Cybersecurity is taking center stage more every day in our current society. With all the global villages that have been created electronically, it should come as no surprise that criminals and malicious actors are becoming more creative about how they penetrate organizational systems and cloud environments. The traditional approach to controlling system and service access has always been based on a blacklist approach, however. This approach saw many administrators settling for default user accounts, that often, had some form of administrative access themselves too. 

System admins would then start a process of blacklisting resources and services to which these user accounts should not have access. A typical example of this would be firewall rules predating the least privileged access. Although there are several reasons why this archaic account management methodology has since died a slow death, the most predominant reason is that of eliminating human error.

Having several accounts with unmitigated administrative access on a network is a data breach waiting to happen. Data breaches, of any size, could have devastating results on any organization. 

This is the shortcoming that the principle of least privileged access aims to solve. In an environment where blacklists are in use, user accounts start by having implicit access to everything. With least privileged access, however, user accounts start with access to nothing. The main driver behind it is that users are only given access to exactly what they need and nothing more. The defining rule is Only to grant the bare minimum.

A good example of this would be where an application needs access to a specific database, for example. The rights and access can be configured in such a way to only allow access to specific tables in the database. The application might not need access to sensitive financial information, and should therefore be given access to it, even though the financial information might be hosted in the same database.

Although least privileged access is nothing new, cloud vendors have come a long way to make the application and administration of such rights and policies easier for their clients. Take one vendor, for example, Amazon Web Services (AWS). They introduced a tool called IAM Access Analyzer. The analyzer allows clients to generate security models based on all the access granted to their environments.

Having this kind of holistic information allow organizations to inspect their entire portfolio of user and service accounts, making informed decisions about the longevity and relevance of existing accounts. Accounts can be regularly reviewed, tightening security by eliminating redundant accounts and decreasing access where elevated access is no longer required. Future organizations might, in the future, be able to deploy entire security profile hives where an entire organization’s security account requirements could be completely automated and maintained by artificial intelligence.

The advantages of least privilege access are clear. It is far more secure than the traditional approach of its predecessor. With devices and cloud implementations having much larger digital footprints today, organizations cannot afford to fall into the trap of not being compliant with industry cybersecurity standards. The least privilege also has the benefit that it decreases the attack surface that malicious actors have access to. In a scenario where a malicious actor or malware gains access to an environment, the segregation of user access would essentially compartmentalize the environment only granting limited access to such malicious intrusion. This will also contain the spread of such malware since one account should not have access to all the resources and services. 

Clearly, any effort involved in instating least privileged access into the organization and all its cloud environments is effort well spent. 

Although drawbacks to least privileged access are few and far between, the main concern organizations need to be aware of is that of human error or negligence. Organizations need to ensure that their cybersecurity compliance policies clearly define the how CIA triad of IT security should be applied. 

Security policies should be clear and detailed enough to guide security professionals to always apply best practices when creating and curating security accounts. This means that organizations who would like to implement least privilege access as a security model need to start off by diligently planning both the implementation as well as the maintenance of such an implementation. The sustainability and efficacy of these security policies will, for the most part, be determined by how they are implemented. This would also include staff training. Establishing a culture where corporate security is one of the main priorities of everyone in an organization.