Principle of least privilege benefits

Current cybersecurity and data protection best practices are far beyond the days of just employing a perimeter defense. Threats are coming in from all sides and old castle-and-moat methodologies are outdated and vulnerable. All it takes is a look at the headlines to see how hackers are able to leverage privileged accounts to gain access to critical data. In fact, 44% of organizations polled in the 2021 Ponemon report experienced a third-party data breach in the last 12 months that resulted in the misuse of sensitive or confidential information. But the principle of least privilege benefits companies who learn, adapt, and take advantage of this form of access control. With least privileged access, the user, whether internal employee or a third-party vendor, is granted the minimal amount of access rights and privileges to only those who need it for a required job. It’s the difference between having a key that works on every door and one that only opens certain rooms; there’s no reason anyone should have a key for a door they don’t need to enter. The same goes for an organization’s access: if a person doesn’t need access to an asset to do their job, they shouldn’t have the ability to access it. Role-based access control should be integrated as part of a least privilege access strategy so users only have the keys to open the doors they need for their role.

Five benefits of the least privilege principle

  1. The least privilege principle reduces liability.

    Whether by accident or intention, when someone accesses data, programs, or part of a network they don’t need to, problems can occur. Whether it’s an internal employee looking at sensitive information out of curiosity or a bad actor gaining access to critical information, more open doors mean more liabilities and opportunities for issues. A least privilege access policy minimizes the attack surface by creating fewer targets for bad actors. When there aren’t as many doors to open, it lessens the chance of an incident.

  2. Least privilege access limits the possibility of catastrophic damage.

    If the worst case scenario happens, and a bad actor gets into an organization’s network, the least privilege model means they’ll be greeted with nothing but locked doors. It immediately reduces the damage they can create or the critical information they can access. If an organization doesn’t employ this principle, then suddenly all the doors are swinging open and the results — compromised data, stolen information, or even a ransomware attack — become distinct possibilities.

  3. The principle of least privilege protects against common attacks, like SQL injections.

    Applications with unrestricted privileges are often targeted by attackers. An SQL injection is a common web application attack that inserts malicious instructions into SQL statements. Hackers are then able to elevate their privileges and gain control over critical systems. With the least privilege model, the privileges are restricted so it stops the hackers in their attempt to elevate permissions.

  4. Data classification creates a healthy, secure network.

    The least privilege principle forces network managers to keep comprehensive data records to understand who has access to what at any given time. Auditing, classifying, and organizing data is required to understand all the information held on a network and more importantly, who can access it. Having this information not only ensures that no one has access to what they shouldn’t, but it can be used to track the root cause of a cyber attack if one occurs. Network admins can identify the compromised asset, look at who has access to it, and investigate the activity with a much more specific scope. In addition, keeping this kind of data organized and audited helps a larger enterprise meet regulatory requirements such as HIPAA and HITECH.

  5. The least privilege principle enables better security and audit capabilities.

    More and more, hackers are targeting larger enterprises, so security measures need to scale up with these bigger threats. Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when a cyber attack occurs, so being able to narrow the scope of a hack by employing the least privilege principle can drastically reduce resolution time, downtime, and cost of an attack. If elevated privileges are required for additional job functions, a user access management process that incorporates more specific controls and tracks individual activity can and should be implemented.

Examples of least privilege access

The list of principle of least privilege benefits makes it easy to see why this model deserves a place in cybersecurity strategies. But how it looks in real life or how it would look for your specific organization can be hard to imagine. Here are some least privilege principle examples:

  • A receptionist in HR at a large healthcare system shouldn’t be able to access hospital files for a patient in the ICU. If a bad actor is able to get into that HR receptionist’s computer, thanks to the least privilege concept, those ICU patient files remain safe and sound.
  • A manufacturing company should grant contractors access to the specific control systems they’re responsible for rather than broad access to the organization’s entire ICS. Interconnectivity and remote access to industrial devices open up potential entryways; least privilege access keeps those entryways out of sight for users who don’t need them.
  • Employee turnover is notoriously high in the retail industry, but high turnover doesn’t have to mean lack of control over access. Role-based access control and the implementation of the least privilege principle align access permissions with employee responsibilities so systems like PoS aren’t accessed by the wrong people.
  • On average, a financial services employee has access to nearly 11 million files the day they start work. Targeting which files and systems an employee needs based on their job reduces the risk of financial assets or customer data getting compromised.
  • Businesses often outsource functions like databases, CRM systems, HR systems, and more. When something goes wrong inside those systems and remote support technicians need to get in, least privilege access ensures they are only directed to the system they need to repair – nowhere else on an organization’s network.

Least privilege best practices

To fully reap the principle of least privilege benefits, least privilege access must be implemented correctly. Follow these best practices for the principle of least privilege:

  • Make least privilege access the default access for all roles and systems.
  • Only elevate or expand access on a time and case-specific basis.
  • Monitor and track all network activity through a user access management process.
  • Ensure a dynamic access management platform is in place so that privileged credentials can be modified or removed as needed.
  • Identify and separate high-level system functions from lower-level functions, and critical from non-critical, to better understand who is accessing what and how that data can be protected.

The effectiveness of network and system security can be measured by the management of network and system privileges. If permissions are managed properly, then the security is more robust.

How to implement least privilege

It doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming to increase your organization’s security. In addition to saving an organization stress, time, and money, the least privilege implementation process can be easily achieved with a few techniques.

  1. Invest in user access management softwareStrong access management software can not only help an IT department and other departments grant the right employees or vendors the right access, it can monitor and track access behavior to ensure the policy of least privilege is being followed.Whether it’s identity access management or privileged access management, these tools can help you organize your user identities and access privileges. Most third-party remote access solutions also integrate with these technologies as well.
  2. Employ technologies, like multi-factor authentication, that increase security. Gone are the days of the VPN. Multi-factor authentication, which requires two or more methods of authentication (like a push notification and a password), is a known tool to prevent the wrong people from gaining access to data they shouldn’t have access to.
  3. Conduct high-definition audits. You can’t find gaps unless you start looking for them. Regularly auditing user access not only ensures least privilege access over the long-term, but can reduce risks such as termination gaps and external threats.

The principle of least privilege and access control

All access policies — the rules around who should have access to certain assets and what privileges are needed for that access — should be built around the principle of least privilege. When a user’s access privileges align with least privilege principle, it means policy is designed to restrict access and limit exposure to any asset outside of a user’s permissions. While least privilege is a method of access governance and policy, organizations should implement access controls that complement the principle. Fine-grained controls like access approval workflows, access notifications, and time-based one-time access help give visibility over when user access is happening. These work in tandem with least privilege access controls to reduce risk and contain any nefarious behavior.

Zero trust and least privilege

“Trust no one” are wise words when it comes to cybersecurity and your organization’s critical information. Zero trust and the least privilege principle model go hand in hand when creating a secure system. Zero trust architecture limits which sensitive systems a user can access and is implemented with various security controls, such as multi-factor authentication, access and employment verification and attestation, credential vaulting, and detailed auditing. It’s a software-defined network so organizations can provide access to specific applications and make the rest of the network invisible to the user. Think of least privilege access as one piece of the zero trust puzzle. You implement the principle through the management and auditing of user access; then you’ll start to see the picture of a comprehensive cybersecurity policy taking shape. Zero trust and least privilege policies aren’t the same, but you can’t have one without the other, and ideally, you would have both powerhouse frameworks to minimize user access risk. The least privilege principle is just one of many access controls that make up a robust security strategy. See how your organization stacks up using this access control checklist.