The Basics of Privileged Access: What It Is and How to Manage It
Privileged Access Is an Essential Cybersecurity Concept. Here’s How It Plays into Your Enterprise.
The concept of privileged access is indispensable in the hierarchy of the modern workplace, as it dictates the visibility of data within a company. Nevertheless, it comes with its challenges and perils, which is why being informed on the topic is essential for the cyber-health of your business.
But what is privileged access? How many types of privileged access are there and what risks do they pose? And, most importantly, how can you properly manage privileged access within your corporate environment? Keep reading to find out!
What is Privileged Access?
The term privileged access refers to accounts that are granted more access privileges than regular users. But what does that mean? Simply put, accounts with privileged access usually fulfill one or several of the following four functions:
- update software or the operating system,
- install or remove software,
- modify network or application configurations,
- or access restricted files.
As a rule of thumb, elevated accounts (and all other accounts within a corporate network for that matter) follow the principle of least privilege (PoLP). For this reason, privileged access is generally granted to system administrators and IT technicians only, as its scope pertains to the range of their daily responsibilities within a company.
Types of Privileged Access
As I’ve established above, privileged access rights can serve different purposes. Therefore, a sysadmin-type account can perform multiple of the aforementioned roles, or just one. Bearing this in mind, exactly how many types of privileged access are there? The short answer would be as many as there are types of privileged accounts, and of that, there are six:
- elevated user access,
- local administrative access,
- domain administrative access,
- application access,
- service access,
- and emergency access.
Let’s have a more detailed look at each one to better understand what privileged access is.
#1 Elevated User Access
An elevated user account is the most common type of privileged access as far as company networks are concerned. It consists of named credentials attributed to an employee with administrative duties. This allows one or multiple staff members to hold ownership over their desktop devices or entire systems at once if their position requires it. Due to their influence within an organization and the human factor behind them, continuous supervision is mandatory.
#2 Local Administrative Access
A local administrative account relies on non-personal credentials used by sysadmins to gain entrance to the localhost. This allows them to perform routine maintenance operations on workstations, network devices, databases, servers, or mainframes. Such an account frequently has the same username and password across the entire corporate network. This unfortunately makes it the most sensitive type of privileged access and a soft target for cybercriminals.
#3 Domain Administrative Access
A domain administrative account is the superior privileged access alternative to a local administrative account. It has entry to all workstations and servers within an enterprise domain and holds complete command over the domain controller. Thus, this type of account can modify the ownership of all other sysadmin accounts in the network. This also means that, if hackers were to breach it, the incident would become a worst-case scenario situation for any organization.
#4 Application Access
As its name implies, an application access account bestows applications with privileged access to databases, as well as allows them to run scripts and tasks in batches. What this means is that this type of account comes in direct contact with confidential data that is stored in databases and applications. Unfortunately, its credentials are generally stored in unencrypted text files. While this provides applications with greater fault tolerance, it also creates a serious gap in your company’s overall cybersecurity.
#5 Service Access
Applications and services within an organization typically use service accounts to interact with the operating system. From case to case, such an account might also hold domain administrative privileged access rights. This, coupled with the fact that it interacts with various OS components regularly, makes it a medium interest target for hackers. It might not be their first choice for a breach, but attacking it would have its perks.
#6 Emergency Access
Also known as a breakglass of firecall account, an emergency account lends privileged access rights to regular unelevated accounts. Employees can thus use this type of access in times of crisis. However, this process still requires managerial approval due to security concerns, which renders it ineffectual at best. Thus, it is an outdated way to manage privileged access that should be left in the past.
How to Manage Privileged Access
The 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report still recognized privileged access misuse as a cause for data breaches, albeit at a lower percentage than it was in 2019. However, the report acknowledges that this decrease might be caused by lower granularity data. The threat could rise to previous levels in 2021, the current year.
Therefore, you shouldn’t overlook privileged access management (PAM) in 2021. PAM ensures the safety of your business data through the continuous monitoring of privileged access accounts. This prevents both external and internal threats that are facilitated by the unlawful or incorrect use of admin rights. As I mentioned before, it is guided by the principles of PoLP.
Heimdal™ Privileged Access
Our offering of Heimdal™ Privileged Access Management is a state-of-the-art PAM solution that allows administrators to manage user permissions easily. It strengthens the security of your enterprise’s endpoints by providing innovative access governance under one unified interface. With it under your belt, you will reduce privileged access misuse and ensure that malicious third parties don’t put their hands on your private data.
Privileged access comes in many shapes and sizes. Regardless of what your enterprise’s needs and goals are, you should always couple varying admin rights with the adequate management tools. As always, Heimdal Security can help you with that, so don’t hesitate to reach out to us for all and any matters pertaining to the field of PAM, as well as any other cybersecurity concern you might have.