Understanding privileged access management

Privileged access management (PAM) is the practice of restricting or allowing permissions for users to create a more streamlined workflow. (This is distinct from pluggable authentication modules, which is commonly used on Unix systems and also goes by the acronym PAM.) In this guide, you will learn how PAM can help safeguard your organization’s digital workspace and enhance productivity.

In the modern business environment, organizations must manage secure access to resources and systems to maintain productivity, collaboration, and growth. At the same time, businesses have evolved to use an increasingly distributed workforce, relying on contractors and third-party vendors to handle part of their workload, which makes secure access ever more challenging. Fortunately, privileged access management, or PAM (not the authentication framework commonly used in UNIX systems also known as PAM), allows us to establish a more streamlined workflow to improve productivity.

PAM involves creating and managing privileged accounts within an IT environment. Privileged accounts have greater access or more permissions than those of a standard user. The use of privileged accounts aims to keep workers focused on their work, prevent others from tampering with that work, and minimize the likelihood of problems caused by misuse of privileges.

In this article, you’ll come to understand the importance of PAM and its components, including privileged account management and privileged session management. You’ll also learn answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about privileged access management.

The value of privileged access management

As businesses grow, they accumulate more applications, services, and accounts. It’s important to have a solid plan for managing privileges and passwords before they become too complex for the IT department to handle manually.

Privileged access management is an essential part of maintaining a secure IT environment. It involves providing elevated privileges to individuals only when those privileges are explicitly required for the individual’s role or position. This reduces the possibility that a compromised account could be used by a malicious attacker or insider.

The most critical part of PAM is managing access privileges to encourage organization, accountability, and ease of navigation. For example, it’s common for employees to access systems that don’t directly pertain to their job function or department. To increase security for these systems, PAM grants employees access only to the resources they require to do their jobs, and nothing more. In addition to increasing security, this makes things easier for employees by reducing the likelihood of a security breach, streamlining access to needed resources, reducing the chances of human error, and making clear what resources they are — or aren’t — expected to use.

Reducing the risk associated with privileged account abuse also reduces the likelihood of data confidentiality, integrity, and availability issues arising.

To better understand PAM, we will take a detailed look at the major components of PAM and learn how we can best implement PAM processes. But first, we need to understand what permissions and privileges mean.

What are privileges and permissions?

Privileged users have an increased ability to make changes to a system. Examples of privileges given to specific users include configuring systems or apps (including creating, adding, and removing user accounts); maintaining databases, workstations, and servers; and managing domain controllers. Privileged users can also load device drivers and configure cloud instances and accounts.

Privileged users often have different levels of privilege, which means that not everyone has the same amount of access. Users of domain administrative accounts have the highest levels of access and are the keepers of the keys to the IT kingdom. They have absolute authority over domain controllers. The power to change the membership of an administrative account in the domain is in their hands.

Privileged accounts need to be powerful so their users have sufficient access to perform their tasks, but the privileges can be dangerous if abused. Misuse of permissions, whether accidentally, intentionally, or maliciously, can lead to downtime, loss of sensitive data, negative publicity, and compliance failures.

Properly approving, controlling, decommissioning, and monitoring privileged accounts throughout their lifecycle is a standard IT governance practice. It ensures that privileged accounts are not misused within an organization. In addition to the standard IT governance, organizations may choose to run criminal or background checks on privileged users to help ensure the safety and security of their data, systems, and processes.

What is privileged account management?

Privileged account management protects the security system from deliberate or accidental misuse of privileged accounts. The process uses policy-based strategies and software to restrict access to sensitive data and systems. Privileged accounts have high levels of access to data, devices, and systems, and can perform tasks that users with standard accounts cannot, such as deleting data, upgrading operating systems, modifying application configurations, and installing or uninstalling software.

Managing privileged accounts involves securely storing privileged identities such as SSH keys and credentials. You can use a standardized encryption algorithm like AES-256 to secure privileged identities.

To protect privileged accounts from security breaches, you should audit privileged user logins, password sharing, password resets, and other identity-related operations. A PAM best security practice is to enforce policies requiring users to adopt complex passwords, utilize strong SSH key pairs, and auto-rotate passwords.

Managing privileged accounts is more important now than ever before, especially with the increase in remote working and the adoption of the internet of things (IoT) and cloud environments. Controlling access to privileged accounts requires more than just using a strong password. Organizations need to depend on more structured means of access management, such as multi-factor authentication.

What is privileged session management?

Granting privileged users uncontrolled access to an organization’s critical systems creates a security loophole. A secure IT infrastructure involves more than controlling what permissions privileged users are granted — it also includes monitoring what these users do during their active privileged access sessions and terminating inappropriate activities.

Privileged session management (PSM) acts as an additional security layer to regulate privileged access to an organization’s critical systems by monitoring the sessions of privileged users. This includes recording sessions of privileged users and continually monitoring and auditing the activities of users, applications, systems, and third-party contractors.

