Privileged access management, or PAM, is the fusion between security strategies and access management tools and technology to exert control over privileged accounts. The fusion enables organizations to secure their sensitive information, enforce control over access, and consistently monitor and keep track of activities and resources.

The following are subsets of PAM:

  • Management of privileged sessions
  • Management of vendor privileged access
  • Management of application access
  • Management of shared access password


A privileged account can behave like a double-edged sword. Although it provides safety from insider threats by itself, it also poses a special threat as privileged accounts have special access to information that is critical and not available to other standard accounts. Insider threats are one of the hardest kinds of threats to deal with. The 2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report says the discovery of these cyber threats is extremely tricky, taking the most amount of time to resolve.

  • Greater protection for privileged accounts
  • A key difference between a standard user account and a privileged account is the level of access to critical information. In the case of a cyberattack, a hacker compromising a standard account will be seen as a lesser threat in comparison to a hacker compromising a privileged account. A compromised privileged account can affect the organization in a destructive and unfathomable way.

  • It has implications beyond the landscape of privileges
  • PAM plays a role in achieving compliance with numerous regulatory laws and policies, both industrial and governmental. Organizations will be able to record, accumulate, log, and filter activities that take place in their IT infrastructure. The process of filtration also allows the distinction between the storage of standard user accounts and privileged accounts.

  • Clear differentiation by separation
  • The storage of all privileged account credentials in a separate and secure repository is a separation intended to denote the degree of importance for critical organizational data. The separation is also aimed at risk reduction in the case of password thefts or deliberate misuse. In fact, the right to set their own password is not often provided to privileged users. This right solely lies with the privileged access providers (commonly known as password providers), who give out one-time passwords or a new password every day.

Specifications and capabilities

Organizations with massive IT infrastructure and a high level of complexity can make exceptional use of PAM software. The implementation of PAM tools and software offers the following capabilities:

  • Isolated and secured repository or vault for the storage of privileged accounts.
  • Tracking and monitoring capabilities after the provision of a privileged account or access.
  • Multi-factor authentication, wherein users must verify their identity in two or more ways if they want to gain access to an organization network, platform, or application successfully.
  • Abilities related to dynamic authorization such as granting time-constrained access.
  • Reduction of insider threats by user provisioning and de-provisioning automation.
  • Structural aspects that help in achieving regulatory compliance by using audit-logging tools.
  • Privileged credential management allows the reduction of credential theft.

Threats and challenges

The principles of Zero Trust and PAM are relatively new. Consequently, they face challenges pertaining mainly to current industrial trends and demands. The following separate challenges coalesce to form a bigger organizational and industrial gap that needs to be addressed for PAM to mature.

  • Management of account credentials
  • A considerable number of IT divisions across industries are prone to functional errors such as ill-timed updates of credentials due to the practice of manual administration. While a manual approach to managing account credentials has its perks (the human element of personal touch and control), it has a narrow range of applicability in terms of organizational scale. For example, a manual approach towards managing credentials in a large scaled organization can lead to inefficiency and an exorbitant organizational expense.

  • Excessive provision of privileged accounts or access
  • The logic behind the principle of least privilege is to give out only the least amount of permission or access necessary for an employee to carry out their specific task. This amounts to protection from insider threats, as any sensitive information, or information irrelevant to an employee, is not left exposed. The converse is true as well: the higher the number of privileges provided, the wider the attack surface. Limiting the total number of privileges is imperative when it comes to protection of critical organizational information or resources.

  • Over-sharing accounts and processes
  • Multiple teams under the IT division occasionally collaborate by sharing accounts with their or other teams' members to perform shared duties. Collaboration between organizational teams within a department is not an uncommon practice, especially in IT. The issue with a collaborative environment of this sort is that it can be challenging to find out which individual is or was responsible for a particular action or decision. Additionally, other issues relating to inherent security, compliance, and auditing may arise as well.

  • The protection of the Windows domain controller
  • To gain discreet access to organizational resources and sensitive data, vulnerabilities in the Kerberos authentication system can be exploited by cyber-attackers as a means to cause organizational chaos and ultimately result in data theft and/or loss.

Best practices

The prevention and reaction to internal and external threats is directly proportional to the maturity of an organization's privileged security policies and enforcement. Moreover, a holistic assessment of creation and implementation helps in achieving organizational and industrial compliance. Some of the most recommended practices for PAM are as follows:

  • An inventory of all the privileged accounts and/or access should be maintained.
  • Official and formal policies should be set up to gain and retain control over access to privileges.
  • The principles of Zero Trust and least privilege should be integrated with the policies set in place.
  • Accounts that are inactive or obsolete should be quickly removed from the Active Directory to prevent any form of misuse. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
  • Risk assessments are an integral part of any security practice. They help with the identification of the most harmful and/or possible threats to accounts with privileges.
  • A just-in-time model can be followed for dynamic provisioning and de-provisioning of appropriate permissions for specific tasks and activities.

Final note

Lately, the push towards implementing privilege access and account security has been greatly emphasized by cyber insurers and vendors; more specifically, the inclusion and enforcement of PAM controls like privilege user tracking and monitoring, and the removal of administrative rights. Although this method is one of the best approaches towards optimizing PAM, paving the path towards a state of quintessential privileged access security policy can only be determined after the auditing of privileged risks.

Instead of trying to improve the overall structure of privileged processes, organizations should choose to focus on the improvement of smaller factors that coalesce, resulting in an overall enhancement of structure and security.

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