5 Benefits of the Principle of Least Privilege (POLP)

May 29, 2020//Ellen Neveux

Last Updated: June 17, 2021

Security and data protection must go beyond perimeter defenses. Two of the largest data breaches on record, Target and Home Depot, were the result of compromised network credentials. In both cases, hackers leveraged privileged accounts to gain access to sensitive data and millions of private records. These incidents illustrate the threat of unrestricted access.

Network managers and information security professionals need secure methods to allow users and applications to perform critical functions on their network.

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What is the Principle of Least Privilege, or POLP?

The principle of least privilege, or POLP, is an important concept in information security. This IT security design principle that restricts access rights and program privileges to only those necessary for the required job. It’s the difference between having a key that works on every door, and one that only opens certain rooms.

Implementing privileged access management delivers network security benefits that provide flexibility for business growth while avoiding needless exposure.


Principle of Least Privilege Benefits

1. Creates an environment with fewer liabilities

If a standard user accidentally reconfigures a critical area of the network, problematic instabilities can occur. Least privilege reduces the number of users that have excessive permissions. Restricting admin right to just a few privileged user accounts rather than all end-users minimizes the overall occurrence of privileged operations and therefore reduces the chance of high-risk errors.

A least privilege access policy minimizes the attack surface, creating fewer targets for bad actors, fewer security risks, and promotes overall healthy network performance.

2. Limits the possibility of catastrophic damages

The least privilege access approach narrows the scope of harm that can be caused by the unwanted or unauthorized use of network privileges. If a user account with a limited set of privileges is compromised or mismanaged, the impact will be confined. However, a “superuser” with admin rights boasts a full set of system privileges. During administrative account sessions, the network is particularly vulnerable to malware proliferation because malicious software can spread without restriction.  

Managers with privileged access control should deny or revoke high-level powers from the majority of non-privileged users and applications to limit the risk of widespread corruption.

3. 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. If least privilege best practices were followed, this attack would be stunted. The web application would have read-only privileges and the injection could not escalate.

4. Data classification promotes a healthy network

The practice of implementing the principle of least privilege forces network managers to keep comprehensive data records. Complete data classification is required to understand all information held on the network and who has access to it.

5. Superior data security and audit capabilities

Eliminating perimeter security flaws is not the only critical aspect of data protection. Enterprises are targets for insider leaks and theft of proprietary data, which poses a serious risk to their business. This is why controlling and monitoring the activity of authorized users is another key element of data security.

A least privilege policy limits the number of users with access to sensitive information and limits privilege elevations, which strengthens overall security. If elevated privileges are required for additional job functions, a user access management process that incorporates granular controls and tracks individual activity should be implemented.

These advanced restrictions create an added benefit during an audit. After a security incident, investigators are able to conduct a more efficient probe by focusing on defined areas, users, and applications.


Best Practices of POLP

There are several best practices that organizations should consider following when implementing least privilege access in their security policies.

  • Make least privilege model the default for all accounts.
  • Elevate privileges on a situational and timed basis only. One-time use permissions are a good way to provide necessary access while maintaining control.
  • Monitor and track all network activity, including individual logins, system changes, and access requests. It’s critical to always understand who is on your network and what they are doing.
  • Ensure a flexible access management platform is in place so that privileged credentials can be securely elevated and easily downgraded.
  • Identify and separate high-level system functions from lower-level functions.
  • Audit privileges granted to users and applications. Conduct this review regularly to make sure all authorized permissions are still relevant.

Network and system security can be measured by the management of network privileges. Adhering to the principle of least privilege creates a protected and traceable environment by clearly defining high-level functions and actively controlling user access. 

To learn more about the importance of least privileged access, download our vendor privileged access checklist to evaluate your vendor access methods.

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