Principle of least privilege: definition, benefits, and more
Malicious attacks are commonly associated with challenges related to accessing privileged accounts. According to a 2022 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, the healthcare, retail, and manufacturing industries suffer the most from privilege misuse. However, any industry is at risk without appropriate access controls in place.
Along with this, data from Surfshark shows that in 2022, data breaches surged by 70% quarter-over-quarter, to 108.9 million accounts in Q3. With the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. at $9.44M while the global average is $4.35M, the stakes are high when it comes to protecting your organization.
Adhering to the principle of least privilege (PoLP) means giving users the minimum amount of access they need to do their jobs successfully. This should be an important part of your organization’s security plan.
Using the right tools and technology to limit attacks associated with privileged access can help protect your business and users. So, what does an effective least privilege model look like, and why is it so important? Keep reading to learn how the right tools can help keep your organization secure.
What is the principle of least privilege?
The principle of least privilege is a concept related to information and cybersecurity. It claims a user, human or not, should only be allowed access to the applications, data, devices, and resources needed to do their job or complete a task.
Least privilege policies protect organizations and users by minimizing the attack surface for malicious actors to use. If they can’t easily gain access to your assets, there’s a reduced threat of malware spread and other risks.
The principle of least privilege can apply to non-human entities like devices and applications that need to function to perform a certain task. Enforcing least privilege policies on these assets means they can still effectively function and carry out their necessary duties without performing other operations that could put your organization at risk of a breach.
Generally, least privilege policy is part of a zero trust model, which assumes that no entity, human or otherwise, is trustworthy. Therefore, entities must verify their identity every time they want access regardless of whether they were previously authenticated. In fact, the U.S. government recently moved to adopt zero trust architecture (ZTA) by the end of 2024 to address ongoing and new threats to government assets, which will include access control.
How the principle of least privilege works
The principle of least privilege works by allowing minimum access for a user or entity to do its specific job or function. The more granular the access policies, the more you can limit errors and breaches. Access may also be limited by time so that the entity doesn’t haven’t unlimited access once logged in.
Least privilege policy should define whether a specific action is allowed, what the action is that’s being allowed, and where that action is allowed to occur.
A few examples of the principle of least privilege in practice are:
- Human users with least privilege controls. When an employee has a specific job, like data entry or installing new software, they would only have access to the specific database where those entries go. If malware somehow infects that user’s device, it will be limited to where they have access rather than spreading to other databases or devices. If that same employee has superuser access (unlimited privilege), which is typically reserved for IT managers and specialized IT staff, the malware could spread. Privilege creep, which refers to a user with more access than they need, can also occur without proper controls in place.
- Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The sheer number of connected devices is growing with the advent of new technology and includes items like smart thermostats, speakers, and cameras. The more IoT devices in your network, the more potential risks. Applying least privilege policy to these devices, a particularly useful practice for single-function devices, means they have only the resources needed to do their specific function. For example, an indoor camera might have access to only the resources it needs to record a specific area at a specific time. It doesn’t need to connect to other IoT devices, and it won’t unless you give it specific permission to do so.
- Remote access. The threats related to remote access continue to increase, especially as people shift toward remote work environments. However, remote access can also apply to vendors who need access to do maintenance on a specific system or device. Granting access to vendors and other users for a specific time frame, and then revoking those privileges, can help limit the attack surface. This is also known as just-in-time (JIT) access, which grants users access to specific resources for a specified amount of time.
The benefits of the principle of least privilege for your organization
When the principle of least privilege is applied appropriately and with the right tools that allow granular control, it can offer many benefits to IT teams and organizations that require total security, particularly when operating in remote environments with several users and devices. A few key benefits of the least privilege principle include:
- Minimizing attack surface. Fewer and more controlled privileges limit the paths by which a malicious actor can enter your network and exploit the assets within. Using least privilege policies can help you prevent, find, and defend against harmful activity.
- Limiting the spread of malware. If an organization grants too much access, malware can quickly spread once it accesses a device. Granular controls confine malware to the place it first enters.
- Improving overall operations. Limiting the risks associated with a breach also means limiting the amount of downtime and work involved in resolving the problem.
- Meeting regulatory guidelines. If you operate in a regulated industry, you may be subject to certain regulatory guidelines for cybersecurity. Implementing a principle of least privilege policy can support the audit process related to regulatory compliance, as it can provide audit trails of activity in your network. For example, if your organization must comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), you may be audited to ensure compliance. With the right solutions, you can record and monitor activity, users, and devices to meet GDPR compliance while also ensuring your organization's and users’ security.
- Guarding against human error or malice. Human users can inadvertently or purposely cause harm to an organization if proper safeguards aren’t in place. If someone decides to install malicious code or simply makes an error when typing a command, least privilege controls can help limit the damage.
- Cost savings. Downtime caused by a malicious attack can be costly for your organization. Investing in access management software can centralize and automate the approval and denial process to defend against future attacks and quickly resolve attacks if and when they occur.
These benefits are possible with the right access management solution. Learn about how you can do this easily with our webinar, Simplify Least Privilege with ConnectWise Access Management, which teaches you about the tools and technology to streamline least privilege policies and implementation.
How IT teams can implement the principle of least privilege
When preparing to implement the principle of least privilege policies at your organization, carefully consider your needs and goals. There are several ways to implement policies, including the following:
- Communicate with all stakeholders: While your IT team may understand the importance of least privilege, you want buy-in from leadership across your organization. Communication with other departments will help to ensure that everyone can share their access needs so you can implement them appropriately and everyone feels validated.
- Consider your approach to defining access: Depending on your organization’s needs, you may want to take a role-based approach or provide access on an individual basis. The role-based approach can be easier to define and monitor as employees move around in the organization and set clear boundaries on what certain roles can do, helping to prevent privilege access creep. However, specific individuals within a role may need specific access as well.
- Conduct an audit: This should include all passwords, types of accounts (services, privileged, basic user), access keys, endpoints, IoT, etc. Pay close attention to any access based on default credentials. You need a full view of what requires protection and who currently has access so you can build a strong foundation.
- Separate privileges: Define administrator accounts from standard accounts, including in the cloud environment. Practice zero trust policies in limiting administrator privileges to ensure access is only restricted to that which a user really needs.
- Implement just-in-time access: This involves granting users a specified time to access certain resources or commands on an as-needed basis, so they aren’t indefinitely logged in, which can present security risks.
- Establish a process for regular review: As changes occur within your organization, roles and access may also need to adapt. Conducting a regular review of roles and access privileges will help your IT team stay on top of what’s working and what needs to change in the name of security. The review schedule can vary depending on your needs, but an annual review may be a good starting point.
- Implementing a privileged access management solution: By implementing a specific solution for access management, your IT teams have the ability to elevate users to privileged access on a temporary basis, ensure your administrators can access privileged accounts, and build an audit trail of any privileged account actions.
Your access management solution should provide the utmost security, seamlessly integrate into your current system, and be simple to implement with little disruption to your organization’s users. ConnectWise Access Management provides just that with effective tools to secure, monitor, and control access right where you need it.
These include handling elevation requests for users, being able to automate approvals or denials for elevation requests, as well as viewing different elevation events and the resulting data. Combine these with a variety of ways to approve privilege requests (host page, banner, email, webhooks) and you have a solution that makes implementing the principle of least privilege easier, without compromising on security.
Ready to see Access Management in action? Start your free trial of Access Management to see how effective it can be at securing your business and customers from cyber threats.