"Privileged accounts have emerged as the primary target for attackers -- if you examine some of the most spectacular breaches of the past few years, they all have a privileged connection," says Adam Bosnian, executive vice president of Americas and corporate development for Cyber-Ark, pointing to other attacks against Global Payments, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Utah medical records breach. "Hackers gain access to administrative and privileged accounts -- once inside, they elevate privileges to gain access to additional servers, databases, and other high-value systems."
And yet many organizations fail to even assess the risk that elevated rights on endpoints and privileged accounts for network resources pose to their businesses. A survey conducted by privileged management vendor Viewfinity this summer found that 68 percent of organizations didn't even know who had local administrator rights on their machines, a configuration vulnerability frequently used by spearphishing attackers to start attacking the network from the proverbial side door.
According to Bosnian, part of the problem of runaway privileges in the enterprise is that many organizations have too narrow of a view of what exactly a privileged account really is.
"The common belief is that if you're managing the user names, roles, and privileges of your IT employees' personal accounts, then you're successfully controlling all privileged accounts and access," he says. "Whether they're called hard-coded passwords, admin passwords, or privileged accounts, they're all privileged access points that provide a direct -- and often anonymous -- route to an organization's most sensitive data and infrastructure."
By rights, adherence to the rule of least privilege -- or the maxim that no account should ever have more rights authorized to it than necessary for a user to get his job done -- should be the No. 1 driver for identity and access management, says Marcus Carey, security researcher for Rapid7.
"This is critical because limiting privileges is an excellent way to limit the spread of malware once network resources are compromised," he says. "However, the principle of 'least privilege' is one of the hardest information security tenets to maintain. It is nearly impossible for large enterprises to manage this without identity and access management."
[Hackers fixate on SQL injections -- CSOs, not so much. See The SQL Injection Disconnection.]
Of course, IAM products alone can't do much to enforce the rule of least privilege. It also takes coordinated effort to focus automation, policy, and teamwork into the right direction. For example, frequent access reviews are important to prevent privileges from creeping upward, says Jackson Shaw, senior director of product management at Quest Software, now a part of Dell.
"Embrace an access review policy and regular, automated access alerts that notify two or more administrators of access changes, employee changes, or other critical issues," Shaw says. "Notifying more than one administrator helps overcome negligence. To prevent access creep, access privileges must be dynamically linked to human resources and staffing databases."
Similarly, best practices should drive IAM implementation choices that lead to restrictions in privilege authorizations that lead to a least privilege posture, Shaw says.
"Some of the most common implementation options to help get to a least-privilege state include assigning appropriate access directly to users based on well-defined roles, limiting access to administrator and root accounts, and making sure that the passwords to these accounts are not shared, are changed frequently, and that there are controls in place to limit and track their use," he says.
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