What is least privilege access, and why is it important?

| By:
Ciaran Chu

The digital world is for everybody. Two-thirds of people worldwide are internet-connected. But considering the security risk inherent in offering unrestricted access to sensitive resources and information, your patch of the digital realm shouldn’t be open to all comers.

How much access is too much? It depends on whom you ask. Many would say that more access than is strictly necessary is too much. That’s the crux of least privilege access. 

Least privilege access allows a company to enforce broad security measures among its workforce without unnecessarily exposing the organization to additional security risk. 

Below, we’ll dive deeper into least privilege access and give you tips on how best to implement it. 

Least privilege access definition

Least privilege access — also known as “the principle of least privilege” — is a security protocol that grants users only the minimum set of privileges necessary to perform their designated tasks. That is, no one receives more security clearance than is strictly required to fulfill their job duties. 

The idea of the least privilege access model is to minimize the attack surface of a system by reducing the potential damage bad-actor users with elevated privileges could cause. Adhering to the principle of least privilege can help prevent malicious actors from exploiting vulnerabilities or misconfigurations in the system to gain unauthorized access or cause damage. 

For example, a user who only needs to read files should have access to do so, but not to edit or broaden access to others. 

How does least privilege access work?

Least privilege access works by restricting the rights and permissions of users and processes to those necessary to function within their stated capacity. The exact implementation of least privilege access depends on the operating system or platform an organization uses, but managed service providers (MSPs) use several common techniques to enforce the principle of least privilege:

  • User accounts: By creating separate user accounts for different tasks, it becomes possible to assign specific privileges to each user. For example, an administrator account could have full privileges to access and modify system resources, while a standard user account would have limited privileges.
  • Access control lists (ACLs): Access control lists define the permissions associated with a resource, such as a file or a directory. ACLs allow IT professionals to restrict access to a resource based on the user or process trying to access it.
  • Sandboxing: Sandboxing is a common anti-malware practice that isolates a process from the rest of the system so that it can only access a limited set of resources. This helps prevent a process from accessing sensitive information or carrying out malicious activities that could harm the system.
  • Privilege elevation: Some operating systems, such as Windows, allow users to perform certain tasks requiring elevated privileges. However, users can only perform these tasks when MSPs or higher-ranking users enable them to do so. The system can then temporarily elevate the user’s privileges.

While not exhaustive, the above techniques reflect the remote access basics. And by enforcing them, you can reduce a system’s attack surface, making it more difficult for bad actors to exploit vulnerabilities or carry out malicious activities.

What are privileged accounts?

Privileged accounts are user accounts with elevated privileges — that is, they provide access to sensitive resources. These accounts typically have more permissions and rights than regular user accounts, allowing them to carry out the sensitive tasks necessary to keep an organization’s systems and applications functioning properly.

Examples of privileged accounts include:

  • Administrative accounts: These accounts have full control over a system or network and can perform tasks such as installing software, modifying configuration settings, and accessing sensitive data.
  • Service accounts: Applications or services use service accounts to run processes. They often have elevated privileges, such as the ability to access system resources or sensitive data.
  • Root accounts: On Unix-like systems, the root account is the superuser account that has complete control over the system. This account can perform any action, including modifying system files and changing the system’s behavior.
  • Database administrator accounts: These are accounts that can manage a database and its associated resources, such as tables, views, and stored procedures.

Privileged accounts allow organizations to perform necessary tasks and maintain their systems. However, they also pose a significant security risk. If a privileged account is compromised, an attacker can carry out malicious activities that could harm the organization’s systems and data. 

It’s important to properly manage and secure privileged accounts by implementing strict security controls such as:

  • Strong authentication, such as strong passwords, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and biometric authentication
  • Access controls, which only authorize certain users to use certain programs
  • Auditing, or periodically reviewing one’s cybersecurity framework

What is a superuser?

A superuser is a user account allowed complete control over a computer system or network. Known on Unix-like systems as the “root” account and on Windows systems as an “administrator” account, the superuser has the highest level of privileges and may perform any action on a system, including: 

  • Modifying configuration files 
  • Installing software
  • Accessing sensitive data
  • Maintenance
  • Troubleshooting

While the superuser account provides a high level of control and flexibility, it is also a potential security risk. An attacker who gains access to the superuser account can compromise the security of a system. For this reason, it is important to assign superuser privileges only when necessary, and to use them with caution. 

Why least privilege access is important for MSPs

Implementing least privilege access allows MSPs to head off security risks that come with company-wide unrestricted access. This frees up MSPs to monitor novel outside attacks rather than focusing a great deal of energy on closely watching extant user accounts. 

Learn more about the value of least privilege access with our eBook, Remote Unattended Access Simplified, a one-pager that will quickly get MSPs up to speed on ConnectWise Control. 

Benefits of least privilege access

Implementing least privilege access offers several benefits, including:

  • Improved security: By restricting the privileges of users and processes, organizations can reduce the attack surface of their systems and make it more difficult for malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities or carry out malicious activities. This helps improve the overall security of the systems and protect sensitive data.
  • Compliance: Many regulatory standards and security frameworks, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), require organizations to implement least privilege access as part of their security posture. 
  • Reduced risk of data breaches: By limiting the privileges of users and processes, organizations can reduce the risk of data breaches, as it becomes more difficult for malicious actors to access sensitive information. This helps maintain the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of critical systems.
  • Improved efficiency: By granting only the necessary privileges to users and processes, organizations can reduce the risk of human error. This means future problems and less time spent on them, resulting in greater efficiency and a more streamlined security process. 
  • Better accountability: Least privilege access enables organizations to better track and control access to sensitive resources, making it easier to determine who has access to what, and when. This helps to improve accountability and makes it easier to identify and remediate security incidents.

How to implement least privilege access in your organization

MSPs utilize least privilege access software to set up a least privilege access framework in a few steps:

  1. Identify sensitive resources: The first step in implementing least privilege access is identifying the sensitive resources that need to be protected. This could include sensitive data, systems, applications, and network resources.
  2. Assess user and process privileges: Next, organizations need to assess the current privileges of users and processes, and determine which privileges are necessary for each user or process to perform its tasks. Unnecessary privileges should be revoked.
  3. Define user roles: To simplify the management of least privilege access, organizations can define user roles, such as “admin,” “standard user,” and “guest.” This helps ensure that users receive only the privileges that are necessary for their role.
  4. Implement access controls: Organizations should establish access controls, such as authentication and authorization, to ensure that only authorized users and processes can access sensitive resources. Organizations should also implement strong passwords and multi-factor authentication to reduce the risk of unauthorized access.
  5. Monitor access: MSPs should monitor and log access to sensitive resources to enforce least privilege access, and to help identify and remediate security incidents.
  6. Regularly review and update privileges: Finally, organizations should regularly review and update user and process privileges to ensure continued enforcement of least privilege access, and to make changes as necessary.

By following these steps, organizations can implement least privilege access, thereby reducing the risk of security incidents, improving the security of their systems, and achieving compliance with security standards and regulations.

Ready to implement a least privilege access system? Request a demo and let one of our experts walk you through ConnectWise Access Management today.