Cyber security is an all-encompassing subject that gets thrown around with many generalizations within the IT marketing landscape. There is no specific blueprint to follow to when securing a company’s IT infrastructure, but there is a philosophy that should be acknowledged as a foundation. The philosophy is called “principles of least privilege,” and it is known as a paramount to keeping your environment secure. This article will explain what this means and how this security model can up your security stature.

What is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) is an information security concept in which a user’s access rights are limited to only those required to perform their jobs. This principle, sometimes called the access control principle, grants users permissions and access to only those resources that are strictly necessary to perform their job functions. By doing so the damage that can result from an accident or error is limited. For example, an employee who works in sales should not have access to financial records. An account created for someone in marking should not have administrator privileges.

Any system or asset can be protected in two basic ways- first, by patching any weakness or vulnerability, and second, by limiting access and functionality. The first method aims at preventing security breaches while the second method goes one step further and additionally aims at limiting the damage in the case of breaches. This second method is referred to as the principle of least privilege. PoLP is a cybersecurity best practice and is instrumental in the security of critical data and assets. This principle is not restricted to human access alone and can be applied to any application, system, or device that requires access or permissions to perform tasks. The access rights for applications, systems, and processes can also be restricted to only those who are authorized.

Why is the Principle of Least Privilege so important?

  • Least privilege prevents data misuse

Users can only steal data they have access to. But one major risk that is often overlooked comes in the form of special rights, for instance remote access for users working from home. As an employer, you are usually not going to assume the worst and expect that your employees will abuse their privileges. However, if you permit them to work from home using a VPN connection, you’ll still want to make sure that you have that DLP function (data loss prevention) in the VPN software activated.  Another lurking danger that can be countered using the least privilege principle is your ex-employee with still upright privileges. If POLP is implemented correctly and consistently, the user’s privileges will be revoked completely once he or she leaves.

  • Stay compliant, optimize audits

Every company must ensure that both internal and external compliance policies are met. Such policies include the GDPR and HIPAA, for instance. These regulations stipulate that measures be taken that are all, in some way or another, based around the principle of least privilege.

  • POLP saves time, POLP saves money

In organizations that have not yet implemented an access management software, admins sometimes grant admin privileges to non-admin users. The idea behind this is to give certain people, e.g. department heads, admin rights so they can assign privileges to their subordinates without having to go through the IT department every time. It is a total time-saver because it frees up time for IT admins, allowing them to tend to more important matters.

Tips for implementing Least Privilege in the cloud

The principle of least privilege is conceptually simple but implementing it can be very complex depending on your IT infrastructure. As we mentioned earlier, the principle applies not only to individual users but also to networks, devices, programs, and services. When implementing PoLP, the most important thing to remember is that the principle must apply to all entities because the compromise of any one endpoint, system, or process can potentially put the entire organization at risk.

  • Discover & classify your sensitive data

 As a beginning, the first step should be to ensure that we know exactly what sensitive data we have, and where it is located. Most popular cloud platforms provide data classification capabilities out-of-the-box, including AWS, Azure and Google Cloud. Some solutions can also classify sensitive data at the point of creation. Our practical advice is to make sure that any redundant data is removed before attempting to implement PoLP. Establishing a profound understanding of what data you have makes the process of assigning access rights considerably easier.

  • Implement Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

A helpful technique that is used to simplify the process of setting up PoLP is Role-Based Access Control (RBAC). As opposed to trying to assign access rights to specific individuals, you can define a comprehensive set of roles, each with their respective privileges, and assign users to these roles on an ad-hoc basis. While RBAC is arguably less granular than assigning access rights on a per-user basis, it is generally more secure as it is less prone to error. Most popular cloud platforms provide role-based access control, including Azure and Google Cloud.

  • Identify and remove inactive user accounts

It is necessary to ensure that any inactive user accounts are identified and removed before implementing PoLP. Since inactive user accounts are rarely monitored, hackers often target them as it enables them to gain persistent access to the network with less risk of getting caught.

  • Monitor privileged accounts in real-time

You should also ensure that you have as much visibility as possible into who is already accessing what data, and when. Most real-time auditing solutions use machine learning techniques to monitor user behavior and establish usage patterns which can be tested against in order to identify anomalies. Once you have an understanding of each user’s behavioral patterns, you can use this information as a guide to determine what data each user should have access to.

  • Review all IAM permissions

Constantly review all IAM permissions and privileges in the cloud environments and strategically remove unnecessary elevated permissions to cloud workloads.

  • Enforce the Principle of Least Privilege to your third-parties too

Even if you implement the principle of least privilege, your third-party associates maybe do not do it. This only poses a threat to your organization. Make sure that you apply the principle of least privilege to contractors, vendors, and remote sessions and establish if they really are a threat or not.

The principle of least privilege is the concept of restricting access rights of users to only those resources that are required for performing their legitimate functions. Least privilege applies not just to users but also to applications, systems, processes, and devices such as IoT. PoLP is a security best practice and a foundational element of a zero-trust security framework. Implementing least privilege is instrumental in reducing security and business risks that may result from external attacks as well as internal threats and errors.