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May 17, 2024

How to do a Privileged Access Management Audit?

Privileged access management is similar to having a secret key to your company's most sensitive information. It's crucial to ensure it's secure and only accessible to the right people.

A PAM audit ensures that only authorized users have access to critical assets, thereby reducing the risk of data breaches and compliance violations. Through this audit, businesses can evaluate the effectiveness of their PAM practices, identify potential security risks, and improve their overall cybersecurity posture.

Importance of Auditing in Privileged Access Management

Auditing in Privileged Access Management is an essential component of any cybersecurity strategy. Privileged accounts are high-value targets for attackers, as they often have the highest level of access within an organization. A successful breach involving privileged credentials can lead to catastrophic data breaches and significant financial and reputational damage.

By regularly auditing privileged access, organizations can ensure that they have appropriate controls in place to prevent unauthorized access and detect any anomalous behavior that could indicate a security breach. Furthermore, audits help maintain compliance with industry regulations and governance standards, which is critical for avoiding hefty fines and legal repercussions.

A PAM audit is not just about checking a box; it's about continuously improving the security measures in place to protect an organization's most sensitive information and systems. It's an indispensable step towards a stronger defense against the ever-evolving threat landscape.

Pre-audit Preparation for Privileged Access Management Audit Program

Audit Scope and Objectives Determination

The first step in conducting a PAM audit is to define the scope and objectives clearly. This includes identifying which systems, applications, and data are considered critical assets and thus require privileged access control. It's crucial to understand what needs to be protected and why, to ensure that the audit covers all relevant areas.

Objectives should be specific and measurable, such as ensuring that all privileged accounts are authorized and that password management policies are being followed. It's also important to set objectives that align with compliance requirements and the organization's overall risk management strategy. This ensures that the audit provides value and supports the organization's business goals.

Selected Frameworks and Standards for Compliance

Selecting the appropriate frameworks and standards is also critical for guiding the PAM audit process. These frameworks provide a structured approach to assessing and improving privileged access management within an organization. Popular frameworks include the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines, the ISO/IEC 27001 standard, and the Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies (COBIT).

Each framework has its own set of best practices and requirements for managing and auditing privileged access. Aligning the audit with these standards ensures that the organization meets industry regulations and adopts a widely recognized approach to cybersecurity. Hence, it is important to choose a framework that aligns with the organization's specific needs and compliance obligations.

Staffing and Resource Allocation

For a PAM audit to be successful, it is necessary to allocate the right personnel and resources. This involves forming a cross-functional audit team that includes members from IT operations, cybersecurity, compliance, and risk management. The diversity of this team ensures a comprehensive understanding of the technical, administrative, and regulatory aspects of privileged access management.

The audit team should have the authority to access all necessary information and systems to conduct a thorough review. Additionally, allocating the appropriate tools, such as SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) tools for monitoring and auditing, is essential for an effective audit. These resources will help the team to conduct a detailed analysis and provide accurate findings.

The Privileged Access Management Audit Checklist

Review User Access Levels

The audit should begin with a review of user access levels to ensure that only authorized users have privileged rights. This involves verifying that each privileged account is tied to an individual with appropriate job duties and that there is a legitimate business need for such access. The review process should also ensure that all privileged accounts are subject to access control policies and that there are mechanisms in place to revoke access when it is no longer required or when an employee's role changes.

It is critical to regularly review and update the list of privileged accounts, known as the PAC inventory, to reflect any organizational changes. This step helps prevent unauthorized access and reduces the risk of a security breach due to outdated access privileges.

Assess Password & Key Policy Management and Security

Password management is a key component of privileged access management. The audit should assess the organization's password policies to ensure they align with industry standards and best practices. This includes evaluating the complexity and uniqueness of passwords, the frequency of mandatory changes, and the use of multi-factor authentication for additional security.

The audit should also review the processes for issuing, storing, and revoking passwords. It's important to ensure that there are secure methods in place for managing passwords, such as encrypted password vaults, and that there is strict control over who can access these management tools.

Advanced PAMs offer passwordless authentication, eliminating the need to vault passwords entirely. Moreover, the management of authentication keys, like SSH keys, is an often overlooked feature in PAMs but an important part of an audit.

