What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

Privileged access management (PAM) is a security practice designed to limit the risk posed by privileged accounts on an organization’s network and systems. Administrator accounts, highly privileged application and system accounts, and other accounts with wide-reaching access or elevated permissions pose a significant threat to the organization. By applying additional security controls on these accounts, an organization manages the risk associated with them.

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What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

The Importance of Privileged Access Management (PAM)

In most cases, the success of a cyberattack requires the malware or cyber threat actor behind the attack to achieve a certain level of access or permissions. For example, an effective ransomware attack requires access to valuable and sensitive data that an organization is likely to pay a significant ransom to retrieve.

This need for elevated permissions and access means that privileged accounts are a primary target for cyber threat actors. PAM is essential because it enables an organization to decrease the probability that an attacker will successfully gain the access that they need without detection. Additionally, implementing PAM is essential to complying with regulations such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), the Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and similar data privacy laws whose primary purpose is to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information.

How Does Privileged Access Management Work?

PAM is based on the principle of least privilege, which states that users, applications, and systems should only have the permissions that are necessary to do their jobs. Additionally, users with a legitimate need for privileged access, such as system and network administrators, should only use those privileged accounts for activities that require this elevated access.

After ensuring least privilege access, PAM focuses on securing privileged accounts against unauthorized access and potential misuse. This includes ensuring that these accounts use strong authentication mechanisms and performing ongoing monitoring to ensure that legitimate users are compliant with corporate policy and do not misuse or abuse their elevated level of access. 

Benefits of PAM

Implementing PAM provides numerous benefits to an organization including the following:

  • Smaller Attack Surface: Account takeover attacks are some of cybercriminals’ most commonly used tactics. Limiting and securing privileged accounts makes it more difficult for an attacker to gain the access that they need.
  • Reduced Lateral Movement: Privileged attacks are commonly employed to move laterally through an organization’s network and gain access to high-value data and systems. PAM enables an organization to detect and block this lateral movement.
  • Improved Visibility: Privileged accounts can perform dangerous actions within an organization’s network and be used in attacks. Managing and monitoring these accounts provides essential visibility into how an organization’s systems are being used.
  • Simplified Compliance: Preventing unauthorized access to sensitive data is one of the main goals of data privacy laws. Implementing PAM is a crucial step in the compliance process.

PAM Best Practices

Some best practices for implementing PAM within an organization include:

  • Enforce Least Privilege: The principle of least privilege states that user, application, and system accounts should only have the permissions required for their role. Enforcing least privilege minimizes the number of privileged accounts that an organization must manage and secure.
  • Centralized Account Management: An array of accounts on various devices makes it difficult for an organization to maintain visibility and control over privileged accounts. A single sign-on (SSO) solution for corporate resources enables centralized visibility and management of corporate accounts.
  • Use Multifactor Authentication (MFA): Common forms of user authentication, such as passwords, have poor security, which allows attackers to take over these accounts and use them in attacks. MFA makes this more difficult by forcing attackers to gain access to multiple authentication factors, such as a password and a smartphone that receives or generates a one-time password (OTP) for each attempted authentication.
  • Implement Zero-Trust Network Access (ZTNA): A zero-trust security policy mandates that all access requests for corporate data or resources be considered on a case-by-case basis. This helps to ensure that all requests are legitimate and provides visibility into how privileged accounts are being used, enabling an organization to monitor for misuse or anomalous activities that could indicate a compromised account.
  • Secure Authentication Credentials: Users, applications, and systems may need access to third-party application credentials, SSH keys, API tokens, and other authentication media. These credentials should be securely stored and used to minimize the potential for compromise.

How Harmony Connect Implements PAM

As organizations increasingly adopt hybrid and remote work policies and cloud-based infrastructure, secure remote access becomes essential. However, many remote access solutions, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), lack built-in support for PAM. This leaves an organization’s systems vulnerable to exploitation as attackers take advantage of unsecured and unmonitored privileged accounts.

Check Point’s Harmony Connect Remote Access implements PAM and SSO, including the ability to integrate with identity providers, built-in management of encryption and authentication keys, and secure credential vaulting. As a ZTNA solution, Harmony Connect uses granular security controls to allow or block access requests on a case-by-case basis, limits user application visibility based on need-to-know to minimize lateral movement, and offers real-time security monitoring and policy enforcement.

To learn more about implementing PAM for secure remote access, check out this guide to implementing ZTNA. Then, feel free to sign up for a free demo of Check Point Harmony Connect Remote Access to see the security benefits of PAM for yourself.

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