Least privilege is a simple concept, but one often overlooked among end-users. It is even overlooked by MSPs who are responsible for the security of their clients. It involves restricting access rights for users, accounts, and processes to only those resources needed to perform an organization’s legitimate tasks.
The word “privilege” in this context refers to a user or account’s authorization to pass through certain security restraints. These often include security blocks around installing software, changing OS configurations, or disabling cybersecurity software.
Principal of Least Privilege
The principle of least privilege (PoLP) is a doctrine wherein users are only issued the minimal credentials and rights needed to perform his/her role. In a broader context, this principle can also apply to processes, applications, systems, and devices aside from just applying to individual humans.
You’ve no doubt heard the term “need to know basis” used in military and governmental contexts. It’s the idea that a person should only know the minimal amount of information required to do their job and nothing more. This reduces the number of “threat surfaces” in the sense that the fewer people who have access to classified information, the fewer chances that it will be leaked or extracted. This idea is analogous to “least privilege”, a concept that itself originated in Department of Defense protocols.
Among MSPs and IT providers, the process of assigning, monitoring, and evaluating privilege is known as Privileged Access Management (PAM). This procedure should not be overlooked, as it can close a vast number of potential security gaps.
Privileged vs. Non-Privileged Accounts
When it comes to PAM, many MSPs think of the term as exclusive to superuser access. In fact, every employee or user should be given minimum necessary access to resources regardless of their role or rank.
The most privileged accounts — usually called superuser accounts — have access above and beyond even admin user options. These accounts grant administrator overrides, broad-reaching ability to access sensitive data, unlimited configuration abilities, and context-specific abilities like remotely pushing updates to multiple user devices. Some believe that company leadership and executives should have this level of privilege. However, it’s actually recommended that only top-level IT and security staff should hold these credentials.
Non-privileged or “standard” accounts give a user basic access to the files, servers, and applications necessary to do their job. Standard users should not be able to make significant changes to the IT environment. In most scenarios, 85-90% of all accounts within an organization should be non-privileged.
Account Privilege and the Cloud
Many traditional security tools were built for on-premise environments. This leaves some issues when dealing with the cloud. Therefore, some solutions leave gaps that allow for excessive privileged access and permissions when applied to cloud or hybrid environments.
Cloud and virtualization also create new risks in the form of administrator consoles that provide extensive superuser capabilities for managing the cloud environment. Cloud superusers can typically provision, configure, and delete servers. They can also spin-up new virtual machines with unique privileges and privileged accounts. While this is beneficial to the scalable nature of the cloud, it can become a management and security nightmare.
Why MSPs, Engineers, and Clients Should Adhere to Least Privilege
The value and importance of least privilege should be apparent in its purpose. Massive security benefits aside, PAM also allows an MSP to deliver a more focused, streamlined, and compliant experience.
Decreased Exposure to Cyberattacks
Least privilege ensures the least amount of people have access to you and your clients’ software and data. The simple math is that the fewer people who can access these systems, the fewer opportunities hackers have to compromise an identity and advance their attacks.
PAM has risen to the forefront of security post-COVID. The shift to remote business environments have increased cyber risk for many organizations by a huge margin. 61% of all data breaches in 2021 involved compromised credentials according to a 2021 report by Verizon. This figure has been growing exponentially since.
Of course, implementing least privilege policies won’t guarantee complete immunity from cyberattacks, nothing will. What PAM does offer is a significant reduction in the damage a criminal can inflict by closing off a common and oft-exploited attack vector.
Improved User Experience
Many worry that restricting access will keep employees from doing their jobs or at least harm productivity. However, the truth is that least privilege will usually improve productivity. When users have access to only what they need, it removes barriers and noise that can arise when trying to carry out a task. While locking down unnecessary user privileges does often cut off “shortcuts” and “workarounds” that users might find convenient, this is a necessary sacrifice for achieving a robust security posture.
Easier to Meet Compliance Standards
To remain compliant with certain government or industry requirements, many organizations are following the principle of least privilege.
Many governments and industry sectors require implementation of least privilege policy as part of ensuring data safety and security. Putting a PAM solution in place makes demonstrating compliance easy. Solutions like AutoElevate give you an intuitive way to log and track all privileged account access and requests. Because AutoElevate makes evaluating and managing admin access easy for MSPs, the result is even more streamlined compliance logging. Fewer privileged users means less chance for mistakes and oversights.
How to Implement Least Privilege
Implementing PAM may take an initial investment of time or training, especially for an MSP who is playing catch-up with a large number of clients. Rest assured that the increased security and peace of mind are worth the challenge, and the right tools can make the process quite manageable.
As a general rule, we recommend these guidelines for approaching PAM in your organization:
Step 1: Audit Current User Privileges
You must always begin by establishing a complete picture of your current users’ privileges. In order to understand your current user’ privileges, a full system audit may be necessary. This clarifies who has an account and how access is distributed among those users.
During this step, look for “access creep”, a situation when a user or account is granted privileged access for a specific task, but that access was not taken away once the task was finished. This situation is very common in large, complex accounts where a dedicated PAM tool is not being used.
Step 2: Remove Unnecessary Privileges and Use Groups/Segmentation to Reassign Access
It’s now time to take privileges away from accounts who no longer need them. A simple way to do this through AutoElevate is to first revert all accounts back to basic access. You can then use segmentation in the tool to designate higher-clearance users and quickly issue their admin access back.
AutoElevate allows you to segment user groups based on job role both inside and outside your MSP. This makes it easy to assign higher privilege access to all engineers of a certain tier, or enable all client POCs to retain admin clearance to their important applications and resources.
Step 3: Default to Least Privilege and Stay Vigilant
While AutoElevate makes it easy to set up groups and assign privileges, this isn’t a process that can be set once and never revisited. Access management is crucial, and the MSP must continuously monitor user accounts, behaviors, and access requests. The good news is that AutoElevate also makes it easy to see and approve or deny access requests in real time. Plus integrated logging allows you to review admin access behavior and maintain compliance.
MSPs may want to perform a least-privilege audit during their quarterly business reviews (QBR) with each client. This gives you another chance to ensure all accounts have what they need for their current roles and that access creep isn’t setting in. Pay special attention to employees who have left, changed roles, or who have been given special access for limited projects.
Keep the same idea in mind when evaluating the access privileges of your own staff, engineers, and support techs. We all know of at least one instance when a disgruntled former MSP employee has used their access to wreak havoc. A solid PAM strategy can easily mitigate this type of situation.
Every security-conscious MSP, their engineers, and their clients should embrace privilege access management — the process of assigning, monitoring, and evaluating privilege. The principle of least privilege minimizes security risks, streamlines the user experience, helps ensure compliance, and keeps your MSP’s reputation and bottom line safer.
While deploying a new least privilege strategy can seem overwhelming, a top-tier PAM tool like AutoElevate is purpose-built to help MSPs reach that goal. By streamlining the adherence to a ‘least privilege’ policy across all clients, your MSP can close gaps used by the most common cyberthreats we see today.
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