Benefits of the Principle of Least Privilege

August 12, 2021//Isa Jones

Last Updated: October 26, 2021
Current cybersecurity and data protection best practices are far beyond the days of just a perimeter defense. Two recent attacks — on SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline — were the result of compromised network credentials and highlight how hackers are able to leverage privileged accounts to gain access to critical data. Both, as well as many other hacks that have hit headlines, illustrate the growing threat of unrestricted access. In fact, 44% of organizations polled in the 2021 Ponemon report experienced a third-party data breach in the last 12 months that resulted in the misuse of sensitive or confidential information. One of the best defenses? Least privilege access.

What is least privilege access?

Least privilege access is a system that restricts access rights and privileges to only those who need it for any given required job. It’s the difference between having a key that works on every door and one that only opens certain rooms. When it comes to which users across an organization have which keys, an organization needs to also practice role-based access control as part of least privilege access. This means that a key (or access permission) should only be given to users based on their role and responsibilities. For example, a receptionist in HR at a large healthcare system shouldn’t be able to access hospital files for a patient in the ICU.
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Five benefits of the least privilege principle

  1. The least privilege principle reduces liability

    Whether by accident or intention, when someone accesses data, programs, or part of a network they don’t need to, problems can occur. Whether it’s an internal employee looking at sensitive information out of curiosity or a bad actor gaining access to critical information, more open doors means more liabilities and opportunities for issues. A least privilege access policy minimizes the attack surface by creating fewer targets for bad actors.
  2. The principle of least privilege limits the possibility of catastrophic damage

    If the worst case scenario happens, and a bad actor gets into an organization’s network, the least privilege model means they’ll be greeted with nothing but locked doors. It immediately reduces the damage they can create or the critical information they can access. If an organization doesn’t employ this principle, then suddenly all the doors are swinging open and the results — compromised data, stolen information, or even a ransomware attack — become distinct possibilities. If a bad actor is able to get into that HR receptionist’s computer, thanks to least privilege access, those ICU patient files remain safe and sound.
  3. POLP protects against common attacks, like SQL injections

    Applications with unrestricted privileges are often targeted by attackers. An SQL injection is a common web application attack that inserts malicious instructions into SQL statements. Hackers are then able to elevate their privileges and gain control over critical systems.
  4. Data classification creates a healthy, secure network

    The least privilege principle model forces network managers to keep comprehensive data records to understand who has access to what at any given time. Complete data classification and organization is required to understand all information held on the network and who can access it. Having this information not only ensures that no one has access to what they shouldn’t, but can be used to track the root cause of a cyber attack if one occurs. In addition, keeping this kind of data organized and audited helps a larger enterprise meet regulatory requirements such as HIPAA.
  5. The least privilege principle enables better security and audit capabilities

    More and more, hackers are targeting larger enterprises, so security measures need to scale up with these bigger threats. Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when a cyberattack occurs, so being able to narrow the scope of a hack by employing the least privilege principle can drastically reduce resolution time, downtime, and cost of an attack. If elevated privileges are required for additional job functions, a user access management process that incorporates more specific controls and tracks individual activity can and should be implemented.

Best practices for the principle of least privilege

To fully reap the benefits of the least privilege principle, an organization needs to ensure that the principle is implemented correctly.  Follow these best practices for the principle of least privilege:
  • Make least privilege access the default access for all roles and systems.
  • Only elevate or expand access on a time and case-specific basis.
  • Monitor and track all network activity through a user access management process.
  • Ensure a flexible access management platform is in place so that privileged credentials can be modified or removed as needed.
  • Identify and separate high-level system functions from lower-level functions, and critical from non-critical, to better understand who is accessing what and how that data can be protected.
The effectiveness of network and system security can be measured by the management of network and system privileges. If permissions are managed properly, then the security is more robust.

What is the weakest link in data security for a hospital or large hospital system network?

The point of access Email accounts VPNs

AThe point of access; Absolutely correct. The point of access is where the majority of breaches occur. However, third-party protection is the best defense an organization can have.

Learn More

APhishing is absolutely a risk an organization should be aware of and protected against, but the weakest link overall is the point of access.

Learn more about remote access success stories.

Learn More

AWhile VPNs are not as secure as an organization may think, they offer some protection. The weakest link in data security, however, is the point of access. That’s a point that VPNs don’t protect against.

Learn why VPN shouldn’t be your only solution.

View Infographic

How to implement least privilege

It doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming to increase your organization’s security. In addition to saving an organization stress, time, and money, the least privilege implementation process can be easily achieved with a few techniques.
  1. Invest in user access management software. Strong access management software can not only help an IT department and other departments grant the right employees or vendors the right access, it can monitor and track access behavior to ensure least privilege access is being followed. Whether it’s identity access management or privileged access management, these tools can help you organize your user identities and access privileges. Most third-party remote access solutions also integrate with these technologies as well.
  2. Employ technologies, like multi-factor authentication, that increase security. Gone are the days of the VPN. Multi-factor authentication, which requires two or more methods of authentication (like a push notification and a password), is a known tool to prevent the wrong people from gaining access to data they shouldn’t have access to.
  3. Conduct high-definition audits. You can’t find gaps unless you start looking for them. Regularly auditing user access not only ensures least privilege access over the long-term, but can reduce risks such as termination gaps and external threats.

Zero trust and least privilege

“Trust no one” are wise words when it comes to cybersecurity and your organization’s critical information. Zero Trust and the least privilege principle model go hand in hand when creating a secure system. Zero Trust Architecture limits which sensitive systems a user can access and is implemented with various security controls, such as multi-factor authentication, least privileged access, access and employment verification and attestation, credential vaulting, and detailed auditing. Think of least privilege access as one piece of the Zero Trust puzzle. You implement it through the management and auditing of user access, and you’ll start to see the picture of a comprehensive cybersecurity policy taking shape. The two policies aren’t the same, but you can’t have one without the other, and ideally, you would have both zero trust and least privilege. To learn more about the importance of least privileged access and zero trust, download our vendor privileged access checklist to evaluate your vendor access methods.
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