Privileged Access Management (PAM)

In an IT context, privileges let users bypass certain security measures to modify a system or access sensitive resources. Privileged access management (PAM) lets organizations monitor and control these privileges to give users the access they need while keeping cyber threats at bay. 

Who are privileged users?

Privileged users can be people or machines, including identities, accounts, processes, and systems, that have special permissions to interact with an IT environment. These users can include:

  • Privileged users: Accounts with special permissions beyond those of regular users and guest accounts.  
  • Administrators 
  • Domain admins: Have full control over the entire network infrastructure, including servers, user accounts, group policies, and system settings.
  • Local admins: Have access to specific computers and servers, with the permissions to install software, change system settings, and manage user accounts. 
  • Application admins: Can access and manage specific applications within the organization. 
  • Service accounts: Used by services or applications to automatically access network resources and perform specific tasks. 
  • Business privileged users: Have access to sensitive business data and resources based on their job roles.
  • Emergency accounts: Grant temporary admin access to unprivileged users during emergencies such as disruptions or security incidents.

What can privileged users do?

Privileges give certain users on a system the power to do things that regular users can’t, such as: 

  • Update passwords 
  • Modify server settings and network configurations
  • Install software
  • Manage user profiles 
  • Monitor sessions
  • Access sensitive data 
  • Perform system maintenance tasks

What does PAM involve?

PAM involves several practices to ensure that only authorized users can perform critical tasks and protect the organization’s most sensitive assets from threat actors. 

Credential management: Privileged users need credentials, such as passwords, security tokens and certificates, and SSH and API keys, to access sensitive resources. Credential management involves storing, securing, and updating these credentials to prevent unauthorized access. 

Access management: Security teams use PAM to define and enforce the privileges that users have to certain resources, and to what extent they can interact with them. Access control should follow the principle of least privilege – where users are given the least amount of permissions needed to do their job. 

Session management: Even after being granted special permissions, privileged users must be monitored in real-time during sessions to prevent them from abusing their access. This can involve terminating active sessions and revoking access when a certain task or project has been completed. 

Monitoring, reporting, and auditing: PAM tools can track and log privileged user sessions to detect anomalies, provide analytics, draw up reports, and spot risky behavior. This all helps organizations keep a clear audit trail of privileged user activity, which is important for complying with company policies and external regulations.

Why is privileged access important? 

People are the weakest link when it comes to cybersecurity. While certain users need privileged access to manage data, assets, and infrastructure, this power can be dangerous if it ends up in the wrong hands. Privileges are stepping stones to high-level accounts and sensitive assets, so they present a serious risk to the business. This is why it’s important to constantly monitor and manage these privileges to make sure they aren’t misplaced, stolen, or abused to target sensitive company resources.

Security teams can use PAM to control both human and machine privileges across different applications, DevOps pipelines, and cloud environments. This helps an organization improve its overall security posture and comply with regulations. 

With PAM, security teams can:

  • Regulate access to sensitive resources
  • Reduce the attack surface of a system 
  • Ensure compliance with data and access regulations
  • Create an audit-friendly digital environment
  • Conduct better forensic investigations 
  • Boost efficiency 
  • Reduce entry points for threat actors 
  • Detect internal threats

What are the differences between IGA, ILM, IAM, and PAM?

Organizations use IGA as a framework for governing all the identities in their system and remaining compliant with regulations. ILM is a key component of IGA that covers the operational aspects of creating, managing, and securing these identities. Both IGA and ILM encompass IAM and PAM, with PAM being a subset of IAM. 

PurposeScope
Identity Governance and Administration (IGA)Provides an overall security and compliance framework for identities High-level identity management 
Identity Lifecycle Management (ILM)Managing identities across their entire lifecycleOperational identity management
Identity and Access Management (IAM)Managing the access that identities have to resources Subset of IGA
Privileged Access Management (PAM)Managing and securing privileged accessSubset of IGA and IAM

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