Define Privileged Access Management
September 30th, 2021

Misuse of data and privilege breaches are a profound cybersecurity threat to millions of businesses, organizations, and individuals.

Hackers often target vulnerable access management systems, which allows them immediate entry into the fundamental substructure behind an enterprise—and this breach is often undetected until it's too late.

The majority of these attacks arise from:

  • compromised user endpoints
  • unprotected privileged credentials
  • poor privilege security

As an example, if your local administrator rights (i.e., user privileges) aren't sufficiently defended, they are a core target.

Today we'll define privileged access management, explain why it's so essential in the digital space, and show how to build a wall of rock-solid security around your privileged access credentials.

Defining The Value Of PAM Systems

Privileged access management (PAM) is prevalent among tech forward businesses—often with the number of designated access rights outnumbering staff threefold.

In short, PAM allows an individual or machine identity permission to carry out actions or access a system, which isn't available for open or public use.

There are multiple ways to incorporate these access rights. 

The right decisions for your company depend on the nature of your business.

Types Of Privileged Access Associated With Human Users

Here are some of the common access rights associated with human system users:

  • local administration accounts that are positioned on an endpoint or station with usernames and passwords
  • domain administrative accounts with privileged user rights to access all workstations and make changes to the servers within a network domain
  • secure socket shell (SSH) keys, used in access control protocols to allow root access to crucial systems 
  • emergency accounts provide access to critical systems if the normal process is unavailable

While users new to the concept of PAM will almost certainly be familiar with several types of privileged access used by people, it also applies to machine identities and applications.

Non-Human Privileged Access Management Systems

Machine identities work with PAM, controlling automated functions and responses without manual intervention.

Examples include:

  • service accounts that interact with an operating system to make changes
  • SSH keys, similar to above, but used by an automated process
  • covert applications used in development and operations teams (DevOps) generally refer to SSH keys and application program interface keys (API)
  • application accounts, specific to the software and used to configure, manage, or administer access to the application

These systems rely on security to ensure that the authority is not misused, hacked, or accessed outside of the PAM settings.

What Is A Privileged Access Management Strategy?

A PAM strategy protects against theft and misuse of privileges as part of a broader cybersecurity protocol.

Privileged access management is also sometimes called:

  • Privileged identity management (PIM)
  • Privileged access security (PAS)

The principle works based on least privilege, whereby any user should only be granted the minimum access required to carry out the expected functions.

Minimum access controls are a best practice in cybersecurity and mean that high-value assets and data are protected from any deliberate or unintentional breach.

Why Privileged Access Management Is Vital For Businesses

We've explained privileged access management and where it applies, so let's explore why PAM is essential for organizations.

In any digital application or framework, manual interventions are the weak link. That could be because of:

  • negligence 
  • deliberate leaks
  • hacking attacks

External cyber attackers will focus on stealing privileges from the highest authority level available.

Therefore, privileged access management means your business guards against such losses by ensuring individuals only have the appropriate access privileges required.

PAM is also a fundamental element in security strategies where IT teams can identify any malicious activities or targeted privileges and take immediate action.

PAM In Automated Business Applications

As we've seen, privileges aren't only assigned to colleagues but also digital applications. 

Process automation and many other protocols require PAM to ensure criminals cannot exploit machine identities.

Digital privileges are everywhere, with millions incorporated within systems to allow them to access each other and communicate.

With a phenomenal surge in machines and applications requiring access privileges, organizations must adjust any commercial off-the-shelf apps (COTS) to close accessible routes to the network.

A robust, privileged, access management strategy covers every access right, whether that's on-site, off-site, cloud-based, and owned by a machine or an individual.

An outstanding PAM strategy can detect any unusual activity instantly, prompting IT security to respond.

How Does PAM Apply To Your Organization?

Cyber attacks usually target the most exposed endpoints (laptops, tablets, desktops, or smartphones, for example).

Those endpoints often have default privileges, such as a built-in IT administration account to enable teams to fix local problems. 

However, they're a business-critical risk without sufficient privilege access management.

PAM programs carry substantial benefits:

  • Reducing exposure to cyber attacks
  • Driving down operational complexity
  • Increased user access visibility
  • Improved situational awareness
  • Enhanced regulatory compliance

Screening and detecting abnormal activities as part of a defensive PAM system is key to developing a robust risk management strategy and helping businesses streamline their compliance and audit requirements.

For further reading, check out our other articles like Understand Delegated Authentication vs. Federated Authentication.