What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?
Privileged Access Management (PAM) is an approach to identity management designed to protect privileged user accounts against unauthorized access and misuse.
PAM solutions are designed to manage, monitor, and audit privileged accounts, such as domain, system admin, or root accounts, that can be used to manage or configure other user accounts and IT infrastructure or have access credentials, secrets, or tokens.
According to Gartner, PAM platforms offer enterprises a number of core capabilities, including:
- Ability to discover privileged accounts across multiple systems;
- Credential management for privileged accounts;
- Credential vaulting and access controls for privileged accounts;
- Session management and monitoring for privileged account access.
Together, these measures are not only designed to prevent unauthorized users from infiltrating high-value accounts but giving IT admins the visibility and control to revoke privileged access if a user misuses their credentials.
Why Is PAM Important?
Privileged Access Management is important because it provides a framework for enterprises to add extra layers of security to accounts that have access to lots of high-value information, from credentials, secrets, tokens, and keys to personally identifiable information, intellectual property, and payment data.
In many ways, targeting a privileged user account is the easiest way for threat actors to gain access to sensitive data. In fact, according to Verizon, 74% of all breaches involve the human element, which includes error, privilege misuse, use of stolen credentials, or social engineering.
In this sense, privileged accounts are a vital part of the enterprise attack surface, if a user acts negligently or maliciously or inadvertently provides access to a cybercriminal, all information they can access is exposed.
PAM addresses these threats by enabling IT administrators to apply the principle of least privilege to user accounts, ensuring that each user only has the level of permissions (access, read, write, and execute) necessary to perform their function and nothing more.
Under the principle of least privilege, if an unauthorized user accesses the account, the amount of information they have access to is significantly decreased, which reduces the overall impact of a data breach.
Benefits of Privileged Access Management
Deploying privileged access management in the enterprise provides organizations with a number of key benefits. These include:
- Centralized management of privileged account access;
- Automated identification, creation, and deletion of user accounts;
- Support for just-in-time access to elevate or remote privileges as needed;
- Enhanced protection against credential theft, phishing, and social engineering;
- Activity monitoring of privileged users;
- Creation of an audit trail of account activity;
- Instant revocation of user permissions;
- Implementation of the principle of least privilege across privileged accounts.
In combination, these benefits add up to hardening the identity perimeter against cybercriminals and reduce the chance of them establishing lateral movement within an enterprise environment.
PAM vs. IAM
Identity and Access Management (IAM) provides enterprises with another framework to protect user accounts against unauthorized access. At its core, IAM is about centrally managing permissions and determining the process employees use to authenticate themselves before accessing their user accounts.
Typically, organizations will use IAM platforms to control, identify, and authenticate users, leveraging measures such as single-sign-on (SSO), two-factor authentication, and multi-factor authentication to verify their identity.
IAM systems use role-based access control, determining what resources a user can access based on their job function.
While there’s some crossover between the two, the main difference between IAM and PAM is that the former is about defining steps to access the average user’s account, whereas the latter is about protecting privileged accounts.
In this sense, IAM is used throughout the enterprise to make sure that unauthorized users cannot log in to IT resources without passing through a predefined authentication process, and then PAM is used to enhance the security of a small subsection of high-value accounts.
For example, an administrator can monitor privileged account access and immediately identify malicious or anomalous actions, such as a user exfiltrating or deleting data, and revoke access if there’s anything problematic going on.
It’s important to note that IAM and PAM are mutually complementary and can be applied together to protect all identities.
A Zero-Trust Essential
In today’s world of decentralized networks, user accounts and identities are key targets for cybercriminals. With social engineering and phishing attacks making it easier for threat actors to harvest login credentials, organizations need to be prepared to react in case an attacker gains access to a privileged account.
Privileged Access Management offers enterprises a tool they can use to harden high-value accounts against these types of threats and make it easier to accelerate their zero-trust journeys.