INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Make privileged access management a mission, not a mandate

Privileged access management protects the keys to the kingdom -- access to the privileged administrative accounts that control agencies' critical servers, databases and networks.

A hacker, malicious insider or negligent user who can access these administrative accounts can go on to compromise or corrupt anything from personal data to financial systems. A strong PAM program helps prevent, detect and mitigate such abuse of privileged access and works in concert with other security and identity and access management (IAM) systems. The goals of a PAM program should include:

  • Protecting critical data and ensuring the availability of essential agency systems.
  • Reducing the likelihood that administrator credentials will be compromised or misused.
  • Reducing the impact if compromise or misuse does occur.
  • Pinpointing which user is responsible for actions taken by a shared account.

Agencies may be ready to build a long-term, broad-based PAM program; some, however, may begin considering a PAM program to meet an immediate, urgent need. But protecting a limited number of accounts or applications just to satisfy a mandate is a narrow goal: it doesn’t make the most of a PAM investment and could make the agency less secure overall. The point where the PAM mandate is met shouldn’t be the end of the road, but the beginning of a mission to protect all critical privileged access. This mission-based approach delivers the highest return on investment by making an increasing number of accounts and systems more secure over time.

The need for PAM 

PAM is becoming more important by the day. The attack surface of applications and platforms through which hackers can compromise administrative accounts is expanding, the sophistication of attackers is growing and the risks of successful attacks are mounting. These concerns will only continue to increase.

Agencies may have various ways of protecting privileged accounts. They might rely on manual, less secure methods to track access to accounts and manage credentials, or they may also have different PAM methodologies of varying quality and effectiveness across internal units and locations. This scattered approach not only increases the chance of manual errors and inconsistencies that can be exploited but makes it significantly harder to identify and mitigate risks.

PAM as mandate

A successful attack or stern note from an auditor or regulator can give agencies a valuable kick start because it identifies a real problem and begins to educate stakeholders to the importance of PAM. However, not moving beyond such a compliance-only approach has real limitations, especially if it:

  • Solves the vulnerabilities an auditor or regulator cares about but not those that may be most critical.
  • Makes routine administrative access so difficult that users seek to find ways around the PAM system via means IT staff cannot track or manage.
  • Fails to remove non-authorized methods to get to privileged access that has been vaulted.
  • Provides a false sense of security based on a small number of protected accounts and systems, with no plan to identify and protect other assets that are or may become important.
  • Views PAM as a standalone system rather than an integrated part of the agency’s overall security, IAM and analytics ecosystem.

For all these reasons, sticking with a mandate-based approach can limit the number and severity of risks PAM can reduce and suppress user adoption. Getting the greatest benefit from a PAM program investment requires a broader vision.

PAM as mission

Here are four reasons why embracing PAM as a mission improves upon the mandate-focused approach. 

1. Identifies the biggest risks: A proper PAM implementation begins with an in-depth assessment of which systems and accounts are most critical, how they are being managed and which risks require the most urgent attention. This includes asking for, and listening to, different definitions of privileged access from different stakeholders.

2. Encourages user adoption: A mission-focused approach requires building partnerships with system administrators. Acknowledge that PAM will introduce changes to how administrators carry out their daily tasks, a PAM solutions should be designed so it is as easy to use as possible. Admins should understand and appreciate why PAM is good for the agency and the users in the long run.

3. Protects the right accounts and platforms: A dedicated PAM management and governance team can assess which new accounts and platforms to protect over time and how. It also ensures that users get enough and the right kind of training and that the PAM platform is integrated with other security functions so it can provide the most timely and proactive view of risks.

4. Examines broader technical issues that can create vulnerabilities: Proper design of the PAM infrastructure helps ensure its availability and resiliency, which is essential because (if done right) PAM will become mission-critical. Hardening the PAM solution and its infrastructure can also identify other security needs, such as multifactor authentication on the password vault or unnecessary open ports on servers.

Bottom line benefits

A mission-focused approach to PAM is worth the investment and delivers far more to agencies than a mandate-based approach can, including higher overall ROI and benefits over a longer period of time through more comprehensive and risk-based security. Mission-based PAM helps agencies become more secure and compliant through detailed, automated account usage tracking and mitigates threats more quickly and accurately through data sharing across security platforms. Finally, it helps to foster increased user adoption and acceptance as part of the agency’s security culture, a powerful benefit that shouldn’t be underestimated.

About the Author

Tapan Shah is a managing director for Sila Solutions Group.

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