API Security

Principle of least privilege - PoLP

Principle of least privilege - PoLP

Introduction

Be it any business, in today’s time, it needs a lot of resources to operate well. For an example, applications, servers, software, databases, and so on are essential to ensure a continual work/process flow. But, how can an organization control access to a wide range of resources?

Well, PoLP - a security method - is here to help you out on this front. It will reduce the resources’ misuse. Let us tell you how.

Learning Objectives

Principle of Least Privilege: An Overview

Prior to talking about the above, take a note of 2 points from the previous section: 

  • Effective utilization of resources is only possible by granting of need-based and optimized access.
  • Access in times of need and as per the requirements prevent resource exhaustion.

PoLP can help in this. 

This security strategy promotes the idea of letting one or more resources control the user's access and granting of access in the essential conditions only.

As per the word of cybersecurity professionals or enthusiasts, resources having excessive or uncontrolled reach/entry to your systems have a very high probability of compromised security and insider/outside threats.

To gain better insights on the least privilege definition, consider this situation:

If an enterprise has kept its payroll database open for all, the odds of leaking of data/info are higher than ever. It goes with the marketing or any other data. Data systems that aren’t backed with controlled access are nothing but an unforeseen threat for a business/organization.

As per the requirements, the PoLP can be applied in a variety of ways and settings. Even though one can easily apply it in the personal sphere, its significance is more in the corporate/professional sphere. and that’s what makes least privilege important.

In enterprises, one can’t afford to leave mission-critical resources unattended or overly consumed. By bringing the PoLP into action, businesses can ensure that a professional/employee only has a restricted/task-oriented access as per the job handed-over or responsibilities. Once the given tasks or responsibilities are taken care of, the access will no longer be available.

For instance, if a salesperson requires using a CRM software to gather personal record for a particular use - just for a while.

While it’s crucial to understand what PoLP is, one can’t escape from understanding what it’s not for its effective utilization.

PoLP does not do the separation of duties or not allowing your employees to view/use the resources. But, for better results, duty-wise priveleges could be paired with the PoLP. Thinking of this, you must involve two or multiple people in one critical task. It will prevent the granting of full power to one person. And due to this, your business won’t be facing the wrath or downtime when that authorized personnel isn’t available. 

Principle of Least Privilege
Principle of Least Privilege

The importance of PoLP

As it’s directly linked with effective resource utilization, implementation of the PoLP access isn’t going to be a waste. In fact, the hard work invested in this concept is a must as it’s crucial from various aspects.

Most of the cyber-world vulnerabilities revolve around exploiting the authorized details/data. By accessing data of high caliber or utility, attackers/hackers have a chance to break down an enterprise. With the PoLP, it’s easy to ensure that only allowed professionals are accessing crucial data for a limited time. This is a step towards improved cyber security.

  • Control over malware spread

Malware and viruses can harm one’s imagination. With least privilege access, businesses have a chance to limit the spread of virus/malware as when access to the infected resource is limited, the spread will be limited.

It is also a great way to minimize the danger that could be incurred due to SQL injection or other sorts of malware attacks.

  • Enhanced end-user productivity

Access to an abundance of resources can confuse employees and hamper the end-productivity. With PoLP, enterprises eliminate the local administration rights and grant policy-driven access. This way, users know what tool they need to use for what action or task. This saves time and effort while the IT helpdesk is called less for help.

  • Effortless audits and compliances

Considering the functionalities PoLP brings on the table, many international quality standards and policies have made its implementation mandatory to achieving compliances. Hence, one has to have it to meet these compliances.  

When entire access is pre-defined and is at the fingertips, audits become easy and quick. In case of a breach, it’s easy to track down the extent of the damage, source of damage, and other aspects.

  • Protection against human-made errors and risks

Excess of everything is bad and if you don’t know what harm uncontrolled resource access can cause, read the Aberdeen Strategy Study.

Conducted in 2021, the study revealed that nearly 78% of attacks or data breaches are unintentional and can take place because of human errors or mishandling.

Human negligence and errors, left unattended or overlooked for a longer time, can lead to endless hassles. With PoLP, enterprises can keep rogue under the tab and prevent the unseen but certain insider threats.

By controlling the scope of doing alternation in the resources, PoLP skimps the human error possibilities and keeps the resources/data protected.

Types of accounts

As mentioned above, PoLP is about controlling the resource access by a particular user account. Hence, understanding the involved account and their types is crucial.

  1. Superuser accounts

Often called an admin account, it has the highest possible privileges in the PoLP strategy. Mostly, the organization’s top-tier professionals and admins are the superusers as they are in-charge of taking-up business-critical decisions, acquiring critical information, and looking into the system maintenance.

People with superuser privelege have powers like eliminating any data from the database, modifying the privileges assigned to other users or activating/deactivating them, performing independent app installation and update, and altering the default network settings/parameters.

  1. Least-privileged user accounts

It is a kind of account that features the PoLP-driven privileges. Generally, the rights granted are good enough to accomplish the basic jobs assigned to the account holder.

In an organization, most of the employees hold this type of account only. Such accounts aren’t allowed to carry out any critical tasks like account activation/deactivation or everything else that is linked with the superuser.

