The Principle of Least Privilege, also known as PoLP, is a computer security rule that states that each user or group of users must have only the necessary permissions to perform their corresponding tasks.
In other words, the less power a user has, the lower the chances of them having a harmful impact on the business.
Why is it important?
PoLP is important because it helps protect company systems and data from cyberattacks.
When a user has too many permissions, they are more likely to make mistakes or fall victim to an attack. For instance, users with access to servers could install malware or steal sensitive information.
How is it applied?
PoLP can be applied to any computer system, either on-premise or in the cloud.
- PoLP in practice
- Continued Importance in a Changing World
- Implementation Difficulties
- Privileged accounts: Definition and Types
- Privileged Cloud Accounts
- Common Privileged Threat Vectors
- Challenges to Applying Least Privilege
- Benefits for Safety and Productivity
- Principle of Least Privilege and Best Practices
- Least Privilege and Zero Trust
- Solutions for the Implementation of Least Privilege
- How to Implement Least Privilege Effectively
PoLP in practice
What if a user needs to do something they can’t normally do?
The Principle of Least Privilege states that each user should have only the necessary permissions to perform their tasks. This practice helps protect company systems and data from cyberattacks.
However, there are circumstances where a user may need to circumvent security restrictions to perform some unplanned activity. For example, a certain user may need to create records for a new customer.
In these cases, the system administrator may grant the user temporary access to a role with greater privileges.
How is this done safely?
Ideally, the system administrator should create a job that automatically adds the user to the role and, after a defined time, removes them from the role.
For example, the administrator could grant user privileges for two hours and then automatically remove the privileges after that time.
This helps ensure that the user only has access to the necessary permissions for as long as they need them.
What about user groups?
Overall, it is safer to grant permissions to groups of users than to individual users.
This is because it is more difficult for an attacker to compromise an entire group of users than a single user.
For example, if John is an accountant, instead of granting John template creation privileges, the administrator could grant those privileges to the group of accountants.
What about processes or services?
The Principle of Least Privilege also applies to processes and services.
If a process or service works with an account, that account should have as few privileges as possible.
This helps reduce the damage an attacker could cause if they compromised the account.
Continued Importance in a Changing World
A large number of companies, following the COVID pandemic, significantly increased the number of employees working from home. Before, we only had to worry about computers within the company. Now, the security of every laptop or mobile phone accessing your network can be a security breach.
To prevent disasters, we must create security standards and train staff to prevent them from entering prohibited sites with company computers or computers that access our company. That’s why you should avoid giving administrator privileges and applying PoLP on users as much as possible. That is why a trust 0 policy is applied, giving the least amount of privileges as possible. If the user is not authenticated, they are not given privileges.
IT staff should check the security of laptops carried by the user and see how to prevent attacks from reaching enterprise or cloud servers coming from our staff working remotely.
However, applying the minimum security privilege is nowadays quite complex. Users with an account access countless different apps.
They may also have to access web applications that rely on Linux servers, so roles and privileges must be created in different applications. It is very common for several basic features not to work with the minimum cybersecurity privileges, so there is the temptation to grant extra privileges.
Giving minimum privileges to a single application is already something complicated. Granting PoLP to several systems that interact with each other becomes much more complex. It is necessary to carry out safety quality controls. IT engineers should do security testing and patch security holes.
Privileged accounts: Definition and Types
Privileged accounts or super accounts are those accounts that have access to everything.
These accounts have administrator privileges. Accounts are usually used by managers or the most senior people in the IT team.
Extreme care must be taken with such accounts. If a hacker or a Malware manages to access these passwords, it is possible to destroy the entire operating system or the entire database.
The number of users with access to these accounts must be minimal. Normally only the IT manager will have super user accounts with all privileges and senior management will have broad privileges, but in no case full privileges.
In Linux and Mac operating systems, for example, the superuser is called root. In the Windows system it is called Administrator.
For example, our default Windows account does not run with all privileges. If you want to run a file with administrator accounts, right-click on the executable file and select the option Run as Administrator.
This privilege to run as an administrator is only used in special installation cases and should not be used at all times.
To prevent a hacker or a malicious person from accessing these users, it is recommended to comply with these security measures:
- Use a long, complex password that mixes uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and special characters.
- It also tries to change the password of these users regularly. For example, changing the password every month or every two months.
- It does not hurt to use a good anti-virus to detect and prevent an attack and also to set a firewall to prevent attacks by strangers.
- Always avoid opening emails and attachments from strangers or entering suspicious websites. These attacks can breach accounts. Where possible, never browse with super user accounts or use these accounts unless necessary.
Privileged Cloud Accounts
Today, a lot of information is handled in the cloud. We will cover account management on major platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.
AWS uses authentication type Identity and Access Management (IAM) to create and manage users. It also supports multi-factor authentication (MFA) which requires 2 ways to validate the user and thus enter, thus increasing security.
