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Last updated date : 9 Feb 2023

What is privilege elevation?

Privilege elevation is exclusive, time-limited access provided by IT teams to standard users who do not normally have permissions to access critical enterprise resources. Simply put, instead of granting permanent or standing privileges, privilege elevation enables access to certain enterprise assets for a specific time frame.

For example, employees requiring access to resources not under their purview will need a time-based privilege elevation to perform relevant tasks. This ensures that they can venture only into authorized zones when designated, without taking unnecessary controls into hand. Delegation of need-based access prevents excessive permissions from being granted and bolsters the IT security of the organization.

What are privilege escalation attacks?

Privilege escalation attacks occur when a malicious insider attempts to access enterprise resources illicitly. Orphaned accounts or accounts with permanently elevated privileges allow such users to gain access to the secluded boundaries of an enterprise and perform nefarious actions like data exfiltration.

Types of privilege escalation attacks

In an enterprise scenario, privilege escalation attacks take progressive control of the system access functionalities in the following ways:


    Horizontal privilege escalation is granted to provide access to functionalities between the same role levels. It allows a user to impersonate another, while both have the same level of privileges. For example, an employee logging into a fellow employee's system using stolen credentials allows access to the former's sensitive information like passwords, files, or even the networks they are a part of.


    Vertical privilege escalation allows non-administrative users to access functionalities of administrative users. For example, a new employee attempting to access the system administrator's portal of the organization calls for a privilege elevation into an administrative area they usually would not have access to.


Incorporating privileged elevation and delegation management into an enterprise workflow streamlines privileged elevation strategies by allowing controlled privileges to be granted to users and helps establish an efficient zero-trust model.

What is privilege elevation and delegation management (PEDM)?

PEDM is a part of privileged access management (PAM), which is designed to provide non-admin users with temporary, granular privileges based on their requirements.

By leveraging PEDM, IT teams can ensure that access to privileged accounts and resources can be granted only when the need arises. This granular capability, when integrated with PAM systems, mitigates the risk of accidental exposure of accounts and passwords, thereby preventing the lateral movement of attackers and malicious insiders through an enterprise's privileged pathways.

While privileged account and session management (PASM) solutions apply the principle of least privilege (POLP) to provide restricted access to privileged credentials via their digital password vaults, they can grant access only on an all-or-nothing basis. In such cases, users will be provisioned with temporary admin accounts, also known as ephemeral accounts, which provide them with full access to the target systems, including applications and services they do not need or should not be able to access. If these ephemeral accounts are further shared with more users or, much worse, become compromised, any threat actor could gain complete control over the target system.

What problems can PEDM solve?

Granting users higher privileges and permanent access to critical accounts introduces significant security risks. Even through accidental exposure, such standing privileges have the potential to give attackers access to an organization's most valuable resources. Furthermore, if these users share their credentials in plain-text formats or have their passwords compromised, they are likely offering complete control of their privileges to attackers who can remain undetected by traditional security measures. PEDM aims to solve this problem by allowing users and applications access to privileged information using a time-based and request-based approach.

How does PEDM work?

With PEDM solutions in place, access to sensitive information is given for a stipulated time based on the validation of their requirements, and these privileges are revoked after that time. This model puts an end to providing users with permanent standing privileges, which is a vector for abuse.

If users require higher privileges to access critical systems and applications, they must send privilege elevation requests to the admins. These requests will be reviewed and validated by admins, and then privilege elevation will be granted to the users for a limited period. This is called just-in-time privileged access management (JIT PAM), where privileges are granted temporarily based on the merits of the requests.

PEDM is usually implemented using a PAM solution. For instance, admins can grant database access to a user for a stipulated period and can disable any critical actions, such as changing passwords, delete, and edit, to avoid unauthorized modifications to the database. Furthermore, this user will be given only basic view access, which will be revoked after the requested period. The credentials for such critical assets will subsequently be rotated using the PAM solution to ensure that there are no unauthorized access attempts in the future.

Business benefits of PEDM

PEDM enables IT teams to enforce granular privileges based on the validity of a user's request. Organizations can improve their privileged access security posture by imposing built-in limitations and time-based requirements when granting higher privileges associated with certain applications, systems, scripts, and processes. Granting privilege elevation with such granular controls allow IT teams to employ the principle of least privilege to provide non-admin users with only the privileges necessary to carry out their jobs.


    Achieve a better security posture

    A cooperative relationship between PEDM, least privilege, and PAM can significantly reduce the risks of standing privileges and credential abuse by external attackers and rogue insiders. Since privilege elevation is granted at a granular level, temporary admins do not get complete access to their target systems, preventing threat actors from gaining control over the critical data.


    Adapt to dynamic privilege requirements

    PEDM also enables users to request customized roles best suited to their privileged access requirements. Self-service elevation requests are validated based on predetermined criteria, thereby automatically approving just-in-time provisioning. Additionally, PEDM helps organizations meet compliance requirements, as they usually include session monitoring, auditing, and reporting capabilities.


    Reduce the attack surface significantly

    The key benefit of employing PEDM is that it reduces an organization's attack surface by limiting the number of privileged user accounts and sessions. This leaves cybercriminals with significantly fewer vulnerable vectors to exploit.

How to implement a sound PEDM strategy

Including privilege elevation and delegation controls in your PAM strategy involves a six-fold approach.


Conduct a detailed privilege audit

Identify and eliminate standing privileges and over privileged user accounts. Deploy privilege elevation policies at the application, service, and device level rather than the user level. This also includes separating admin accounts from regular user accounts.


Include least privilege measures

Assign default privileges for user accounts, which should ideally be set as low as possible. This step ensures that unnecessary local admin privileges are eliminated and that human users and machine identities only have just-in-time access privileges to perform their designated tasks.


Enforce privileged account governance

Protect access to admin credentials using a secure vault (an inherent module in PASM solutions). Rotate these passwords periodically and after each use to invalidate any compromised credentials. In addition, continuously monitor all sessions and activities to proactively detect and terminate any suspicious behavior.


Enable just-in-time access provisioning (JIT)

Allow users to access critical systems on a temporary basis. Grant privilege elevation for a specific amount of time based on the validity of their requirements, monitor their sessions in real time, and revoke their access and rotate the credentials upon session expiration to prevent any unauthorized access in the future.


Review privilege elevation activity logs frequently

Monitor and log privileged activities and sessions and look for suspicious activities, such as newly added network configurations or failed login attempts, that were carried out without prior authorization. Leverage context-aware log correlation to study user behavior patterns and make data-driven security decisions.


Check user accounts and privileges regularly

Review privileges on a regular basis to ensure that active user accounts only have the designated minimum of privileges. Revoke any excess privileges and remove inactive accounts to eliminate the weakest links.

Get started with PEDM

PEDM is a true game changer in the PAM sphere, and industry regulators and leaders are now pushing for it as a benchmark access control strategy. One of the biggest advantages of including PEDM in your PAM strategy is proactive prevention of internal and external threat actors through the effective management of privileges. With additional controls such as least privilege in place, PEDM works at the application and process level rather than at the user level, which makes it easier for admins to take complete and granular control of privileged accounts and resources.

To learn more about how ManageEngine PAM360 leverages just-in-time privileged access management controls to secure your local and domain accounts in Windows, feel free to try the demo version that will give you a hands-on understanding.

Secure and manage user accounts and privileges effectively with ManageEngine PAM360.