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Top-Down Password Protection

New tools can corral administrator-level access, but plan ahead to avoid costly downtime.

Chances are good that many of your servers share administrator passwords that haven't been changed in a long time. Chances also are good that these passwords are well-known to many staff members--including some former ones.

If that doesn't scare you, it should: Anyone who knows the passwords could log in and have complete control over servers and applications, and you'd have no ability to track who made changes or accessed data.

The problems with poor administrative password management extend beyond insiders to external threats as well. Penetration testers have proven that there's a way into nearly every network, and once attackers find it--often in a typical user's desktop--they can reverse-engineer the passwords on the system and discover the local administrator password. If this password is common to other systems, as it often is, attackers can then use it to access other systems and move through the network.

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Just as bad, at many companies there's only one system administrator who knows a critical password. This situation is dangerous, as the case of Terry Childs shows. Childs, you may remember, was a network administrator in San Francisco who last year was accused of locking top administrators out of the city's network. At the time, he was the only person with passwords to many of the city's routers.

Account Ability
The dangers of administrator accounts are well known, but few organizations have a comprehensive way to manage these all-powerful accounts. It's not that organizations want to leave themselves open to vulnerability and accountability issues. The problem is that privileged accounts are difficult to manage because there are so many of them. Every server and workstation has a local administrator account, as do most applications. Even services running on servers, such as a backup agent or a Web server, use privileged accounts to function. All the routers, switches, and firewalls on your network do, too.

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Ideally, passwords for these accounts should all be unique and should be changed frequently. In the real world, that's just not practical. But now is a particularly good time to start figuring out who has access to what: The sad fact is that the threat level from former workers will likely remain high as companies lay off higher-level employees to survive the economic downturn.

Some organizations use a low-tech approach to secure administrator accounts, constructing elaborate systems where privileged account passwords are stored in sealed envelopes in a fireproof safe, with a paper record of when they were accessed. These measures are probably better than nothing, but they don't fully address password access control and user accountability, and can quickly become unworkable for larger installations.

Impact Assessment: Privelaged Account Management Tools

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