It seems like every week news breaks of another customer data breach. It’s nearly impossible to mentally keep track of every incident — but almost every one of them has the same root cause: thievery of privileged accounts and passwords.
The preferred strategy for most hackers is the compromising of credentials. Once the account privileges are compromised, attackers can gain authorized access into internal systems and often go undetected for long periods of time. They typically acquire (steal) these privileged credentials using social engineering tactics through various email and browser-based phishing techniques. While inside, these criminals are able to conduct data exfiltration, disrupt processes or even lay the foundation for a larger-scale attack.
The importance of privileged accounts
Let’s break this down. Privileged accounts are some of the primary building blocks of the IT environment. They are used by humans, applications and services to accomplish all sorts of tasks. These capabilities require elevated credentials. Access to these accounts (gained with the elevated credentials) empowers the user with controls and permissions, including the ability to modify other accounts, remotely operate machines in the network, change the critical network infrastructure and steal sensitive data.
Control of a privileged account gives the attacker a massive foothold in an organization’s internal system. Armed with the access and resulting privileges, attackers can bypass security controls and install malware within the network. With this access, hackers can also mask their activity by erasing audit trails and removing evidence — extending the time they can stay disguised and decreasing their likelihood of being caught.
The ability to protect these privileged accounts from being compromised can make the difference between a minor network intrusion and a breach that devastates the organization. Shockingly, despite all the data-loss catastrophes over the past few years, organizations and their IT users are still often careless in their handling of privileged accounts.
This is why Privileged Access Management (PAM) solutions are such a necessity. These tools make it much easier to govern access to privileged accounts and can be used to monitor and limit active sessions to prevent misuse.
Disputing the legacy narrative
Unfortunately, many IT leaders feel skeptical toward PAM tools. They assume these tools are expensive, they are frustrated by the complexity and they are repulsed by the resource-heavy reputation. These decision makers and their users are not entirely misguided. Many of them have dealt with legacy security software and there have been several PAM products to come and go that were a hassle for daily users, a burden on resources and required too much of a time and financial investment.
But this is no longer the case — or at least not always. There are affordable, low-maintenance, lightweight PAM solutions available to organizations of all sizes. You just have to find the right ones.
Alternatives are no longer effective in safeguarding privileged accounts. Reinforcing the perimeter defenses can only do so much when the infiltrator has the access credentials. It does not matter how tall, how thick or how strong a wall is if someone already knows how to get through the gate.
Embracing PAM security
As organizations increasingly employ remote workers and privacy restrictions limit organizational oversight, the attack surface continues to grow. PAM security solutions are essential. In case your IT leaders are unaware, all they have to do is Google “data breach” and they will be reminded of the countless incidents stemming from stolen credentials.
Adoption of a PAM solution is critical to securing an organization, but so is establishing a solid foundation from within. This includes an evaluation and analysis of the organization’s privileged accounts, identifying what they are and what they allow access to in order to gain full-scope perspective for the organization’s security needs. Once the amount and specifics of these accounts are known, policies and distributed responsibilities have to be established. Also important in constructing the foundation for premium security posture is the implementation of a least-privilege policy that restricts access to only the most necessary users and use cases.