What is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer
Least privilege

In cybersecurity, the principle of least privilege (PoLP) is a concept that states that a user should have the least amount of access privileges possible to carry out. PoLP aims to squash risks associated with unauthorized access and improve the security perimeter generally.

Today, we’re taking a deeper look at the principle of least privilege. We’re showcasing why PoLP is important, how it relates to zero-knowledge principles and how it can help organizations to further improve their overall security posture.

How does the principle of least privilege work?

Technically speaking, the principle of least privilege, which is deeply embedded in the Zero Trust security philosophy, works by simply limiting a user’s (employees) access rights to certain data, applications, resources, and systems — leaving the user with the least amount of privileges that are needed to do their job. However, before the least access principle can be applied in a business setting, it is critical to first assess user roles and responsibilities, in other words, to pinpoint which access rights and privileges are essential for which users. Once the analysis is complete and users are assigned their appropriate access rights, the next step is the continuous management of these permissions. After all, employees come and go, roles change, and so access rights have to be adjusted accordingly.

Why is the principle of least privilege important?

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation. Say an HR employee has access to the human resources management system to update employee records. But if they also have access rights to access the IT infrastructure, which are not essential for their HR-related tasks, the risk of a full-blown data breach increases significantly in the event their account is compromised.

The hypothetical above showcases the principle of least privilege benefits, which include:

  • Reduce the potential attack surface: Limiting user access privileges means fewer opportunities for bad actors to exploit those privileges.

  • Minimize the impact of exploits: Even if a hacker can gain unauthorized access to the user’s account, the security principle of least privilege confines the possible damage.

  • Come closer to adhering to regulatory frameworks such as GDPR and HIPAA: Regulatory frameworks such as GDPR and HIPAA require strict access controls. By applying PoLP and ensuring users have access only to the information and system essential for their tasks, an organization can get closer to being compliant with various regulations.

  • Improve security within the hybrid work environment: In a hybrid work environment, where employees access systems remotely, maintaining strict access controls becomes even more important. Implementing the principle of least privilege ensures that the security risks associated with remote access are reduced significantly.

Zero Trust vs Least Privilege

Zero Trust is a cybersecurity concept built on another simple idea: never trust, always verify. Unlike the traditional security frameworks, Zero Trust Security assumes that threats can come from within as well as outside the network.

At its core, Zero Trust embodies the principle of least privilege by enforcing strict access controls and permissions. Every access or connection request, regardless of origin, is treated as untrusted until verified otherwise. This stringent verification process is an extension of PoLP’s main idea — to provide users with only the necessary access levels.

In practice, Zero Trust treats every access request as if it's the first request coming from an untrusted network. Each request is always re-authenticated regardless of previous requests or connections. In this sense, you can think of Zero Trust as a dynamic framework while PoLP can be considered static because it provides users with specific access rights that remain the same unless adjusted.

To make the distinction between Zero Trust and PoLP clearer, let’s imagine a high-end office building. In this case, Zero Trust would be the foundation of the building’s security system, which requires employees, regardless of their position, to use an access card to enter the office building and other facilities. The principle of least privilege, in this scenario, could be likened to the specific programming of access cards based on the employee’s role: for instance, providing the IT staff with access to server rooms, while not granting the same privileges to, say, the marketing team.

What is Privilege Creep?

Privilege creep is a term that refers to a user that gradually accumulates more access rights than are required to execute their function. Privilege creeps most often come into being due to role changes that do not trigger an adjustment concerning access privileges. When thinking about organizational cybersecurity, privilege creeps pose a serious risk where unauthorized access to a single account could lead to an enterprise-wide data breach.

Here are best practices when it comes to the principle of least privilege, helping to prevent privilege creeps from materializing:

  • Implement role-based access controls: Clearly define roles and associated permissions to make sure access rights are granted based on the necessities of the job.

  • Conduct regular access reviews: Schedule periodic reviews of user privileges to identify and rectify any discrepancies or excessive access rights.

  • Enforce a Zero-Trust security approach: Adopt a zero-trust policy where no user is trusted by default. Verify every access request, regardless of the user’s position within the organization.

  • Make use of automated tools: Leverage automation for managing access rights. Tools like Privileged Access Management (PAM) systems can help in monitoring and controlling access rights efficiently.

  • Promote security awareness: Educate employees about the risks of privilege creep and the importance of adhering to cyber security protocols.

By proactively managing user permissions and educating employees, you can significantly mitigate the risk of privilege creep and enhance your organization’s overall security posture.

How to Implement the Least Privilege Principle in Your Organization

Adopting the principle of least privilege in your organization can be a lengthy process; however, the juice is well worth the squeeze. Once your organization operates under PoLP, the potential attack surface will shrink significantly. Here are a few best practices when it comes to the implementation of PoLP:

  • Define access requirements clearly: Before adopting the principle of least privileges in your organization, you need to have a clear understanding of the data access needs of various roles within the organization.

  • Implement Role-based access control (RBAC): Once you have a clear understanding of access requirements, setting up RBAC will be a lot easier. You’ll need to create roles based on job functions and assign permissions to these roles rather than for individual users.

  • Utilize Just-In-Time (JIT) privilege access: Enhance security by granting time-limited privileges on a need-to-use basis. Establishing JIT access privileges will restrict the window of opportunity for access to sensitive data, minimizing the risk of insider threats or external breaches that would exploit user access privileges.

  • Enforce Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and password policies: Strengthen the authentication processes by establishing MFA as an additional layer of security next to company-wide password policies. MFA ensures that even if the password of a critical account is compromised, the attackers will not have a chance to access it as they will not have another authentication factor required.

  • Implement system monitoring: Establish surveillance of system and user activities to quickly identify and respond to abnormal access patterns or potential security incidents.

How can NordPass help?

These days, when access points seem to multiply as fast as potential security threats, adopting the principle of least privilege within a business setting should be a no-brainer. PoLP implementation can reduce, quite significantly, the organization’s attack surface and generally improve overall cybersecurity. There’s also the added benefit of coming closer to compliance with various regulatory frameworks such as HIPAA or GDPR.

While the adoption of PoLP can be challenging, there are tools that can make this a lot easier and NordPass Enterprise is one of them. It’s an enterprise-grade password manager that’s built on the principle of the Zero-Knowledge architecture and is equipped with the XChaCha20 encryption algorithm.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. NordPass's integration with Single Sign-On (SSO) is a key asset in adopting PoLP. By allowing users to use a single set of credentials to access multiple resources, SSO simplifies authentication and enhances security. NordPass Enterprise is compatible with major identity providers such as Microsoft Azure AD, MS ADFS, and Okta. This centralized management system is effective in preventing unauthorized access and minimizing potential security breaches by assigning user access based on specific roles.

NordPass also helps organizations in managing user access effectively. It allows administrators to assign, revoke, or modify user access to login credentials, personal information, payment card data, and other sensitive data according to specific needs. This flexibility, powered by the Activity log feature, is critical when adopting PoLP. Thanks to this functionality, you can easily adjust access rights in response to changes in roles or employment status.

Learn more about how NordPass Enterprise can benefit your organization’s overall security strategy by visiting the official NordPass Enterprise website.

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