What Is the Principle of Least Privilege?
It often makes sense for an organisation to limit access to specific systems and data only to those users who have a demonstrable need. In cybersecurity terms, this is known as the principle of least privilege (POLP). POLP practices insure that verified users only have any access to sensitive systems, applications and informations at the level required to effectively do their jobs, POLP is an effective preventative measure that not only restricts access to sensitive networks and data, but also gives organisation’s greater control and deeper insights into who is accessing what, when, and why within their organisation.
What are the Benefits of the Principle of Least Privilege?
Every organisation has its own processes and policies that will be affected by establishing a POLP system, but the benefits are fairly universal. A few of the most notable benefits of adopting POLP include:
When you limit user access to data, those limits can also protect your organisation from bad actors. If your account is compromised in a phishing attack or another breach involving stolen credentials, the hacker would encounter the same access restrictions.
For example, a marketing employee’s account would likely have no access to databases containing personal information of employees. If that account was compromised through social engineering or another attack vector, the threat actor would encounter those same restrictions. Accessing a valuable target such as an employee database would require breaching an account with that particular access.
Limiting the Impact of Human Error
People make mistakes, and when it comes to your organisation’s data, those mistakes can be costly. Applying the principle of least privilege can play a big role in ensuring that damage done via human error is limited to only the areas an individual employee can access. That cuts down the risk of files being accidentally deleted, malicious software being accidentally installed, and other errors commonly committed by non-technical users.
POLP doesn’t just aid in compliance — in many cases, it is compliance. An organisation’s internal policies or industry standards may require that POLP standards be followed in order to prevent errors and malicious actions. Enforcing those standards is also helpful for demonstrating compliance in the event of an external audit.
In order to implement a POLP initiative, your business will need to dig deeply into your systems and reassess who has access to your critical systems and high value assets. Not only does that additional scrutiny offer deeper visibility into what does and does not work in your existing process, it also provides insights that can help you identify potential flaws and weaknesses in your cybersecurity system.
While applying POLP can’t make your business immune to cyber attacks, it can help to limit the damage if and when they do happen. A well implemented POLP program can help prevent wide spread impact or even catastrophic results of a data breach of malware infection. This greatly reduces the attack surface and minimises lateral movement.
How to Implement the Principle of Least Privilege
While the benefits of a POLP approach may appear obvious, getting the approach implemented and bringing everyone on board can be a challenging task. To get a POLP system established within your organisation, the following steps make solid guidelines for most organisations.
Audit Employee Access
Before setting limits on access, it is important to know who already has access to what information. Audit and record all existing permissions granted to employees, applications, and devices in your system.
Define Roles Clearly
Granting access effectively requires understanding which roles within your organisation involve specific systems and data. For each system being considered, create a list of the roles that require it to do their jobs properly.
Even when employees do require some access to certain systems, they may not need unlimited access. Determine which roles within each group require administrative access and develop a standard process by which administrators can grant permissions.
Tie Access to Roles
Once you have defined which roles require which permissions (which should be granular, for example a ‘read only’ access), inform all impacted administrators and employees which systems their roles allow them to access.
Monitor Employee Access
A POLP system is always a work-in-progress. Continue to monitor roles and access and be prepared to adjust accordingly. If one team is not actually using a system that they have permission to use, they may not need access to it after all. Conversely, if one team is consistently requesting access to certain data, you may want to consider granting them permanent permissions with the minimal level of access.
Why Is the Principle of Least Privilege Important?
Employed properly, least privilege does more than simply limit access to systems and data within your organisation. It is also a useful tool for assessing and auditing the systems and data your organisation uses most, who it is used by and how it is being used. POLP can provide helpful insights into the processes and data that power your business while also providing organic, preventative protection against cybersecurity incidents.
Let’s look at a couple of key terms that may come up in your exploration of POLP options.
What Is Privilege Creep?
Privilege creep, also called access creep, is a common concern in the cybersecurity space and one of the strongest arguments in favor of establishing a POLP system.
In a large organisation, employees come and go regularly. Roles change, people change teams, and responsibilities shift. In the midst of that churn, it can be difficult to keep track of who has access to what. “Privilege creep” refers to situations in which current or former employees retain access to systems and materials that they no longer need. This scenario can quickly snowball into widespread access to sensitive information, which greatly increases the risk of a cybersecurity incident.
What Is the Difference Between Least Privilege and ZeroTrust?
While both zero trust and POLP focus on access, they are two different principles. POLP is focused on reducing a user’s access, while zero trust is focused on verifying a user’s access.
In a zero trust landscape, or if an organization follows zero trust network access (ZTNA), no user is able to access any data, system, or application without first being verified.ZTNA is more focused on denying access while POLP limits access to verified users.
What are some examples of POLP Access Controls?
The specifics of instituting POLP will vary from organisation to organisation, but there are four principles of least privilege account types that will cover the needs of most businesses.
1. Group and Team-Based Access
By using access management tools, you can sort your workforce into smaller groups and accordingly assign access only to those teams that need it based on their roles and responsibilities. Not only is this a simpler process than attempting to manage access on an individual basis, it also makes the process of getting access easier for employees joining a new team or work group.
2. Schedule-Based Access
In an organisation where employees regularly work on an established schedule, limiting access based on working hours can be very effective. An employee who works on an overnight shift would be able to access specific systems and data during those working hours, for example, and would be denied access during the day shift when they are not scheduled to be on the clock.
3. Location-Specific Access
In an era where remote and hybrid work is increasingly the norm, managing control of sensitive systems and data becomes all the more difficult. Limiting access to certain systems based on geographic regions, states, or even cities can help flag suspicious access attempts and potential threats.
4. Machine-specific Access
Another approach to address remote workers and the use of unapproved or “bring your own” devices is limiting access to only specific computers and devices. This allows employees to have full access to necessary systems while using approved machines, while denying access on any other devices.
POLP and Arctic Wolf
Arctic Wolf® Managed Detection and Response (MDR) solution provides 24×7 monitoring of your networks, endpoints, and cloud environments. This round-the-clock monitoring helps your organisation detect suspicious access attempts or logins before they become breaches.
Arctic Wolf® Managed Risk enables you to discover, assess, and harden your environment against digital risks by contextualising your attack surface coverage across your networks, endpoints, and cloud environments. This means your assigned security experts will work with your organisation to implement POLP and control access as your security and business needs evolve.