By recording and monitoring the activities of every privileged user from the time they start to the time they end a session, you can proactively recognize a compromised account. With the ability to view active connections, you can notify or terminate unauthorized or suspicious connections in real time.

Implementing privileged access management

How you implement the PAM program is one determining factor in its success in protecting the organization from malicious actors, both internal and external. You need to create a concrete plan that guides this implementation.

To begin, you need to identify what permissions you need to assign to the privileged accounts. For example, you may want privileged users to access sensitive company data, install or update security patches, create or modify user accounts, and configure or otherwise make changes to systems.

The next step is determining who needs access to what systems, as well as how much access is required and when it’s required. This access should be in line with the user’s role in the organization’s IT infrastructure, so you’ll need to determine which groups and users will be granted administrative privileges within each system or application.

Once you’ve given the accounts access to specific systems, you need to monitor and audit the activities of privileged users for accountability. Tracking and logging privileged sessions is one way to increase accountability. Keeping a detailed log of all privileged sessions will enable you to identify any system anomalies.

The principle of least privilege

PAM is founded on the principle of least privilege (PoLP). Following PoLP, each privileged user, workload, network, or device has access to only the systems and the level of resources they need to execute assigned tasks. If workers are given only those privileges they need to complete a task, there will be fewer distractions and opportunities for external interference.

PoLP minimizes the attack surface in case of a malware attack. Since users have limited rights, even if the account is compromised, there’s a limit to the damage that can be done. For example, when most accounts don’t have installation rights, even a compromised account can’t become a vector for malware.

You can implement PoLP to allow users access to an application for a predetermined period of time. This is interlinked with the just-in-time (JIT) privileged access model. JIT access provisioning allows you to grant privileged users limited, on-demand access to IT resources and eliminates the risks of standing privileges. Remote workers, third parties, developers, and service accounts need JIT access.

Role-based access control (RBAC), which assigns permissions to roles rather than individuals, can help implement PoLP. Assuming a case where each employee is only assigned a single role in an organization, a marketing analyst, for instance, would have access to marketing lists. But if that employee moves to the finance department as a financial analyst, they would lose access to marketing data. The analyst now requires access to financial reports to enable them to do their job.

Automating privilege management

Privileged access management involves many potential steps. Managing PAM processes manually is an intensive, error-prone process of controlling privilege risk, so it’s important to automate as much of the process as possible. Once PAM processes are configured, software automation can take over privilege management.

You can rely on automated privileged access management solutions to eliminate manual management and monitoring of privileged accounts, and to streamline workflows by reducing administrative complexity. These tools can scale across millions of privileged users and accounts to improve IT infrastructure security.

Automation also allows you to audit the usage of privileged accounts in real time and detect suspicious activity. You’re also able to automate the lifecycle of privileges, from password generation to disposal and replacement, so you don’t have to worry about manually resetting passwords when administrators leave an organization or change roles. The privileged access lifecycle involves streamlining user provisioning and de-provisioning, managing access, and verifying the actions of privileged users.

Final thoughts

PAM is an essential element of information security and an efficient means to provide secure access to an organization’s systems and resources. When it is properly implemented and integrated into other security aspects, this concept can make it easier to manage user access and reduce the number of security breaches. It also promotes accountability and better cohesion within an organization.

Tailscale allows you to create a secure network between servers, cloud instances, and computers to further improve IT infrastructure security. Tailscale’s zero configuration VPN ensures secure remote access to an organization’s applications and devices. Learn more about how you can build secure networks with Tailscale.

Get started with Tailscale today.

Frequently Asked Questions

People new to working with PAM often have questions about what it is and how it works. Here's a look at the answers to some of the more common questions.

What does PAM do?

Privileged access management helps organizations protect sensitive data and systems by allowing only the right people to access exactly what they need, when they need it. It also allows security teams to control and monitor user access privileges and quickly respond to potential threats.

Why do we need PAM?

PAM reduces the risk of a security breach by protecting against accidental or malicious misuse of privileged access. Through PAM, privileged user activity is monitored and controlled.

How does PAM work?

PAM takes a multilayered approach to securing privileged accounts. It involves access provisioning, session management, and activity monitoring.

What is the difference between PIM, IAM, and PAM?

Privileged access management focuses on the security surrounding privileged users and accounts with elevated rights and permissions. It is a subset of identity access management (IAM). IAM deals with the security requirements around those who need to perform or request privileged tasks or activities on behalf of an organization.

Privileged identity management (PIM) is a subset of PAM that addresses the management of privileged accounts and protects the credentials used by these accounts.

What is a PAM tool?

A privileged access management tool is software that gives organizations the ability to consolidate, control, and monitor privileged accounts, user activity, access requests, sessions, and passwords.