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Organizations that work with data have many tools and resources at their disposal, but they need to be mindful of data security. One important way to ensure data security is by following the principle of least privilege (PoLP).
With PoLP, employees are granted access only to the digital resources that are essential for them to do their jobs. This reduces the chance of unauthorized access or misuse of data. According to a 2021 study, 94% percent of organizations in various industries in the U.S. and the U.K. have dealt with insider-driven data breaches. The majority of these breaches were due to human error, but some were deliberate attempts at sabotage.
In this article, you’ll learn more about PoLP and how to implement it in your organization.
Why do you need PoLP?
Following PoLP practices ensures that users of a digital platform have just enough privileges to carry out their day-to-day functions. For example: In a tech company with a robust development team that follows PoLP, a software engineer can’t access the deployment servers. However, a DevOps engineer can access the deployment servers but not the database, because that falls under the database management team. And the database management team can’t access anything but the database servers.
PoLP encourages the separation of privileges into roles that describe different users’ job duties. It does allow for some flexibility, though. You can temporarily elevate a user’s privileges as needed in order to resolve a specific challenge should the need arise.
What are the challenges of PoLP?
PoLP can be implemented poorly or improperly, leading to bigger problems. Following are some of the downsides of bad privilege management:
Minimal permissions can be too restrictive. While you need to protect your company, you also need to exercise good faith by granting enough permissions to enable staff to do their jobs. Finding the right balance requires reviewing your company’s job descriptions and trusting employees to act in the best interest of the organization.
Excessive permissions can give too much. Setting few to no restrictions can lead staff to take broad access for granted, which can cause lasting damage if team members are compromised or disgruntled. In rare cases where team members have undefined roles that change as the business demands, you can implement temporary permissions and explore restructuring those roles to avoid such issues.
PoLP can encourage micromanagement. If an employee is promoted but continues with previously held responsibilities, they may stay involved with lower-level staff activities, robbing those employees of a sense of ownership over their jobs. To avoid micromanagement, your organization should enforce a specific structure and properly defined roles.
PoLP can cause unnecessary bottlenecks. Higher-level staff with more privileges and fewer restrictions tend to have more demands on their time. If lower-level staff need permission or approval before completing some tasks, PoLP can create bottlenecks that stifle your company’s productivity. Make sure the staff members handling permissions for approval or auditing of core tasks are available to do this properly.
How does PoLP help your organization?
Here are some reasons why PoLP is important for your applications:
Users only have access to what they need. Unrestricted staff access to data can compromise the safety of your customers and leave your organization vulnerable to a security breach. Granting employees access to only as much as they need significantly reduces the likelihood of things going wrong.
Employees can use different accounts with different levels of privilege. Your organization may be able to offer environment-based privileges with varying levels of permissions. For example, those using virtual private networks (VPNs) or virtual private clouds (VPCs) are given more privileges than those who aren’t, or users with access to test environments are allowed to perform more operations than users without such access.
Users run only necessary applications. Users can’t run applications that are unrelated to their job descriptions. This reduces demand on more resource-intensive applications or apps that limit the number of active users.
Your digital environment is more stable. Since establishing these boundaries means fewer employees are making code and document changes, you can maintain more control over the quality of your product.
Your security is stronger. Segmentation of permissions ensures that only higher-level staff can access sensitive data or execute broad operations.
You can more easily deploy changes. Using clearly stated rules about who performs what tasks helps reduce ambiguity. User roles with certain permissions will be responsible for the execution of certain tasks, making deployment less complicated.
You can more accurately investigate data compromises. Defined user roles identify which users can execute certain actions, enabling faster auditing and investigation in case of a data leak.
Lower-level users can’t cause a massive breach. Restrictions on lower-level users limits the extent to which any negligence or malicious actions can hurt your company.
You gain more oversight of modifications. A set structure with multiple levels of approval ensures that changes to your database or codebase can’t be easily undone.
About privilege-based attacks
One peril with assigning privileges to user roles, however, is that malicious actors may target those roles in order to steal your company’s data or cripple your infrastructure. Following are some common types of privilege-based attacks that you should guard against.
Privilege escalation attacks
In a privilege escalation attack, an attacker gains access to higher-level resources by taking advantage of a bug or flaw in your application or system. There are two types of privilege escalation attacks: vertical and horizontal.
Vertical privilege escalation
In a vertical privilege escalation attack, an attacker exploits bugs in an application or edge case in PoLP rules and policies in order to access a greater level of company resources than is assigned to the role the attacker is using to infiltrate the system.
Horizontal privilege escalation
In a horizontal privilege escalation attack, the attacker hijacks the credentials of a user with a similar role in order to access their resources or compromise the company. This attack is sometimes the result of human error rather than social engineering techniques. One common social engineering method, known as shoulder surfing, involves watching over the victim’s shoulder as they input their credentials.
