What is privileged access management?

Learn about the basic tenets of privileged access management and why it’s critical for your organization’s cybersecurity. 

Organizations with IT systems and data that require protection must maintain control over who has access to their systems and information. And they will need to use privileged access management to do it. But what is privileged access management?

Privileged access management (PAM) refers to a segment of network security solutions that control and monitor internal employee privileged user activity. PAM tools address the vulnerabilities that are introduced when users with high-level permissions require access to critical systems.

Let’s take a deeper dive into how we define PAM, PAM best practices, and why PAM access management matters for your organization.

Benefits of privileged access management

While it correctly seems like a necessity, understanding the benefits of privileged access management will make it easier to implement across an enterprise. Knowing and communicating the benefits will help more of an organization’s staff understand how it makes their working lives safer and easier.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Increased security | Privileged users serve as a security force limiting the chances of a cyberattack (or unintentional user error) from compromising your systems or data.
  • Consolidated operational access | Administrators get one central location from which to perform account access management, creating a more streamlined workflow for them. Giving your staff one place to sign in using a single sign-on solution also simplifies how they access your systems.
  • Improved insight into network activity | Limiting access to privileged users makes it easier to monitor their activity on your network. Better visibility enhances your ability to either prevent or respond to an attack or vulnerability within your system.
  • Accommodates cloud solutions for hybrid setups | The move to hybrid and remote work arrangements has led to the need for more secure remote access and applications. PAM remote access workflows keep all team members safe without disrupting their ability to do their work.

Yes, enhancing security is a major component of why PAM helps your organization, but there is much more to it than that.

Centralizing access management, increasing PAM network visibility, and strengthening remote and hybrid access all contribute to why privileged access management is critical for any organization that relies on IT systems to thrive.

Types of privileged accounts

Privileged accounts are accounts that can make changes for many system users, and they often can supersede existing security parameters.

But not every privileged account is the same. There are two types of privileged accounts, with each having several subcategories underneath them. The two primary categories include both human and non-human accounts.

Human accounts represent user accounts. These are accounts that individuals use to access and amend your systems. Examples of human accounts include:

  • Administrator | These individuals have the highest level of privilege over an IT system. They are often used to grant access or permissions as well as performing other administrative tasks to assist other users.
  • Domain administrator | This user can use Active Directory to generate new users, remove outdated users, or grant permissions.
  • Local administrator | A level below a domain admin, a local admin can create edits on a local machine without changing any data in Active Directory.
  • Emergency | These accounts are granted one-time or limited access in the event of an emergency. They are usually unprivileged.
  • Privileged users | A privileged user may need access to a secure system without having the overarching access of an administrator account.

Non-human, or machine, accounts perform services on your system and are operated by machines or applications. Example of non-human accounts include:

  • Application | This is an account accessed by an application to grant automated access other applications within the system or access other data.
  • Service | Service accounts can operate tasks or make updates to the system.
  • Active Directory | An Active Directory service account facilitates interaction between a service and your organization’s Active Directory. You can leverage this interaction to change passwords or manage user or device accounts.

Unsecured privileged accounts

Simply deeming an account as privileged does not necessarily make it secure. Often, privileged accounts can still represent a security risk. If not managed properly, privileged accounts can become a serious cybersecurity threat.

Some common reasons why privileged accounts can be left unmanaged (and therefore become vulnerabilities) include:

  • Excessive access levels | Privileged access and security can act as a barrier to workflow. When this happens, some administrators may grant excessive access to help users get more work done. While this can be helpful for productivity, it introduces a serious security risk.
  • Staff movement | When staff members get promoted, leave the organization, or switch departments, the systems they need to access will change. Administrators need to keep a watchful eye over this to ensure they remove privileged access once it no longer applies to the individual.
  • Abandoned accounts | If an individual departs the organization, a failure to shut down their account may leave an abandoned account active with privileged access.
  • Stagnant passwords | When passwords are not automatically updated on a regular basis and rely on users to manually change them, they can act as a major security vulnerability.
  • Shared use passwords | When multiple administrators have access to a single account, they may use the same password. This can make those accounts more susceptible to cyberattacks.

