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What Is Least Privilege and How Do You Use It?

A data breach is the last thing your business needs. But even with passwords and multi-factor authentication, a cyberattack is always possible. Recovering from a security compromise can cost precious time and money — not to mention a loss of trust in your brand — which is why it is essential that businesses take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of a breach as much as possible.

One of the most important components of account security is privilege assignment. Privileged accounts protect sensitive information using role-based authentication, as well as other parameters that specify the data a user is allowed to access. The aim of privilege delegation is to ensure users can only access the data they need. This helps avoid insider threats and minimize the fallout of password compromise.

But even a sophisticated privileged access system isn’t entirely immune to cyber attacks. To optimize and maximize account security, Zero Trust architecture — in which the principle of least privilege plays a key role — is recommended.

Least privilege offers a defense against insider threats, hackers, and other cyberattacks. Let’s take a look at what least privilege entails and why the concept of least privilege is so important in Zero Trust security.

Contents

What Does Least Privilege Mean in IT?
How Do You Use Least Privilege?
Best Practices for Implementing the Least Privilege Principle
What Are the Benefits of Least Privilege?
Least Privilege and Zero Trust
Least Privilege with SSH's Zero Trust Solutions


zero trust, zero trust access management, least privilege

What Does Least Privilege Mean in IT?

Before we can address the importance of least privilege, it’s important to define least privilege in the context of the modern cybersecurity landscape. In theory, least privilege refers to minimum access for each user — with no user able to access data that is not necessary to perform their job. In practice, it’s rarely possible to implement least privilege perfectly. Users in the real world will need to navigate IT systems quickly, without the need for authentication at every step.

Even programs can abide by the concept of least privilege. When applications need access to sensitive information, least privilege can help ensure each tool only has access to the data it needs to operate. Zero Trust architecture aims to get as close as possible to least privilege, by using multifactor authentication and ephemeral access certificates to protect privileged information. 

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) is a central component of privileged access management (PAM), and is considered a best practice for modern cybersecurity. In today’s IT environment, it is possible to implement the principles of least privilege with streamlined safeguards that can optimize privileged access while maintaining a fast and easy user experience.

How Do You Use Least Privilege?

The traditional approach to cybersecurity is perimeter-based — meaning users can access information once they have proven their credentials. Least privilege access avoids the pitfalls of perimeter security by creating privilege tiers that are highly specific to each user. To properly manage an organization using the principle of least privilege, your organization needs a dynamic approach to privileged access management. Instead of setting one-time credentials, effective least privilege management involves granting new privileges to employees as they progress through their tasks.

Even though least privilege is a more effective alternative to perimeter security, a potential concern in least privilege is known as “privilege creep” — the idea that, once privileges are granted, they are not revoked. With privilege creep, even highly granular PAM solutions can leave doors open to potential cyberattacks. Addressing privilege creep is necessary for an effective Zero Trust approach, by using ephemeral access credentials to minimize insider threats.

Best Practices for Implementing the Least Privilege Principle

For effective use of the principle of least privilege, there are certain steps every IT team should take. The best practices for implementing the least privilege principle effectively include: 

  • Monitor continuously. By constantly monitoring your privileged account access, you can identify which users have unnecessary or inappropriate access to passwords and keys. Regular surveillance allows you to prevent privilege creep and identify the source of potential threats. Remember to monitor permissions for cloud-based applications, not just your on-premises data. 
  • Set up alerts. In addition to auditing consistently, an alert system can help you detect unusual activity before a major data breach occurs. 
  • Establish administrative accounts. When you separate administrative accounts from other users, you can help to ensure that privileged users aren’t able to access administrative capabilities unless it’s absolutely necessary.  
  • Set just-in-time (JIT) privileges. JIT privileges are a central component of least privilege, offering a specific timeframe for the use of access credentials on an as-needed basis. When you replace standing passwords with JIT access, you can ensure data is only available to the right user at the right time.
  • Rotate passwords regularly. By rotating passwords and keys, you can avoid the risk of cyberattackers gaining access to privileged account credentials. Ephemeral access certificates ensure that credentials disappear immediately after use, allowing you to effectively “rotate” passwords and keys automatically.

What Are the Benefits of Least Privilege?

In today’s cybersecurity environment, privileged accounts are one of the most common sources of security compromise. By ensuring users can only access the data they need, when they need it, IT administrators can effectively minimize the surface area of a cyberattack.

Insider threats from privileged users aren’t the only threat that’s thwarted by implementing the least privilege access principle. In the case of malware, unwanted requests are unable to move through the system because of limited lateral access. With automated least privilege monitoring, you can identify malware attacks before they are able to access sensitive information. 

Least privilege isn’t just a way to protect yourself from attackers — it’s a great way to streamline security audits, too. Professionals in medicine, finance, education, cybersecurity, and other industries need a well-documented cybersecurity system to ensure compliance with industry audits. When you implement the principles of least privilege, you can provide evidence that your access controls are sufficiently secure.

Least Privilege and Zero Trust

Zero Trust is the gold standard of cybersecurity today. Guided by the “never trust, always verify” principle, Zero Trust offers an approach to security that treats any users, applications, and devices as if they were potentially compromised. In contrast with perimeter security, which trusts devices that have made it past a security threshold, Zero Trust requires constant vigilance and verification over time as users move laterally through the system.

With Zero Trust, IT admins can quickly revoke access for any device that is potentially compromised. The concept of least privilege is central to the Zero Trust model, since least privilege requires continuous authentication over time, as each user moves through the various levels of access. Without the principles of least privilege, Zero Trust architecture wouldn’t be possible.

Least Privilege with SSH's Zero Trust Solutions

SSH offers several Zero Trust solutions designed to help you implement the least privilege principle. PrivX Zero Trust is a scalable, cost-efficient, and highly automated PAM solution for hybrid and multi-cloud environments, quantum-safe connections and any combination of password vaulting, rotation, and passwordless authentication. 

For credential management founded on the principles of least privilege, UKM Zero Trust is ideal. UKM automates the governance of SSH keys according to compliance and security standards and minimizes key management complexity. And for a comprehensive Zero Trust package, Tectia Zero Trust protects and tracks all your interactive and machine-to-machine connections. It eliminates your static credentials, provides secure role-based access, and records full access logs.

All our Zero Trust solutions not only support you in implementing and maintaining the least privilege principle, but also give you the opportunity to migrate to a completely passwordless and keyless environment at your own pace — all while maintaining your existing credentials until the transition is complete. 

Our team at SSH is here to help you find the most effective solution for your security needs, while maintaining a user-friendly system. The principle of least privilege shouldn’t be hard to implement — and with SSH, it isn’t. Get in touch to find out more about our solutions.