Privileged access management best practices

| By:
Anna Morgan

Hierarchical organizations exist as such for a reason. Some need access to high-value information to do their jobs; others don’t, and providing such data to too many endpoints is an unnecessary cybersecurity risk. Giving out access to data on a need-to-know basis is the core of privileged access management. 

So, who gets access to what? This will be an important question to answer if you want to keep your team safe from cybersecurity risks. 

Below, we’ll discuss privileged access management best practices and how you can implement them in your organization. 

What is privileged access management, and how does it work?

A privileged access management (PAM) framework enables IT professionals to monitor access to privileged accounts — accounts with high-level access to critical systems, applications, and sensitive data — to mitigate the risks associated with privileged access, such as:

  • Unauthorized access 
  • Data breaches 
  • Insider threats 
  • Compliance violations

Some common PAM practices and technologies include:

  • Just-in-time access (JIT): This practice allows access to privileged accounts for specific tasks and revoking access when the task is completed.
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): PAM can require multiple forms of authentication (such as passwords, a PIN from a phone or app, or biometrics) to access privileged accounts.
  • Session monitoring and recording: IT professionals can record all activities performed during a privileged session and alert administrators to suspicious behavior.
  • Privilege escalation and de-escalation: This practice enables users to temporarily escalate their privileges for specific tasks and de-escalate them afterward.
  • Role-based access control (RBAC): RBAC allows users to define roles and permissions for privileged accounts and enforce the principle of least privilege.

How privileged access management helps IT teams

PAM helps IT teams develop and enforce user account management best practices in several ways:

  • Reduces security risks: PAM enables IT teams to control and monitor privileged access to critical systems, applications, and data. By implementing PAM practices and technologies, IT teams can reduce the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and insider threats.
  • Improves compliance: Many regulatory standards and frameworks, such as Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), require organizations to implement PAM controls and processes. By complying with these standards, IT teams demonstrate they have adequate measures in place to protect sensitive data and systems.
  • Streamlines access management: PAM tools can automate the process of granting and revoking privileged access, reducing manual burden on IT teams. 
  • Enables remote access: IT teams need to provide secure access to critical systems and data beyond a centralized office. PAM tools enable remote access to privileged accounts while maintaining strong security controls.
  • Facilitates auditing and reporting: PAM tools can provide detailed logs of all privileged activities, which can be used for auditing and reporting purposes. This helps IT teams identify potential security incidents, track user behavior, and demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements.

Check out our webinar, Simplify Least Privilege with ConnectWise Access Management, for more detail regarding privileged identity management best practices and what it can do for IT teams.

Best practices for privileged access management

It is improbable for an organization to outright bar access to sensitive data as a security tactic. Certain employee types will need access to sensitive data from time to time, and businesses can mitigate risk by following best practices:

Understand what privileged accounts in your organization are

Before putting a privileged access management protocol into place, understand what privileged accounts are and where they are located. Privileged accounts are user accounts with elevated privileges or permissions, granting them access to sensitive data, systems, or applications that regular user accounts cannot access. These accounts may include:

  • Administrator accounts: Have full control over systems and applications and can perform actions such as installing software, configuring settings, and modifying permissions.
  • Service accounts: Used by applications and services to perform specific functions, such as accessing databases or running scripts.
  • Root accounts: Grant superuser privileges on Unix-based systems and can perform any action on the system.
  • Database accounts: Allow access to databases and can perform operations such as creating, modifying, and deleting data.
  • Network devices: Provide access to network devices such as routers, switches, and firewalls and can perform configurations and modifications on them.

Review your team’s IT policies and procedures to identify accounts with privileged access.

Once you have identified all privileged accounts, you can use PAM tools to manage and monitor privileged access, thereby reducing the risk of security incidents.

Monitor and compare privilege versus usage

Monitoring and comparing privilege versus usage involves tracking and analyzing the privileges assigned to each user account and comparing them to the actual usage of those privileges to detect any anomalies or potential security incidents.