It is essential for administrators to remain cognizant of unsecured privileged accounts. If these accounts become compromised, it serves as a potentially devastating attack vector. Malicious actors may be able to infiltrate the system without administrators even knowing until it is too late to rectify.

Why is privileged access management important?

Strong perimeter protections installed to stop malicious attacks are rendered powerless if a bad actor has already bypassed firewall defenses using an active user account. Compromised accounts are a common vulnerability exploited in cyberattacks, and a particularly difficult challenge for network managers.

The Verizon 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report found that 61% of breaches are attributed to a hacker taking advantage of leveraged credentials. This type of system breach is hard to detect unless strict oversight and comprehensive activity monitoring is in place.

For PAM tools, this is the primary function. Privileged accounts, also known as administrative accounts or those with superuser authority, have access to sensitive data and infrastructure. Certain users play a vital role in ensuring network efficiency, however, the embedded permissions of their accounts with privileged access make them high-value targets for bad actors as well as insider threats.

A well-executed privileged access management strategy establishes regulated individual user access controls and behavior transparency to mitigate security risks and minimize a network's attack surface. PAM tools are introduced to ensure that users only have access to what is required to do their job and nothing more.

PAM cybersecurity best practices

Maintaining a strong cybersecurity posture is what keeps your sensitive systems and data secure and out of the hands of hackers. There are plenty of measures you can take to shore up your organizational cybersecurity. Here are a few PAM cybersecurity best practices you can implement to optimize security:

  • Educate your workforce | Implementing cybersecurity training – with clear instructions on actions to take and potential scams to avoid – is critical. It is an essential preventative measure to help your workforce stay vigilant.
  • Protect credentials for third-party tools | You may introduce third-party systems or applications, either from your own company or operated through a vendor. Securing these can be a bit more challenging, which is why you’ll want to be sure you take exceptional care to do so. And you’ll need to make sure that you have a specific solution for your vendor privileged access management needs, since your existing PAM solution may not be able to support those workflows.
  • Document your cybersecurity incident response plan | Your privileged users should know what to do if one of their accounts or systems are compromised. You can’t wait to act in the moment – you should have a documented set of procedures to follow if an attack does occur.
  • Invest in periodical red team exercises | You’ll want your privileged users to regularly evaluate any response procedures you have in place.
  • Get buy-in at the highest levels of the company | It’s tempting to think of cybersecurity as a responsibility of your IT staff. The truth is, it’s everyone’s responsibility. Every member of your organization should be educated on cybersecurity best practices. When your company’s leadership speaks about this at any opportunity, it will emphasize the importance of good PAM cyber hygiene to everyone.

Requirements for privileged access management tools

An effective PAM tool will address several key areas of network defense – advanced credential security, systems and data access control, and user activity monitoring. Oversight in these target areas reduces the threat of unauthorized entry and makes it easier for IT managers to spot suspicious or risky operations.

Understanding credential storage and PAM

When privileged accounts are created or defined, credentials for that account need special protection. A credential storage solution, or password management system, is utilized to prevent theft or mismanagement.

By storing credentials in a “password vault", privileged users must go through their privileged access management tool for authentication – and a record of this privileged activity is logged.

Further, this centralized PAM storage method allows credentials to be reset after each use. This achieves advanced protection and allows for thorough auditing.

Access control and PAM

Privileged accounts are governed by the permissions granted to them. Permissions under privileged account management define the scope of a user's access rights. Best practices indicate that least privilege protocols (more on those below) should be enforced, and network managers need to have the ability to implement user provisioning (restrict or expand access) in real-time.

Least privilege access and granular controls

Compliance with least privilege will see accounts segmented by roles and rights. Creating these silos confines even privileged users with admin accounts to only the areas and activities necessary to complete authorized operations. Admins need granular controls to make individual changes or impact access en masse.