Effective password and key management is a critical defense against unauthorized access and can significantly reduce the risk of a data breach.

Evaluate Role-Based Access Control Implementation

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is a method of restricting system access to authorized users based on their role within an organization. The evaluation should include a review of how roles are defined, assigned, and managed, as well as how permissions are granted and reviewed.

The audit team should verify that roles are aligned with job duties and that there is a process for updating roles when necessary. This helps to ensure that users have access only to the resources that are necessary for their roles, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and potential security breaches.

Inspect Audit Trails for Adequacy and Compliance

Audit trails are an essential component of privileged access management, as they provide a record of all activities performed with privileged accounts. During the audit, it's important to inspect these trails to ensure they are comprehensive, can effectively track and attribute actions to individual users, and are protected against unauthorized modification or deletion.

It should also assess whether the organization has the capability to conduct session monitoring and recording, which can be invaluable for investigating and responding to incidents. Ensuring that audit trails meet compliance requirements and industry standards is crucial for demonstrating due diligence and for maintaining the integrity of PAMs.

Execution of Privileged Access Management Audit

The execution phase of the PAM audit involves putting the audit plan into action. The audit team must methodically work through the checklist, reviewing each item for compliance with the established scope and objectives. This phase typically includes conducting interviews with stakeholders, inspecting system configurations, and analyzing documentation and logs.

During execution, it's important to maintain open communication with the IT team and other relevant departments to ensure a smooth audit process. The team should use the selected frameworks and standards as a guide to evaluating the organization's PAM practices against best practices and regulatory requirements.

The execution phase is where the audit team gathers the evidence needed to assess the effectiveness of the organization's PAM and identify any gaps that may exist.

Issue Identification and Risk Assessment in Privileged Access Management

After executing the audit, the next step is to identify any issues or gaps in the organization's PAM practices. This involves analyzing the findings to determine the root cause of each issue and assessing the associated security risk. Common issues may include excessive user privileges, inadequate password policies, or insufficient monitoring and auditing capabilities.

Each identified issue should be categorized based on its potential impact on the organization, such as the likelihood of a data breach or compliance violation. This risk assessment is critical for prioritizing remediation efforts and for making informed decisions about where to allocate resources to improve the organization's cybersecurity posture.

Improvement Recommendations and Plan Development

Upon identifying and assessing risks, the next step is to develop recommendations for improvement. These recommendations should be actionable, prioritized based on the level of risk, and designed to address the specific issues uncovered during the audit.

The plan should outline steps to address any deficiencies in the PAM practices, such as enhancing password policies, implementing stricter access controls, or improving monitoring and auditing capabilities. It should also include timelines and responsibilities for implementing these improvements to ensure accountability and progress tracking.

Reporting Results from Privileged Access Management Audit Program

The final phase of the PAM audit is to compile and report the results. The audit report should provide a clear and concise overview of the audit findings, including identified issues, risk assessments, and recommended improvements. It should be presented in a format that is accessible to stakeholders with varying levels of technical expertise.

The report should also highlight any areas where the organization excels in its PAM practices, along with areas needing attention. It serves as a record of the audit process and as a benchmark for future audits.

Reporting the results is not just an endpoint; it's a critical step that informs decision-makers and drives the necessary changes to strengthen privileged access management within the organization.

Pass Audits with Flying Colours with PrivX

SSH Communications Security offers PrivX PAM which is a great fit for on-premises environments as well as the hybrid cloud, manages both passwords and keys, allows the migration to effective passwordless and keyless authentication, and has advanced auditing, tracking, session monitoring, and recording capabilities.

The PAM solution integrates with identity and access management solutions, discovers accounts and servers, provides the right level of access to the right person at the right time, and integrates with external solutions like ticketing systems and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions. PrivX is ready for rigorous audits for your organization.

Esa Tornikoski

Esa Tornikoski is Product Manager for PrivX and Crypto Auditor products. Esa joined SSH late 2017. Prior SSH he has been working in Product management roles at Telecom and IT security companies (Elisa, F-Secure and Siemens). He has a Master of Science degree in Computer Science from Lappeenranta University of...

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