Incident Response, Network Security, TDR

Inside threat: The power of privilege

There's an old saying that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While traditionally applied in the political arena, the same concepts hold true for most organizations from a security perspective. Unchecked power, often in the form of access rights and privileges, can lead to damaging security incidents in any organization.

Often, the most powerful entities in any organization are found in the form of privileged accounts and identities, since they provide the widest and deepest access to systems and their underlying data. These accounts enable the most influential IT users in an organization to accomplish their tasks with the required elevated permissions, access rights and administrative capabilities. Often these accounts are the least managed, monitored or controlled. They provide anonymous or untracked access, since these are shared, generic accounts that are not typically associated with an individual user.

Traditionally, organizations managed these privileged accounts by “trusting” the administrators and personnel with access to only use them “as needed” and not abuse them. Unfortunately, as we find out time and time again, trust is not a security policy. We've seen several recent examples of how pervasive and powerful these privileged accounts are – and what the consequences can be if they go unchecked. Consider these examples:

  • An IT contractor was recently indicted for illegally accessing a privileged account, compromising a computer system used by Pacific Energy Resources to monitor offshore oil platforms in California and Alaska. The contractor crashed the system, and while thankfully there was no environmental disaster as a result, this company is reporting his actions caused thousands of dollars of damage;
  • Yusuf Acar, Washington D.C.'s CSO, is still in jail on charges of the bribery scheme he was running out of his office. One of the biggest challenges facing authorities is understanding how pervasive his access was to systems and information in the IT infrastructure – Acar had set up backdoors throughout the organization through his privileged accounts;
  • In one of the most infamous cases of privileged abuse, IT worker Terry Childs was charged with bringing San Francisco to a grinding halt last year by using his privileged admin account to lock down the San Francisco IT system;
  • Fannie Mae narrowly avoided a devastating attack after a former employee used his privileged access to implant a logic bomb on the company's network that could have brought the network down entirely.

These are just a few of the more recent and sensational examples of privileged abuse. While these incidents are often written off simply as further examples of “rogue insiders,” what this really constitutes is continued organizational failure – giving near omnipotent power to individuals with little recourse to get that power back, or monitor the activity that's taking place during these privileged sessions.

Fueled by these headlines, the power of privileged accounts and their potential abuses have started to capture broad attention, especially by our government. The SANS Institute, in conjunction with several federal agencies including the DoD, recently released the Consensus Audit Guidelines, highlighting 20 critical security controls that are viewed as essential for blocking potential security incidents. The automated and continuous control of administrative privileges was high on the list.

The basic premise of security comes down to three words: trust no one. This is especially true when we focus on those who hold “the keys to the kingdom.” If you don't have this mindset as you're thinking about security, you're potentially setting yourself up for a major security incident via the intentional or inadvertent misuse of these privileged accounts. This isn't to disparage administrators, 99.9 percent of the employees with access to privileged accounts can be the most honest and trustworthy person you know. But the simple existence of such pervasive power in your organization demands that accountability starts at the top by managing and monitoring the activity that takes place through these accounts.

If you're not continuously managing and monitoring these privileged accounts and applications in your organization, here are seven immediate steps you can take to make sure the power you've created is accountable:

  • Include privileged identities within the broader security/Identity Management project scope. This is a critical first step, because if privileged access isn't included in the initial scope, it won't get addressed. Identity management projects need to focus on more than controlling end-user access in your organization. Given the power of these privileged accounts, this needs to be included in any IdM discussion, and should be a focal point from the onset of the project.
  • Identify the key systems, applications and databases and the underlying privileged accounts that exist in each one. Often overlooked is that fact that each application in your organization has underlying generic identities, which, once access through a privileged account, gives wide ranging access to any other application in the organization it touches
  • Identify who should have access to privileged accounts – make sure you understand who exactly you're giving this power to.
  • Identify who does have access to privileged accounts – as you audit these accounts, you'll be shocked to find out how many users have access that they shouldn't.
  • Clearly define policies for privileged access to key systems, ensuring safeguards such as dual-control, time-based access and frequent strong password changes.
  • Implement processes to automatically apply the policy definitions. As cited above, the Consensus Audit Guidelines suggest that these processes be managed automatically and continuously.
  • Monitor and report actual adherence to the defined policies you set forth. This is a critical component in safeguarding your organization, making sure you not only know who is accessing these accounts, but monitoring the activity once the access is granted to make sure the activity itself is in compliance with your security and business policies.

Organizations will always be faced with threats from the inside and out. Identifying your greatest risks and threats is the first step in safeguarding your organization. You can do this by taking trust out of the equation when it comes to security – it simply does not make for good policy. To steal a line from an old favorite, just remember, “It's not personal, it's strictly business.”

Adam Bosnian is the vice president of products, strategy and sales at Cyber-Ark Software. He is responsible for the global product and business strategy of the company as well as for managing the North American sales organization and growing the business in this area.

Adam Bosnian

Adam Bosnian is the executive vice president of global business development at CyberArk. He is responsible for managing and expanding global strategic relationships with technology partners at CyberArk. Bosnian brings a strong sales, marketing and strategy success track record to his business development role at CyberArk, having served in a range of sales and marketing executive roles with the company over the past 10 years. As an early member of the CyberArk management team, Bosnian led the industry to define the market for privileged account security and compliance and helped to secure CyberArk’s leadership in the space. Adam is responsible for driving the CyberArk C3 (C Cubed) Alliance and integrations.

Get daily email updates

SC Media's daily must-read of the most current and pressing daily news

By clicking the Subscribe button below, you agree to SC Media Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.