For decades the principle of least privilege has been a fundamental component of cybersecurity. The principle of least privilege revolves around granting users the minimum level of access necessary to perform their tasks, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.
In recent years the need for implementing least privilege access has become even more apparent due to the increasing complexity of managing multiple resources, applications, roles, and permissions. This complexity led to excessive permissions are now one of the greatest risks to organizations. According to the Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report (DBIR) of 2023, 49% of cyber attacks involve compromised credentials. Several high-profile organizations, including Okta, Twitter (aka "X"), and Uber, have fallen victim to attacks exploiting over-privileged accounts, highlighting the urgency of adopting automated least privilege access measures.
Challenges in Manual Access Provisioning
Despite of the importance to effectively manage access and keep privileges to the bare minimum, entitlements are sprawling. For example, Microsoft's findings indicate that over 50% of identities have super domains, while only 1% of permissions are actively used.
One major reason for the prevalence of over-privileged accounts is the manual way access is traditionally provisioned. This manual process is often time-consuming, error-prone, and requires significant human intervention. Moreover, the average ratio one IT person for every 89 employees exacerbates the challenges in managing permissions effectively.
Automating Least Privilege Access
To address the challenges of over-privileged accounts and improve cybersecurity, organizations must adopt an automated approach to least privilege access.
There are 4 bottleneck-breaking steps that organizations need to take in order achieve this:
1. Self-Service Access
The foundation of the least privilege principle hinges upon employees articulating their job-specific needs. When access becomes challenging, individuals will seek broader permissions in advance. To streamline this process and prevent unnecessary back-and-forth between employees and IT, a seamless and self-service approach is essential.
It has become evident that unless you cater to users' preferences, they are less likely to adopt a new process. To foster widespread acceptance among the workforce, a self-service access portal should be established. This portal would empower employees to effortlessly request the permissions they require. An optimal solution would seamlessly integrate with popular collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, enabling employees to submit access requests without disrupting their regular application usage.
This self-service access request platform should encompass all pertinent information necessary for approvals, minimizing administrative burdens. To ensure a user-friendly experience, the portal should exclude extraneous applications, roles, or permissions. For instance, an Account Executive shouldn't encounter the option to request or even view permissions related to Kubernetes or AWS.
2. Decentralized Resource Ownership
The decentralization of resource ownership and approval holds significant importance, addressing both efficiency and security concerns. From an efficiency standpoint, approximately 35% of IT support tickets pertain to access requests. Helpdesks often grapple with a substantial backlog of issues requiring attention. Modern capabilities allow for real-time assessment of access requests in accordance with security protocols. Subsequently, these requests can be automatically directed to the appropriate stakeholders, be it a business unit manager, a peer, a resource owner, or even the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).
Regarding security considerations, the prevailing reality within most organizations is that IT and DevOps teams singularly wield decision-making authority in authorizing permissions. Nonetheless, they may lack the comprehensive context concerning projects, employee requirements, and individual roles possessed by managers and resource owners. By equipping those directly engaged 'in the field' with relevant insights and training, more informed and precise determinations can be made regarding access permissions for individuals. This approach bolsters overall security measures.
3. Policies-Based Access
Whether referred to as Attribution-based access control (ABAC), policy-based access control (PBAC), or any other terminology of choice, the fundamental principle remains consistent. It revolves around defining access rights based on specific conditions. Through the incorporation of diverse organizational cues, one can make prompt and informed decisions regarding an individual's access privileges, aligned with established policies.
By integrating with different organizational cues, you can make a better and instant decision whether this person should have access or not, according to the policy. On the most basic level, security groups you define in your Identity Provider (IdP) like Okta give information about the person's role, department, location, and so forth. Integration with HR management systems (HRMS) like HiBob or BabmbooHR will provide information about organizational structure and relationship (e.g., managers, peers, and so forth). Integration with on-call software like Opsgenie or PagerDuty, provides information whether a person is in an on-call schedule and should have quick access to sensitive resources to help him firefight.
By enhancing and refining the access provisioning process, organizations ensure that users obtain access in alignment with their designated roles and responsibilities. This approach further augments the automation of least privilege access, providing an added layer of empowerment.
4. Automatic Access Provisioning
Permissioning solutions centered around APIs have the capability to automate a substantial portion of the access provisioning and deprovisioning procedures. Tools such as Entitle have the potential to markedly alleviate the workload on IT and DevOps units, affording them the liberty to direct their efforts towards more strategic endeavors. Through this automated strategy, permissions are swiftly accorded upon requirement and promptly withdrawn when they cease to be essential. This automated mechanism prominently cultivates the concept of least privilege access, chiefly by facilitating finely detailed and transient access, all without being dependent on human intervention for the bestowal or withdrawal of permissions.
A note about governance
Certain organizations attempt to address the principle of least privilege primarily through a governance lens, often relying on periodic reviews of access. While these reviews offer a crucial layer of defense, they fall short due to the increasing granularity of permissions, demanding constant vigilance to scrutinize and revoke excessive access.
By automating the operational dimension of permission allocation, governance becomes an inherent outcome. This not only grants organizations intrinsic insight and traceability into access requests and approvals, including their duration and rationale, but also shifts them from a reactive least privilege stance to a proactive one.
For instance, the implementation of just-in-time workflows allows individuals to be granted permissions for specific durations, minimizing their exposure to needless access. In contrast, a reactive governance approach might lead to prolonged periods of excessive privileges. Moreover, automated least privilege access augments visibility and governance capabilities. Elaborate audit logs can seamlessly integrate with Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems, enabling preemptive monitoring of access actions. This automation streamlines numerous tasks related to access reviews, guaranteeing alignment of permissions with users' roles and obligations, and facilitating prompt investigation of any suspicious activities.
The principle of least privilege is crucial for ensuring robust cybersecurity in the modern digital landscape. Automating the least privilege access process addresses the challenges posed by manual provisioning, reduces the risk of over-privileged accounts, and improves overall security posture. By coupling governance and provisioning, leveraging organizational data sources, providing self-service access, decentralizing ownership, automating provisioning, and enhancing visibility and governance, organizations can effectively implement automated least privilege access and mitigate potential cyber threats. Embracing automation in access management is no longer an option but a necessity in today's rapidly evolving threat landscape.