • Automated discovery of all privileged accounts, including user and service accounts
  • Password management policies to enforce strength and regular rotation of privileged credentials
  • Multi-factor authentication and other password-less alternatives
  • Automated workflows to escalate and de-escalate user rights
  • Dynamic, context-based workflows to enable just-in-time access
  • Logging and recording all privileged user sessions

Of course, there’s no one set of complete features that will work for every organization. The right tools will depend on your IT environment and the specific needs of your security team. But these policies are increasingly being considered the baseline of effective PAM.

Why Is Privileged Access Management Important?

PAM protects an organization’s vital infrastructure. Threat actors often target these privileged accounts to compromise an entire network. System Admins need to safeguard these accounts, to prevent unauthorized users from creating other users with elevated rights or accessing sensitive data.

Privileged Access Management Benefits

Here are a few reasons to adopt privileged access management:

1. Enhanced Cybersecurity: PAM minimizes the risk of privilege abuse, reducing potential cyberattacks. It ensures that privileges are not exploited, whether by internal users or external threats.

2. Comprehensive Monitoring: PAM provides a holistic view of privileges across on-premises, cloud, and hybrid environments. It tracks and controls system and application access, and records user sessions for analysis.

3. Local Rights Protection: PAM removes local admin rights on workstations, safeguarding the network from threats that target endpoints.

4. Regulatory Compliance: PAM tools offer auditing capabilities, ensuring compliance with regulations by recording activities and providing a clear audit trail.

5. Boosted Productivity: PAM streamlines access, reducing the need for multiple passwords and centralizing privilege management.

Privileged Access Management Best Practices

To efficiently implement a privileged access management strategy, you should follow a set of basic PAM best practices.

Enforce Least Privilege

Central to PAM, the enforce the least privilege principle ensures users and applications only get the necessary access for their tasks, minimizing the cyberattack surface.

Access should be defined based on roles for efficiency.

Manage Privileged Credentials Effectively

IT admins must avoid sharing privileged credentials, and end-users shouldn’t see them.

Regularly rotate and renew SSH keys and passwords.

Always change default credentials upon setting up new accounts or systems, as they’re prime targets for hackers.

Monitor and Log Privileged Accounts

Begin with a risk assessment to understand the number and nature of privileged accounts in your organization.

Monitor, log, and record their activities to detect anomalies.

Establish a baseline of typical behavior to identify deviations and set alerts.

Regularly review and revoke elevated permissions from accounts that no longer need them.

Prioritize Session Recording

This helps identify which credentials an attacker used, whether data was exfiltrated, malware introduced, or databases compromised.

Ensure Rapid Data Recovery and Mitigation

In the event of suspicious activity, immediately terminate the privileged session to prevent further infiltration.

Post-cyberattack recovery speed is crucial. A robust PAM solution aids in swift recovery, minimizing business disruption.

Invest in Employee Training

With evolving threats like sophisticated phishing and social engineering attacks, it’s vital to keep your team informed and vigilant.

Embrace Automation

Tools like our Privileged Access Management streamline processes, from user rights management to software installation and compliance. Automation not only enhances efficiency but also fortifies security.

Top Qualities of a Good PAM Solution

The fundamental aspects of a good PAM program should be having a strong password management policy in place, logging and recording all privileged user sessions, following the Zero Trust model, and applying the Principle of Least Privilege – in other words, not keeping unnecessary privileged accounts in your environment.

It should also ensure automatic user creation and deletion, real-time visibility, and automated alerts when monitoring and reporting.

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System admins waste 30% of their time manually managing user rights or installations

Heimdal® Privileged Access Management

Is the automatic PAM solution that makes everything easier.
  • Automate the elevation of admin rights on request;
  • Approve or reject escalations with one click;
  • Provide a full audit trail into user behavior;
  • Automatically de-escalate on infection;
Try it for FREE today 30-day Free Trial. Offer valid only for companies.

How Can Heimdal® Elevate Your Security?

Our Privileged Access Management (PAM) solution offers:

  • Threat-Responsive Rights Management: In tandem with our Next-Gen Antivirus, it’s the sole software that auto-deescalates user rights upon threat detection.
  • Efficient Approval/Denial Flow: Streamline access decisions with ease.
  • Adaptable User Rights: Whether you’re looking to escalate or deescalate, our PAM adapts to your needs.
  • Zero – Trust Execution Protection display in the Privileges & App Control Privileged Access Management view: includes many details like the processes (non-signed executable files) that the zero-trust execution protection engine intercepted, with data on Hostname, Username, Process Name, MD5 Hash, Timestamp, and Status.
  • Comprehensive Settings: From AD group rights, escalation period tweaks, to session tracking and system file elevation blocking, our PAM is feature-rich.
  • Audit-Ready Graphics: Detailed visuals, including hostname and average escalation duration, ensure you’re NIST AC-5 and NIST AC-1,6 compliant.
  • Enhanced with Application Control: Augment security with our module that allows application execution decisions and live session customizations.
Heimdal Official Logo
System admins waste 30% of their time manually managing user rights or installations

Heimdal® Privileged Access Management

Is the automatic PAM solution that makes everything easier.
  • Automate the elevation of admin rights on request;
  • Approve or reject escalations with one click;
  • Provide a full audit trail into user behavior;
  • Automatically de-escalate on infection;
Try it for FREE today 30-day Free Trial. Offer valid only for companies.

The Essence of Privilege Management

Managing user privileges is the cornerstone of cybersecurity. Equip yourself with the right PAM tool and stay ahead of potential threats.

PAM is instrumental in protecting an organization’s vital assets and confidential data. It’s pivotal in thwarting both internal and external threats stemming from misused administrative rights.

By embracing the principle of least privilege, PAM diminishes privilege abuse risks, bolsters compliance, optimizes access management, and strengthens security through enhanced session oversight.

FAQs: Privileged access management

What is privileged access management (PAM)?

Privileged access management (PAM) is a security practice focused on controlling and monitoring access to an organization’s critical information and resources by privileged users, such as administrators or executives.

How does privileged access management work?

Privileged access management (PAM) works by granting secure remote access to privileged users for necessary tasks, monitoring their activities, and revoking access upon task completion to minimize security risks.

What are the key features of a good privileged access management solution?

Essential features include multi-factor authentication, session monitoring, least privilege enforcement, audit trails, and automated access controls for enhanced security and compliance.

What are the common challenges in implementing privileged management?

Privileged access can be difficult to manage for several key reasons; balancing security with ease of use, overcoming lack of visibility, managing privilege creep, refining poor PAM processes, and navigating IT complexity with evolving cloud technologies. Regular audits and efficient identity management are crucial for effective PAM implementation.

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Author Profile

Cristian Neagu


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Cristian is a Content Editor & Creator at Heimdal®, where he developed a deep understanding of the digital threat landscape. His style resonates with both technical and non-technical readers, proof being in his skill of communicating cybersecurity norms effectively, in an easy-to-understand manner.

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