  1. Guest account

It hardly has any privilege granted. It’s mainly used to provide short-time entry to a particular network. To keep the risks on the lower side, several access attempts, duration of access, access per day, and many other things are pre-defined.

Advantages of PoLP

When implemented correctly, the PoLP can bring multiple benefits like:

  • Improved system stability
  • Full control over resources
  • Fewer possibilities of threats and risks
  • Minimized spread of malware

Example of the PoLP

Lack of PoLP can cause damage beyond our understanding. Here are a few real-world PoLP examples that are worth noticing.

Target, the US retail giant, ended-up compromising the personal information of its nearly 100 million customers because of an over-trusted HVAC system third-party vendor. The third party was responsible for equipment maintenance and its routine monitoring. The vendor was granted admin-like access, or better to say was holding a super-user account. When the vendor was victimized by cyber threats, Target’s user data was also compromised.

One more very famous Principle of Least Privilege example of misusing privileged access is the Edward Snowden breach. Edward Snowden was working as a technology contractor for NSA. Due to the nature of his job and responsibilities granted, he was provided admin-level access to the NSA’s databases and systems. However, he misused his power and illegally copied the critical data from nearly 1.7 million user files.

Access control security issues 

Access control security is a tricky job to perform as many challenges are there to bother you. With limited and restricted access, your teams/people can be frustrated at times. The diverse nature of ultra-modern computing networks makes it hard to control access. Some of the crucial OS like Windows as well as UNIX don’t accept PoLP as a default option.

Zero trust and least privilege

Zero trust is another famous security practice adopted by organizations to improve their security on the digital front. It involves trusting no one, and thereby, imposing authorization and authentication on all people trying to access business assets like databases, networks, API, servers, and so on alike. Instead of focusing on ‘trust first and verify second’, Zero Trust focuses on ‘trust but verify first’.  

As both are linked with access control, people often consider both the things same. But, they are not. Least privileged access this a part of zero-trust. The focus of Zero Trust is on authentication while PoLP is more about access control. This principle is actively used in API security.

They both are part of an improved cybersecurity strategy. The prime aim of both of them is to keep resources safe and control access. 

Zero trust and least privilege
Zero trust privilege approach

Implementing least privilege in the organization

By now, you must have understood the significance of the principle of least privilege. The next step is understanding its implementation rules because all the said or claimed benefits can only be yours only if the successful implementation of PoLP is done.

The core of this process is designing an organized access management approach that must encompass procedures, tools, and policies.

All these would be required for through-and-through resource authentication.

The further steps to take for appropriate PoLP implementation are:

  • Conduct a privilege audit first  

There is no point in implementing a least privilege access policy without knowing which all resources should be a part of the process.

To figure this out, one must conduct a privilege audit that must pay attention to every detail. Aspects like already-using privileged accounts by employees, contractors, and others, the extent of access granted, and data included. Every single machine-based and human entity should be a part of this audit.

  • Make sure least privilege is the default option

We understand that you must be using various security practices for improved security. But, when it comes to account/resource access, nothing but PoLP has to be the default option. Its implementation, alone or combined with other access practices, leads to better resource control. While you do that, remove default permission and access from the new system and make the concept of least privilege access flexible enough to modify the access rules when a user’s role changes.

  • Don’t forget to use separation of privileges

During the implementation of PoLP, over-provisioning could be a huge challenge. If you don’t want to get bothered by this, try to separate the administrative and standard accounts. This should be the priority even when the same user is having both administrative and standard accounts. Privileged user sessions should be well isolated.

  • Allow access on a granular level  

Even though implementation of PoLP is mandatory or suggested highly, it shouldn’t be done in a way where regular workflow isn’t hampered a lot. To make this happen, granular level access should be allowed. 

For instance, role-based access should be clubbed with time-restricted privileges or strictly coded login details should be replaced with dynamic secrets. This way, it’s easy for organizations to lift the access permission while causing zero privilege to creep in in certain cases.

  • Supervise the privilege access details

It’s essential to keep a watch over the privileged access at a place to avoid any loopholes. Organizations must keep the logs of system authorization and authentication used all across the network. By all means, users’ actions, individually, must be available to track. 

To avoid any misuse, it’s essential to monitor details like RDP, SSH sessions, and keystrokes. For all this extensive monitoring, one must always use automated tools as it makes the job done with perfection and at a scheduled time.  

  • Review the privilege at regular interval

Your job is not done with the correct implementation. It continues with regular monitoring. Without continuous or timely review, no PoLP will hold impact for a longer time as certain loopholes will go on. So, it’s very essential that a proper cadence is defined featuring criteria for review. 

Now, if you’re worried how often reviews could take place? Experts say that newly launched companies or start-ups should conduct the PoLP audit once a month. Enterprises, running for a long time, can conduct the audit quarterly.  

By adopting these best practices, it’s easy to achieve a successful and result-driven least privilege access implementation that will safeguard your accounts, assets, data, and other resources.

Final Say

Resources like databases, servers, networks, and business-critical applications can’t be misused or ill-treated. No matter how your employees seem trusted, resources access should be limited as per the roles and responsibilities. With the least privilege principle, organizations have a chance to manage access and keep the resources well-managed.

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