Trojan attacks are malware that hide their true purpose upon download or installation, then hijack or cripple digital infrastructure.
Attackers gain access to an employee’s credentials, either through the employee sharing the credentials or through social engineering methods such as shoulder surfing.
Credentials can be stolen through a number of methods, including data leakage, theft of devices, theft of documents containing user credentials, or cybersecurity flaws that expose stakeholder credentials to attackers.
Disgruntled staff or users attempting corporate sabotage can be especially problematic, since most cybersecurity measures can’t protect you from an enemy within. You can use proper planning, corporate policies, and PoLP to reduce this threat.
Phishing tricks users into providing personal information or login credentials. Phishing attacks can come via emails from a compromised colleague, typosquatting, or social media challenges. Phishing can be difficult to defend against; at a minimum, you should ensure that your employees remain vigilant, always confirming the authenticity of messages they receive outside of your usual communication channels.
How to implement PoLP
Following are some best practices you can use to implement PoLP practices while reducing the risk of attack:
Identify all permissions for every user. This is the first step in implementing PoLP. By identifying individual permissions, you can evaluate whether the permissions are at the appropriate level.
Eliminate unnecessary administrative permissions. Lower-level workers shouldn’t have administrative access to data or other digital resources.
Create distinct accounts for administrators. Multiple staff shouldn’t share login credentials for an admin account, because it would be difficult to identify who compromised your company. Each user should operate an individual account that is assigned admin privileges as needed.
Store administrator account credentials safely. Admin account credentials shouldn’t be left unencrypted or unmasked. Use password manager and authenticator applications to manage this.
Set up temporary permission elevation. It can be necessary to temporarily assign more privileges to a user to meet a business demand. This should be time-bound and subject to frequent review. Elevation can mean giving a user temporary access to a server or providing a single-use password.
Monitor systems for suspicious activity, especially admin profiles. User activity monitoring software can be effective for real-time monitoring of admin accounts. Simple checks, such as the GPS location of the admin at the point of login, can help expose a potentially harmful string of actions. You can also restrict admin accounts from being accessed from unrecognized IP addresses, among other lockdown protocols.
Rotate keys and credentials. Regularly generating new access keys can help minimize the likelihood of compromised credentials. You can implement this via off-the-shelf applications or by adding this feature to in-house applications. If you use a third-party solution, consult your vendor before using rotation so that it’s handled properly.
Reevaluate user permissions regularly. Hold management meetings focused on user permissions at least twice a year to see if any roles need access added or removed. These meetings should also take into account your business needs and the laws governing the countries your company operates in.
Create attribute-based permissions where necessary. Test environments or sandboxes with access to certain servers and databases can help enforce attribute-based permissions.
Set password expiration rules. Automatically expiring passwords ensure that users update their credentials regularly, making them less prone to theft. In most cases, this feature is easily implemented through your administrative settings.
Implement multi-factor authentication. Biometric authentication and one-time passwords (OTPs), among other methods, help limit stolen credentials, phishing, and compromised credentials while ensuring that staff use specific credentials to access your digital environment.
Implementing PoLP is one of the most effective ways your organization can guard against security breaches. While some users might resist these practices or assume you don’t trust them, assure them that PoLP will actually strengthen your company’s structure and operations.
There are many tools you can use to help you maintain PoLP practices. For example, Tailscale is a decentralized VPN service that connects you directly to team members without needing to configure an internal network. You can use access control lists to ensure that users get only the level of access they need. Tailscale also encrypts connections so that only devices on your organization’s network can connect and communicate.
Check out our documentation to see how Tailscale can help improve your network security.
Get started with Tailscale today.
Frequently Asked Questions
Many developers have questions or concerns about implementing PoLP in their organizations. Following are some of the more common questions you might see, as well as their answers.
How do I change my permissions if I don’t have access to something I need?
Depending on your role and the size of your company, you might need to meet with your supervisor or admin team. Increased access may be provided temporarily or permanently, depending on the nature of your request and the requirements of your job.
Can I remove my own permissions?
Depending on your role, you will need to get the approval of an admin or super-admin to remove permissions. This request might require the application development team to take action, regardless of whether the application was developed in-house or was purchased.
How do I know how much privilege to give users?
Security experts and team leaders should work together to ensure they provide users enough privileges to maintain efficiency while reducing the risk of data compromise. The goal is to grant privileges that help users carry out only the functions stated in their job descriptions.
What are examples of areas where I can implement PoLP?
PoLP can be implemented at the database level and where create, read, update, and delete (CRUD) operations can be moderated. Specific columns in a database can also be masked when low-level users need database access. Other applications that interact with customer data can use PoLP if they have stratified user roles that are assigned on a needs-only basis.