Here are some best practices for monitoring and comparing privilege versus usage:

  • Establish a baseline: Establish a baseline for each user’s normal behavior. Do this by monitoring the users’ activity over a period of time and establishing patterns of normal usage.
  • Monitor for anomalies: Monitor all privileged account activity and compare it to the established baseline. Flag and investigate any deviations from the baseline, as they may indicate potential security incidents.
  • Implement alerts and notifications: You should configure your PAM solution to send alerts and notifications to IT teams when anomalous behavior is detected. These alerts should include details such as the user account, the privilege used, the time and location of the activity, and any other relevant information.
  • Conduct regular reviews: Conduct regular reviews of privileged account usage to ensure access is still required and appropriate. This can help identify any dormant or unused accounts to disable or remove.
  • Analyze trends: Your PAM solution should be able to provide detailed reports and analysis of privileged account activity over time. This can help identify trends and patterns of behavior and inform IT teams of any changes or deviations from normal usage.

Establish a true access control policy

An access control policy defines who has access to what resources and under what circumstances. It is essential to establish clear policies that specify who can access privileged accounts, what actions they can perform, and when they can perform them.

Here are some best practices for establishing a true access control policy:

  • Identify privileged accounts: The first step in establishing an access control policy is identifying all privileged accounts within your organization. This includes accounts with administrative privileges, service accounts, database accounts, and other accounts with elevated privileges.
  • Determine access requirements: Once you have identified privileged accounts, determine who needs access to them and what level of access they require. This can be based on factors such as job responsibilities, departmental requirements, and compliance requirements.
  • Implement the principle of least privilege: The principle of least privilege states that users should receive the minimum level of access required to perform their job functions. This can help reduce the risk of security incidents by limiting the scope of access for each user.
  • Enforce separation of duties: Separation of duties is the practice of dividing responsibilities among different users to prevent any one user from having too much control. This can help prevent insider threats and reduce the risk of fraud or abuse.
  • Implement access control policies: Teams should implement access control policies for all privileged accounts, specifying who can access the accounts, what actions they can perform, and when they can perform them. Regularly review and update these policies to ensure they remain effective.
  • Monitor access: Continuously monitor access to privileged accounts to ensure that it is appropriate and necessary. Immediately investigate any unusual activity or deviations from established access control policies.

Implement zero trust network architecture

Zero trust is a security model that assumes that all users, devices, and applications are potential threats and requires verification of all access requests, regardless of their origin or location.

Here are some best practices for implementing a zero trust network architecture (ZTNA):

  • Verify all users and devices: Authenticate and authorize all users and devices before granting access to any resources. Do this using a combination of multi-factor authentication, conditional access policies, and identity and access management solutions.
  • Monitor all traffic: Monitor all traffic, both internal and external, for anomalies and potential threats. Use network traffic analysis (NTA) solutions, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), and other security solutions to make this happen.
  • Segment the network: You should segment the network to limit access to sensitive resources and reduce the risk of lateral movement by attackers. This can be done using virtual local area networks (VLANs), firewalls, and other network segmentation solutions.
  • Implement encryption: Encrypt all traffic, both in transit and at rest, to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access. Use protocols such as transport layer security (TLS) and secure sockets layer (SSL) to accomplish this.

Regularly review and audit existing practices

Regularly reviewing and auditing existing practices is an essential aspect of PAM. This helps IT teams identify potential weaknesses in their PAM program and make necessary improvements to strengthen security.

Here are some best practices for regularly reviewing and auditing existing PAM practices:

  • Conduct regular security assessments: Regular security assessments can help identify potential vulnerabilities in your PAM program. This can include vulnerability scans, penetration testing, and other security assessments.
  • Review access control policies: Regularly audit and update access control policies to ensure they remain effective. This can include reviewing user permissions, privileged account access, and other access control policies.
  • Monitor user activity: Continuously monitor user activity to verify that access to privileged accounts is appropriate and necessary. This can include reviewing audit logs, network traffic analysis, and other monitoring tools.
  • Update software and hardware: Regularly update your PAM program’s software and hardware to make sure they have the latest security patches and enhancements.
  • Conduct regular training: Regular training and awareness programs keep all users up to speed on best practices and the importance of PAM. This can include security awareness training, phishing awareness training, and other training programs.

Invest in access management solutions

Access management solutions help IT teams manage access to sensitive resources, enforce access control policies, and monitor user activity to make sure access to privileged accounts is appropriate and necessary.

