What Is PAM?
Privileged access management (PAM) is a system that assigns higher permission levels to accounts with access to critical resources and admin-level controls. PAM is based on the principle of least privilege, which is crucial to modern cybersecurity best practices.
Least privilege means making sure that users, programs, or processes have the bare minimum level of permission they need to perform their job or function. Users are only given access to read, write, or execute the documents or resources they require for their role. Least privilege can be used to restrict access controls to applications, devices, processes, and systems. Control can also be role-based, such as applying specific privileges to business departments like human resources, IT, and marketing, or based on factors like location, seniority, or the time of day.
Privileged accounts are especially lucrative to cyber criminals. Such accounts have access or permission to resources and systems that contain highly confidential or sensitive information, They can make administrative changes to applications, IT infrastructure, and systems, and organizations use them to install hardware, make infrastructure updates, and reset passwords.
As a result, they present a serious security risk to organizations. Cyber criminals are especially interested in targeting privileged account credentials, which creates a pressing need for organizations to protect them.
There are many types of privileged accounts. Human privileged accounts include super users, domain administrators, local admins, emergency accounts, and privileged business users. It also includes non-human accounts, such as application and service accounts and secure socket shell (SSH) keys.
PAM encompasses privileged identity management (PIM), which lets organizations monitor and protect superuser accounts.
Privileged access is the process of designating higher access levels to certain files or systems. It enables organizations to secure applications and IT infrastructures, run their business more efficiently, and ensure their sensitive data and most critical infrastructure remain confidential. Privileged access can be applied to both human users and non-human users, such as applications and machines.
Privileged credentials, or privileged passwords, are the login details protecting privileged accounts and critical systems, which include applications, human users, and service accounts. A good example of privileged credentials is SSH keys, which are used to access servers and highly sensitive assets.
Privileged accounts are among the biggest targets for cyber criminals and consequently are one of the main sources of data breaches. Forrester Research insight suggests that 80% of breaches involve privileged credentials. Many major data breaches, such as the 2013 Target attack, were found to be a result of stolen credentials and could have been prevented if the organization had restricted access permissions.
Why PAM Is Needed
Privileged access management solutions are crucial to protecting the privileged accounts that exist across businesses’ on-premises and cloud environments. Privileged accounts often hold the key to confidential and sensitive information that can be hugely damaging for organizations if they fall into the wrong hands.
Privileged accounts are especially vulnerable because of the following risks and challenges:
Privileges Are Over-Distributed
It is easy for organizations to overprovision account privileges to resources that do not need them. Some users also end up accumulating new privileges or retaining privileges they no longer need when their job role changes. This privilege excess, in addition to the growth of cloud adoption and digital transformation, can lead to the organization’s attack surface expanding.
Having admin account privileges beyond what users require increases the risk of exposure to malware and hackers stealing their passwords. This allows unauthorized entities to access all privileges across an account, including all the data on an infected computer, or launch an attack against other computers or servers on the network.
Account and Password Sharing
Privileged credentials for services like Windows Administrator are often shared so that duties and workloads can be amended as required. But sharing passwords can make it impossible to associate malicious actions to a single user, which creates issues around auditing, compliance, and security.
Lack of Privilege Visibility
It is common for growing organizations to have old privileged accounts that are no longer used sprawled across their systems. For example, accounts belonging to former employees can be abandoned but still retain privileged access rights. These dormant accounts are vulnerable to hackers and can provide them with a backdoor into organizations’ networks and systems.
Organizations therefore need to retain full visibility of their account access levels and remove any with unnecessary privileges.
Inconsistent Credential Enforcement
Silos within organizations can result in inconsistent privileged accounts enforcement and credential management. Large organizations may have thousands or even millions of privileged accounts, which is impossible for IT teams to manage manually. Furthermore, with so many accounts to manage, shortcuts are likely to occur and credentials can be re-used across multiple accounts. These factors jeopardize the security of all the accounts in the system.
Complex Compliance Requirements
PAM security enables risk management around applications, network devices, and systems and helps organizations record all activities relating to critical infrastructure. This is ideal for creating a more audit-friendly IT environment.
How Does PAM Security Prevent Cyberattacks?
PAM tools are crucial to increasing security, protecting businesses from hackers, and preventing cyberattacks.
Like all people, privileged users, such as domain administrators, struggle to remember passwords across their various account logins. They are also a major target for cyber criminals, which means they especially need to use strong passwords and not recycle credentials over different accounts. PAM solutions monitor privileged accounts and store them in a digital vault to reduce the risk of cyberattacks.
A privileged access management solution reduces the need for users to remember multiple passwords and allows super users to manage privileged access from one location, instead of using multiple applications and systems. It also helps organizations prevent insider attacks by former employees with access rights that have not been effectively deprovisioned. Alerts and session management also allow super admins to identify threats in real time.
Another key advantage is that it ensures compliance with ever-stringent data and privacy regulations. PAM encourages organizations to restrict access to sensitive data and systems, require further approvals, and deploy additional security tools like multi-factor authentication (MFA) on privileged accounts. PAM auditing tools also provide businesses with a clear audit trail, which is crucial to meeting regulations like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
How Is PAM Different from Identity Access Management (IAM)?
PAM is a subset of IAM, which is a framework of processes, policies, and technologies that allow organizations to manage their digital identities. With IAM, organizations can authenticate and authorize all of their users—including internal employees, external customers, partners, and vendors—across their entire attack surface and tools like Active Directory.
PAM systems are specifically focused on managing and securing administrators and users with elevated privileges.
IAM Can Strengthen PAM Solutions
Organizations must deploy and integrate both IAM and PAM to effectively prevent cyberattacks. Integrating them reduces security risks, improves user experience, and is listed as a requirement by auditors and regulators. Other tools that are crucial to IAM, such as MFA, can be used for secure access, which is necessary to meeting compliance requirements set out by standards like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
Using IAM as the interface also improves privileged users’ experience. It enables them to access PAM from the same location they use to access all other corporate resources. Furthermore, IAM enables organizations to automatically terminate privilege access when users leave the organization, which is not always the case with privileged access management tools.
How Fortinet Can Help
The Fortinet IAM solutions allow organizations to securely confirm their users and devices when they enter the corporate network. It also enables them to control and manage identities and ensure only the right users have access to the right resources.
The solution includes FortiAuthenticator, which prevents unauthorized access to resources. Combined with FortiToken and FortiToken Cloud, the Fortinet IAM tool provides further confirmation of user identities and enables MFA processes and management. All these help organizations address the common challenges that companies face in the evolving threat landscape.