Ensuring that everyone in your organization has the right amount of access to the database is paramount to success. But not everyone needs the same level of privilege as an administrator account. To reduce the risk of data breaches, cyber attackers, and other security issues, using privileged access management (or PAM) can save a lot of time and headaches.
In this article, you will learn about:
- What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?
- Why is Privileged Access Management Important?
- Privileged Access Management vs. Privileged Identity Management
- Examples of Privileged Access Management
- Privileged Access Management Best Practices
- Implementing Privileged Access Management with Satori
This is part of our complete access control guide.
What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?
Privileged access management refers to database security policies and strategies relating to user access and the relevant privileged activities each user has. These strategies adhere to the Principle of Least Privilege (or PoLP), ensuring accounts have just the right amount of access to do their jobs, but not one privilege beyond that.
In other words, while PoLP is the rationale that shapes privilege-related data security policy, PAM is a tool to enforce those policies, giving security professionals fine-grain control over who has access to critical systems within the database.
How Does Privileged Access Management Work?
A PAM strategy refers to the assignment, management, monitoring, and auditing of any users and processes relating to privileged access. At its most basic level, if the database was a castle surrounded by walls, PAM not only controls the gates into the kingdom, but how the castle is segmented off and who has access to each part of it.
In more concrete terms, it starts with a centralized approach to access management, having all users adhere to the same initial restrictions and authorization to log into the database. This minimizes confusion and inconsistency between departments whose admins might enforce different, conflicting privileged access rules.
From there, additional privileges and access are granted to the users that need them. Some users may have multiple roles depending on how much access they need and what their job within the organization entails. However, a good PAM security policy defines who has what privileged access, why, and – in some cases, like with temporary privilege escalation – for how long. These definitions allow for faster auditing and identifying potential weaknesses and loopholes in the database.
PAM may also refer to plugins or other applications that are installed within the database. Even if their related accounts aren’t attached to human users, the principle of least privilege still applies, making sure third-party apps do not interfere with or erode database security. This is especially important if your database and any relevant plugins require cloud access.
Why is Privileged Access Management Important?
Allowing every user to have a privileged access level to your data increases risks, as users may be exposed to data they don’t need. The risk can also be operational, as users with too high access may cause problems in areas they should not be able to access.
And so, privileged access management not only keeps the database secure, it also minimizes the risk of human error while making sure the database and its workflows remain organized. In other words, leave the administration of the database to the admins, not the summer intern who keeps forgetting their password.
Beyond accidentally inputting the wrong information into a record, people without the right skills who have too much privileged access can cause massive damage to the database. From accidentally misspelling a command or deleting the database outright, that’s too much risk internally for any organization to bear.
The same issues can arise if your organization uses shared accounts; not everyone who has access to a single account has the same expertise and can create problems that way. Moreover, shared accounts make it difficult to pinpoint who caused the issue to begin with. Shared accounts can also cause issues with meeting compliance requirements.
A strong PAM policy mitigates all these potential problems, keeping your database safe while giving its security team the tools it needs to identify problems, whether accidental or otherwise.
Privileged Access Management vs. Privileged Identity Management
Both privileged access management and privileged identity management refer to similar – though different – concepts that fall under the PoLP umbrella. Where PAM refers to access (that is, what users can do and see within the database), PIM refers to the users themselves (that is, the accounts and how they’re defined, whether as a regular or “super” user).
For example, a PAM policy might outline which users have access to different parts of the database and what privileges they have in each area. PIM, by contrast, addresses the management, protection, and auditing of the user accounts themselves. This dichotomy may also be referred to as privilege (what actions a user can take) vs. privileged account management (what users can take those actions).
Examples of Privileged Access Management
Example 1: Onboarding a New Employee
When adding a new employee to the database, they’re given the same basic authorization as every other employee which allows them to access the database at all. Then, depending on their department and role – as well as passing a probationary period if your organization has one – they are given specific privileges relating to that role. For instance, if the new employee works in sales, they have access to the client records they’ve been assigned to.
Example 2: Minimizing Risk Posed by Stolen Credentials
Despite training all employees on how to create secure passwords, most of them aside from your IT and database staff still use weak relatively weak passwords. While your team creates new rules enforced by the database itself (either by assigning strong passwords to all users or throwing errors if someone tries to create a weak one), keeping these employees from having admin privileges minimizes security threats to the database on the off-chance their account credentials are stolen by a malicious party.
Privileged Access Management Best Practices
While the concept of privileged access management might seem self-explanatory, here are a few best practices to make sure your organization is implementing its PAM strategies well.
Create a Formal Privileged Access Management Policy
The best way to get started with PAM is to create a uniform, formalized policy that everyone in your organization understands. While PAM will be enforced by your data security team and system administrators, it’s still important that everyone understands why PAM is important and how the procedures work.
A strong PAM policy includes the following points:
- A definition of account types and what kinds of privileged access they have.
- What roles require what kinds of privileges and accounts and for how long (i.e. temporary privilege escalation procedures and interim role assignments).
- Outlining credential rotation (i.e. regular password resets for each kind of account).
- Forbidding account sharing, especially among highly privileged accounts like admins and super users.
- Separation of duties and power between administrators so that a single admin doesn’t have control over the entire database.
- Enforcing strong passwords and multifactor authentication.
- Identifying login protocols such as only accessing the database from specific, on-site devices.
Practice the Principle of Least Privilege
By nature, PAM is an extension of the principle of least privilege. By restricting accounts and their privileged access from the moment they’re created (when hiring) until they’re no longer needed (when firing), your PAM strategies will remain effective. Without PoLP, your privileged access management policies won’t amount to much.
Utilize Temporary Privilege Escalation
Sometimes users might need additional privileges to complete certain tasks – such as a manager on their team being out for the day or someone filling an interim role. By using temporary privilege escalation, a database administrator can grant a given user just enough additional access to fulfill those extra roles but then revoke that access as soon as it’s no longer necessary. This directly combats privilege creep, keeping users from accumulating too many privileges they don’t actually need.
You can use Satori’s self-service access management to make this simple, learn more here.
Keep an Inventory of Privileged Accounts
Just as you should outline your organization’s PAM policies and strategies, you should also keep a roster of every privileged account. This should include what privileges they have and for how long as well as granular information such as where these users login, when, and what records they create, alter, or delete.
While keeping this list should be common practice regardless of the data’s sensitivity, this is especially important for databases that need tight, multilayered security protocols and to track user behavior to minimize any data breaches.
Conduct Regular Database Audits and PAM Policy Updates
Once PAM policies and procedures are in place, it’s important to regularly audit and update the database and the PAM strategies used to keep it safe. This includes monitoring and analyzing the session activity of privileged accounts and identifying any suspicious activity or potential weaknesses in the digital wall. Moreover, audits are also a great time to check for privilege creep and clean up any old accounts that should’ve been deleted or demoted.
While these audits should happen regularly, always be sure to have special audits whenever your organization restructures or implements new tools and technology. This will ensure your PAM strategies remain useful and that nothing slips past your defenses unnoticed.