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Wham, bam thank you PAM

Contributor:
Ian Pitfield
Date published
6/21/2017 1:29:22 PM

As the Privileged Access Management (PAM) market matures, two distinct approaches have evolved as the primary focus for organizations considering this type of investment. Last year, the trend led Gartner to redefine the classification of the PAM market into two main categories; Privileged account and session management (PASM) and Privileged elevation and delegation management (PEDM). I’ve given a quick description of these areas below:

PASM – Privileged accounts are protected by vaulting their credentials. Access is then brokered for human users, services, and applications. Password and other credentials for privileged accounts are actively managed.

PEDM – Specific privileges are granted on the managed system by host-based agents to users logged in with unprivileged accounts. This includes privilege elevation.

Many, if not all organizations that I work with have been on a PAM journey of some description – some successful, some not so much, but all have had considerable investment along the way. In this blog, I want to explore the value-add of PAM, its principles, and ultimately the security posture delivered by the approach.

Let’s start with an overview of the historical PAM approach. Solutions in this space typically follow the principles of PASM, a privileged account management platform with a side of system access control and auditing. This traditional approach typically uses a credential vault to proxy sessions to approved target systems, controlling access to privileged accounts across Unix, Linux and Windows platforms.  They often contain features such as session recording, SSO and in some instances, can eliminate hard-coded passwords by making them available on demand to applications (run-as privileged accounts). PAM solutions were brought to market originally to help organizations meet compliance mandates such as SOX, MAS and PCI, by controlling access to privileged accounts and this hasn’t changed. But is it enough? Are organizations simply happy to wrap privileged accounts in a blanket and forget they are being used, or can more be done?

It’s widely regarded in the industry that the single biggest vulnerability to Windows platform is a privileged or ‘Admin’ account. Industry leading papers, including Avecto’s own Microsoft Vulnerabilities Report highlight the true risk when users access systems with a privileges account. Last year 94% of Windows vulnerabilities could have been mitigated if users were running without Admin privileges. Can you see where this is going? Dealing with user’s privileges is widely accepted as a faux-pas, a risk, and unnecessary one at that. Typically, users have privileged account access via PAM to a Windows server estate, where their highest value assets lie and typically where a majority of IPR is stored.

Enter Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management (PEDM)

PEDM is very different to PASM. With PEDM, zero privileged accounts are used for privileged account operating system process as it’s the process themselves that are injected with the required rights, securely at the token level. As mentioned before, this approach has been hugely successful across the Windows Desktop platform – so why should Windows servers be any different? For more detail see Gartner PEDM / PASM definitions - https://www.gartner.com/document/3398617

With PEDM, the game changes, in fact it could make your existing PASM solution more effective and manageable. If you are not granting privileged account access, do users always need to go through the vault/proxy for system access? In addition, as PM works at the process level rather than the user level, it offers the capability to audit at the process level instead of just a video recording of an entire session. Do you need to see a user reviewing the Application Log, or would you like to focus more on high risk tasks such as accessing the registry or PowerShell?

Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management is the next level that regulators and auditors are now pushing for. Its proactive prevention against insiders and external threats without impacting user productivity. A privileged account is still a high-risk point of access into a high value asset - whether it’s been vaulted ­­or not.