The least privilege model is something of a hot topic these days. As part of the foundation of a cybersecurity paradigm, it can provide a robust and resilient first level of defense against many comment cyberthreats. But what exactly is the principle of least privilege?
Simply put, the principle of least privilege is a security maxim stating that users should be granted access only to the data and resources they require to perform their job. It is also called the principle of minimal privilege, access control principle, and the principle of least authority.
When your company observes the principle of least privilege, you grant users only the bare minimum of privileges in networks, systems, and applications needed to execute their assigned tasks. By establishing the least privilege in the context of a Zero Trust security model, you can significantly reduce the risk of compromise, breach, and illicit access to high-value data.
For example, do your company’s marketing managers need access to your software development environment to do their job? Of course not. Similarly, do your company’s software developers need access to payroll data? No. Following the principle of least privilege, both of those groups of users would have only the access needed for their job functions.
Note that the principle of least privilege applies to all access: not only by humans but also by non-human (machine) users, such as devices, bots, and software applications. In an era of booming demand for credentials and data sharing, threat actors are probing for weaknesses in your network and apps.
Identity sprawl is the downside of easier interoperability that the transition to cloud-based resources offers, so no user should be granted more permissions than those required to execute approved tasks. Anything more increases the cybersecurity exposure gap of an organization.
If you’re on the fence about embracing a least privilege approach to security in your organization, here are four benefits of following the principle of least privilege:
1. Reduces cyberattack surface and improves security
With many organizations — which could include yours — the attack surface is increasing in size and vulnerability. As digital transformation motivates companies to operate hybrid IT environments and collaborate with contractors and third-party users, the surface continues to grow. Least privilege is intended to keep the surface as small as possible by restricting access and permissions to those who need them. Limiting privileges to only necessary platforms means that a threat actor can use stolen credentials to access and attack fewer systems and applications.
2. Helps stop the spread of malware
Maintaining the principle of least privilege can help to limit the impact of malware attacks. For example, if an employee clicks a link in a phishing email, the attack is limited to the accounts and permissions of that employee and won’t spread too far laterally. However, if that employee has super admin or root access privileges, the attack can spread throughout the entire network. By giving users only the specific permissions, they need, you can be better protected against malware attacks.
3. Improves performance for users and systems
The practice of granting users only the permissions they need leads to improved productivity and fewer troubleshooting requests. And, by narrowing the blast radius of affected applications, it can improve the stability of the organization’s systems in the event of an attack.
4. Streamlines compliance and audits
If your organization collects, stores, and uses sensitive data, you must comply with regulations for handling it properly. Usually, those regulations require that you enforce least-privilege access policies. Limiting access to users in specific roles makes compliance easier. Plus, it’s easier to pass audits when least-privilege policies are implemented, and audit trails are in place for privileged activity.
To learn more about the many ways that organizations can bolster their cybersecurity using a least privilege model, click here.