Proper implementation of identity and access management (IAM) should allow network admins to manage permissions at a very granular (port) level. For example, a user could be restricted to read-only access on a particular directory.

In addition, user access expiry schedules provide an additional protection that’s desired. Another valued consequence of these detailed permissions being linked to an individual is that activity can be tied to that user. So, if something goes wrong, network admins can go right to the source.


Privileged access management and identity access management might be interrelated, but they aren’t precisely the same thing. Both involve components of account access management, but there is a distinction.

Here’s the difference.

IAM is the practice of assigning every system user a digital identity and then maintaining their identities. The individual can then use the organizations IT network, systems, services, and applications.

PAM is when an organization needs to assign exclusive access rules to select individuals such as administrators and then manages access for those users.

Because of this distinction, PAM is typically seen as one component of a comprehensive IAM strategy. Privileged access management risks represent a bigger threat. For example, if a user with access to a single system within an organization is compromised, it may not represent much of a security threat.

Steps to implement PAM

Being able to answer, “what is privileged access management?” is only the first step for an organization looking to practice it. The next step is to successfully implement it.

The specific actions you take to implement PAM may vary depending on the size, scope, or industry of your organization. But here are some high-level steps you can take to implement PAM:

  • Identify the right PAM solution | Having privileged access management standards starts with identifying a security access suite featuring the right solutions for your organization. Do your research and attempt to find the platform acting as a comprehensive solution for PAM rather than identifying multiple platforms to use.
  • Make your organization aware of the change | To maximize privileged access management compliance, let everyone know the change is coming. Clear communication is key. Announce the implementation of a new PAM solution well in advance and educate affected users on how to use the solution. And inform them why you’re implementing the new solution: to secure your systems more effectively and streamline your workflows.
  • Implement and monitor the new solution | Once you have implemented your PAM solution, regularly monitor for any challenges or issues. Speak with privileged users to determine how effective the solution is and where you could improve.
  • Get user feedback (from administrators and staff) | After you have had time to monitor performance and ensure there are no major disruptions or setbacks, talk to your privileged users again to gauge their thoughts. You can also connect with staff members who may not be privileged users, but who must interact with administrators to gain or revoke access to get their perspective.

The importance of auditing and monitoring

The ability to produce a comprehensive audit trail of user activity is essential to network security and a requirement to be in compliance with several federal regulations. Each time a privileged credential is used, that session should be logged. A complete report includes the name of the user, what time their session began, how long it lasted, and what was done under the power of that credential. It is important to monitor this activity to ensure privileged credentials are being used appropriately and that a user’s behavior is not a threat to the PAM network.

Privileged access management solution for vendors

Privileged accounts are not just given to internal employee users. Organizations that utilize external technology vendors or contractors need protection against threats unique to third-party remote access users.

So what is vendor privileged access management? Vendor privileged access management (VPAM) refers to solutions that specifically address these risks by introducing access management controls for privileged vendors. Traditional PAM solutions work effectively to manage internal privileged accounts because they operate based on the assumption that admins know the identity of each individual accessing the network. This is not the case with third-party users.

Multifactor authentication becomes a critical element. Network managers must be able to identify and authenticate users through advanced methods that tie them to active vendor accounts.

In addition, admins require ready offboarding controls. A robust VPAM solution will monitor vendor user activity at all times. External users pose a unique threat because network managers cannot control the security best practices of their vendor partners, they can only protect against risky user behavior. Detailed tracking is key and will protect against unauthorized use.

Privileged access management is a crucial part of network security and should be implemented for all users – internal and external – that are granted advanced permissions.

Organizations need these solutions to ensure comprehensive protection of critical data and systems. To learn more about how to put privileged access at the center of your security strategy, download our white paper today. Or to learn more about what you need to have in place to support proper vendor privileged access management, read our VPAM checklist.