Organizations Falling Short on Privileged Account Management

“Privileged Access” encompasses access to computers, networks and network devices, software applications, digital documents, and other digital assets that upper management, IT administrators, and service account users work with daily. Access to privileged accounts allows more rights and permissions than those given to standard business users.

Privileged account access is the prize most frequently targeted by cybercriminals and malicious insiders because this access (often undetected) leads to highly valuable and confidential information, such as company IP, customer identities, financial information, and personal data.

Protecting access to privileged credentials is rapidly evolving as a must have compliance requirement. Consequences when proper protection and compliance are ignored can result in millions of dollars in regulatory fines, putting business operations at higher risk of severe compromise or even shutdown.

Findings Prove Organizations are Behaving Poorly

While most organizations acknowledge the important role privileged credential access plays in their cybersecurity posture, most are failing to act on protecting and securing their privileged accounts. A recent study was conducted by Thycotic, revealing major risk and compliance gaps in how organizations manage and secure their privileged accounts and access to sensitive systems, infrastructure and data.

According to the report, while more than 60 percent of organizations state that they are required to satisfy regulatory compliance requirements around privilege credential access, a staggering 70 percent would fail an access controls audit. In addition, 73 percent of organizations fail to require multi-factor authentication with privileged accounts and more than half of organizations fail to use a secure logon process for privileged accounts.

While most organizations acknowledge the important role privileged credential access plays in their cybersecurity posture, most are failing to protect and secure their privileged accounts. So, what’s next?

Establishing a Life Cycle Approach to Privileged Access Management

When planning, implementing, or expanding a more secure approach to Privileged Access Management, leading analysts and practitioners emphasize building out a program that encompasses the complete Privilege Account Management (PAM) lifecycle. That means…

  1. Understanding the need for Privilege Access Management among exec and IT staff
  2. Identifying privileged accounts across all systems
  3. Managing and Protecting access to privileged accounts and restricting their use
  4. Monitoring privileged account use on a continuous basis
  5. Detecting anomalies in privileged account use indicating potential fraudulent activities
  6. Responding to privileged account suspected compromise immediately and with targeted actions
  7. Review and report to continuously improve your Privilege Access Management access controls

Like any IT security measure designed to help protect critical information assets, managing and protecting privileged account access requires both a plan and an ongoing program. You must identify which privileged accounts should be a priority in your organization, as well as ensuring that those who are using these privileged accounts are clear on their acceptable use and responsibilities. The following is a high-level roadmap that global organizations can use to establish their own Privileged Access Management program.

Monitor and record sessions for privileged account activity. Your PAM solution should be able to monitor and record privileged account activity. This will help enforce proper behavior and avoid mistakes by employees and other IT users because they know their activities are being monitored. If a breach does occur, monitoring privileged account use also helps digital forensics identify the root cause and identify critical controls that can be improved to reduce your risk of future cybersecurity threats.

Track and alert on user behavior. With up to 80% of breaches involving a compromised user or privileged account, gaining insights into privileged account access and user behavior is a top priority. Ensuring visibility into the access and activity of your privileged accounts in real time will help spot suspected account compromise and potential user abuse. Behavioral analytics focuses on key data points to establish individual user baselines, including user activity, password access, similar user behavior, and time of access to identify and alert on unusual or abnormal activity.

Prepare an incident response plan in case a privileged account is compromised. When an account is breached, simply changing privileged account passwords or disabling the privileged account is not acceptable. If compromised by an outside attacker, hackers can install malware and even create their own privileged accounts. If a domain administrator account gets compromised, for example, you should assume that your entire Active Directory is vulnerable. That means restoring your entire Active Directory, so the attacker cannot easily return.

Audit and analyze privilege account activity. Continuously observing how privileged accounts are being used through audits and reports will help identify unusual behaviors that may indicate a breach or misuse. These automated reports also help track the cause of security incidents, as well as demonstrate compliance with policies and regulations. Auditing of privileged accounts will also give you cybersecurity metrics that provide executives with vital information to make more informed business decisions.

The Bottom Line

The key to improving cybersecurity around Privileged Access Management stems from an understanding and implementation of a PAM lifecycle approach. Only a comprehensive solution can ensure that your “keys to the kingdom” are properly protected from hackers and malicious insider threats – and that your access controls meet the regulatory requirements for compliance mandates in your industry.


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