On AWS there is a root user who is a super user with all privileges. With this user create other users and protect it using it as little as possible.
Google Cloud also provides an IAM and also the KMS (Key Management Service) that allows you to manage keys.
Depending on the cloud application, there are super users who manage databases, analytics systems, websites, AI and other resources.
If, for example, I am a user who only needs to see table reports from a database, I do not need access to update or insert new data. All these privileges must be carefully planned by the IT security department.
Common Privileged Threat Vectors
If the PoLP is not applied, if a hacker enters the system, they could access very sensitive information to the company by being able to obtain a user’s password. In many cases these hackers steal the information and ask for ransom money.
In other situations, malicious users within the company could sell valuable company information. If we apply the PoLP, these risks can be considerably reduced.
Challenges to Applying Least Privilege
It is not easy to apply the PoLP in companies. Particularly if you have given them administrator privileges initially and now that you learned the risks you want to take the privileges away from them. You must make users understand that it is for the good of the company, to protect its information and that great power comes with great responsibility. That if an attack happens to the company, the reputation of the employees themselves is at stake as well as that of the company. Explain that safety is up to everyone.
Many times we give excessive privileges due to the laziness of giving only the minimum cybersecurity privilege. But it is urgent to investigate, optimize and reduce privileges to increase security.
Another common problem is that having restricted privileges reduces the productivity of the user who ends up being dependent on their superior for lack of privileges. This can cause frustration in users and inefficiency in the company as a whole. You must seek to achieve balance in terms of efficiency without affecting safety.
Benefits for Safety and Productivity
By applying the principle of granting restricted access, we reduce the attack surface. The chances of receiving a malware attack are also reduced and less time is wasted trying to recover data after an attack.
For example, Equifax, a credit company, fell victim to Ransomware in 2017. This attack affected 143 million customers. Equifax had to pay $700 million in fines and reparations. It also had to pay compensation to users.
- It reduces the risk of cyberattacks.
- It protects sensitive data.
- It reduces the impact of attacks.
Principle of Least Privilege and Best Practices
In order to comply with the standards, it is advisable to carry out an audit and verify the privileges of users and security in general. An internal verification or an external audit can be done.
You may carry out security tests to see if your company meets those standards. Below are some of the best-known standards:
- CIS is a Center for Information Security. It contains recommendations and best practices for securing systems and data globally.
- NIST Cybersecurity Framework provides a National Institute of Standards and Technology security framework.
- SOC 2 provides an assessment report of a company’s or organization’s security controls.
Least Privilege and Zero Trust
Separating privileges is giving users or accounts only the privileges they need to reduce risk. Just-In-Time (JIT) security policies reduce risks by removing excessive privileges, automating security processes, and managing privileged users.
JIT means giving privileges only when you need them. That is, they should be temporary. For example, if a user needs to access a database only for 2 hours, you may create a script that assigns privileges during this time and then remove those privileges.
To implement the JIT:
- Create a plan with security policies.
- Implement the plan by applying the PoLP and JIT with controls that may include multi-factor access and role access control.
- It is important to train employees on safety and explain these concepts so that they understand not only how to apply them but why to apply them.
- And finally, it is important to apply audits. This topic was already discussed in point 10.
It is also convenient to monitor permissions to see who has more privileges and also see what resources are accessed, to see if adjustments need to be made to them.
Solutions for the Implementation of Least Privilege
As mentioned above, to increase security, segment the network to reduce damage if your security is breached. Segmenting the network is dividing the network into small subnets.
The privileges granted to users should also be monitored.
Finally, security policies must be integrated with technologies to create an administrative plan according to the software you have.
How to Implement Least Privilege Effectively
To implement the principle of granting access, the proposed system must be implemented on test servers. Personnel should be asked to test actual jobs in the system for a while.
Once the errors are corrected or user complaints are resolved, it is up to you to take the system into production with minimal privileges. A trial period of at least one month is recommended where users test the system and have the old system at hand.
In most cases, the old and new systems coexist for months until the new system is approved with the least privileged security implemented.
The Principle of Least Privilege: A Simple but Effective Measure for Computer Security.
In an increasingly digital world, IT security is critical for businesses of all sizes. Cyberattacks are becoming more frequent and sophisticated, and can cause significant damage to businesses.
One of the most important steps businesses can take to protect their systems and data from cyberattacks is to apply the Principle of Least Privilege. The Principle of Least Privilege states that each user should have only the necessary permissions to perform their tasks.
Applying the Principle of Least Privilege is a simple but effective measure. By giving users only the necessary permissions, companies reduce the risk of an attacker compromising sensitive systems and data.
Tips for applying the principle of least privilege:
- Identify the permissions needed for each task.
- Grant permissions to groups of users instead of individual users.
- Reduce process and service account privileges.
- Review user permissions on a regular basis.
Daniel Cabilmonte is a writer expert in technologies. Lecturer, consultant, blogger. He is passionate about software and technology. He writes about IT topics, security, programming, AI, BI.