When you’re looking into access management solutions, integrations are key. There are other tools out there that can improve your overall privileged access management via integrations including, 

  • Identity and access management (IAM) solutions: IAM solutions can help manage user identities and access to resources. Options include single sign-on (SSO) solutions, multi-factor authentication solutions, and other access management tools.
  • Network access control (NAC) solutions: NAC solutions can help manage network access and enforce access control policies. This can include solutions for device authentication, network segmentation, and network access control.
  • Security information and event management (SIEM) solutions: SIEM solutions can help monitor and analyze user activity and security events. These include solutions for log management, event correlation, and threat detection.
  • Data loss prevention (DLP) solutions: DLP solutions can help prevent data loss and enforce data security policies. Examples include solutions for data discovery, data classification, and data protection.

Interested in learning about these tools first-hand? Start your free trial of ConnectWise Access Management today—no credit card required–and start simplifying your security processes.


Below are some of the most widely recognized regulations and standards:

  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS): Requirements for merchants and service providers that process credit card payments.
  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): A regulation in the European Union (EU) that sets standards for data protection and privacy.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX): Federal law that sets standards for financial reporting and auditing.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): Federal law that sets standards for the privacy and security of protected health information (PHI).
  • Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP): Provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services used by federal agencies.
  • ISO/IEC 27001: An international standard for information security management systems (ISMS) that includes guidelines for PAM compliance.

Below are some key metrics that organizations can use to measure the effectiveness of their PAM program:

  • Privileged account coverage: Measure the percentage of privileged accounts that are discovered and managed by the PAM program. This metric helps determine the scope and coverage of the PAM program.
  • Password strength: Measure the strength of passwords associated with privileged accounts managed by the PAM program. Passwords should be long, complex, and changed frequently.
  • Access request and approval: Track the time it takes to process access requests and approvals for privileged accounts. This metric helps determine how efficiently the PAM program is being managed.
  • Privileged access usage: Monitor and log privileged access usage by authorized users to detect any suspicious activity. This metric helps identify any potential insider threats or unauthorized access.
  • Compliance with policies and regulations: Gauge the extent to which the PAM program complies with relevant policies and regulations, such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, or SOX.
  • Incident response and resolution: Track the time it takes to detect and respond to incidents related to privileged access. This metric helps determine how quickly the organization can contain and mitigate any security incidents related to privileged access.
  • User training and awareness: Measure the effectiveness of user training and awareness programs related to privileged access. This metric helps identify any gaps in user education and determine whether additional training is needed.

PAM and IAM are two related but discrete security domains.

IAM is a framework of policies, processes, and technologies by which IT teams manage digital identities, access rights, and permissions for users within an organization. IAM is primarily concerned with granting and revoking access privileges to users, ensuring that users have the right access to the right resources, and maintaining a centralized directory of users and their permissions.

PAM, on the other hand, focuses specifically on managing and monitoring access to privileged accounts and credentials, which are the most sensitive and powerful accounts in an organization. PAM solutions typically provide capabilities such as password vaulting, session monitoring, and access control policies to protect and manage privileged access.

While IAM solutions manage access for all users, including non-privileged users, PAM solutions focus exclusively on privileged access. However, integrating PAM and IAM solutions provides a comprehensive security posture. Teams can use IAM solutions to manage the life cycle of privileged users and their access permissions, while PAM solutions help teams manage and monitor the actual use of privileged accounts.

Common challenges that organizations may encounter while implementing PAM include:

  • Identifying all privileged accounts
  • Balancing security and usability
  • User resistance to change
  • Integration with existing systems
  • Technical complexity
  • Managing third-party access
  • Ensuring compliance

You can apply PAM solutions to various use cases to secure privileged accounts and minimize the risk of unauthorized access. Here are some common ways to implement PAM solutions:

  • Remote access management: PAM solutions can manage remote access to critical systems and data, ensuring that only authorized users have access to sensitive information. 
  • Third-party vendor access management: PAM solutions can manage third-party vendor access to privileged accounts, ensuring that vendors have the necessary access to complete their work while minimizing the risk of unauthorized access. 
  • Privileged session management: PAM solutions can manage privileged sessions, including session recording and auditing, to minimize the risk of unauthorized access and enable forensic analysis if a breach occurs.
  • Compliance management: PAM solutions can help organizations comply with regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA, SOX, and PCI DSS, by enforcing access controls, monitoring privileged sessions, and providing audit trails.
  • Cloud infrastructure management: PAM solutions can secure privileged access to cloud infrastructure, including infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and software-as-a-service (SaaS) environments.