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Principle of Least Privilege (POLP): What Is It?

Posted on July 19, 2021 by IDMEdge

The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) is emerging as one of the important concepts in the cybersecurity arena.

It offers system security and stability, helps reduce the attack surface, and provides a lot more benefits for organizations in a world full of security risks these days.

And the security challenge is not only for outside threats but also inside. And it’s more grave. This is why a concept like POLP is safer to enable 360-degree access controls throughout the organization.

In this article, we will understand what POLP is, its benefits, and how to implement it in your organization.

What’s the Principle of Least Privilege (POLP)?

The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) states that every user, process, or program must be given only the access, permission, resources, or information necessary to complete their legitimate task, not more, not less.

POLP is also known as the Principle of Least Authority (POLA) or the Principle of Minimal Privilege (POMP). This is an important concept in the world of cybersecurity, information security, and computer science.

This principle helps organizations enable a secure environment by minimizing the risk vectors and security from both internal and external threats. It also helps them achieve business confidentiality and integrity by addressing access controls.

Example: Suppose an organization has appointed an individual to work as a writer and permitted them to upload the content on their content management system (CMS) for publishing. This allows the person to access the CMS by entering their valid credentials and then upload the content. They can edit their content or add or delete stuff in their account.

However, they don’t have permission to make changes to other writers’ content. Based on the permission level, they may publish the content from their account or just submit it for approval. And the administrator or editor assigned to approve the content can finally view, edit, and publish the content.

So, the user’s access permissions are limited here to those only that can help them fulfill their job role in the organization.

What Are Its Key Terminologies?

Some of the key concepts that form the basis for the principle of least privilege are:

Privilege Creep

The concept of privilege creep applies to employees or users who gain unnecessary permissions. With more privileges, security risks become wider that need monitoring and precautions.

For example, privilege creep can happen when an employee changes their job role and/or department. If their privileges aren’t modified based on their new position, they can end up with multiple privileges, both old and new. As a result, cybersecurity risks increase in the organization.

Privilege bracketing

Privilege bracketing is a practice where a user’s permissions are reduced to the shortest possible time frame so they can complete an assignment or task, and then their permissions are removed.

For security, admin permissions must be provided to employees only when absolutely needed to perform a function and for the minimum time possible, instead of giving them access for the whole time. This is where privilege bracketing comes into the picture.

Superuser accounts

These are accounts used for administering an organizational network. They are given to specialized IT staff and can have unlimited privileges over a network or system.

It can involve the read, write, or execute permissions and making necessary changes in a network. It includes modifying files and settings, installing software, deleting users and data, etc.

Superuser accounts or administrator accounts are only provided to an organization’s most trusted members, such as system admins. Since it has full access controls, this account needs superior protection from unauthorized access. And to prevent it from cyberattacks, the superuser can enter a sudo command into an account. It allows the account to execute a single command temporarily having superuser privileges.

Standard accounts

Standard accounts, also known as least privileged accounts, have limited privileges. These are given to most of the users or employees of an organization.

For security, most non-IT employees are given standard user accounts. However, some roles like network admin can have multiple accounts who log in as standard users for general, routine tasks but access their superuser account for administration.

Why Do You Need POLP?

The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) has become increasingly important for organizations. It’s evident especially in the modern business scenarios where users can be operating from any location across the globe and with flexible times.

Controlling access permissions and giving employees the least level of privilege, just necessary to complete their task, is a good security practice. Here’s how POLP can be beneficial to businesses.

Improved system security

With POLP and distributed access controls based on a user’s job, vulnerabilities and attacks in one system or application won’t spread to other systems in the network.

So, even if one of your system or user account has been compromised by malware or other cybersecurity attacks, it can be contained there and won’t spread to other systems. This way, all other systems will be safe while you can focus on dealing with the compromised system.

This means if an attacker manages to access a standard account illegally, they won’t be able to penetrate superior accounts or superuser accounts.

Furthermore, it’s not only the external elements that can attack your systems; internal employees can also pose a threat. This is why concepts like Zero Trust and POLP are implemented for security.

By assigning limited privileges to users according to their job function can help mitigate malicious intent from insiders to cause data thefts, credential stealing, accessing unauthorized or sensitive information, and so on.

Easy deployment

Fewer privileges assigned to a user, system, or application are easy to deploy in an organization, in general. Applications requiring more security privileges include additional steps during their deployment.

However, with limited permissions, those extra steps for adding more permission levels and employing the safety mechanism are reduced. As a result, you can have easier and faster deployment.

More system stability

Enabling limited permissions for a user limits their actions. Even though they can make certain operations, some functions are still restricted for them. It results in fewer human errors and doesn’t allow them to perform some actions, for instance, making edits, deleting files, changing configurations, etc. It’s because if they mistakenly do so, it may negatively impact the system, application, or other apps running on the device.

This way, POLP helps ensure that your code remains in safe hands. All this accounts for system stability to run operations flawlessly without errors or disturbances.

Streamlined control

In addition to helping organizations assign the least privileges to users based on their job functions, POLP also helps you classify your data. Proper data classification enables you to understand who can access what data within your organization. You can monitor these insights to detect suspicious activities and have streamlined control over your data, devices, applications, and other systems.

Enhanced productivity

When users have minimal access privilege to systems and applications, it reduces complexities. They can access limited, authorized applications and perform actions faster and better.

It’s easier than the situation when they have to deal with lots of applications that can increase their confusion levels, pose technical difficulties, and prompt them to seek IT support.

POLP not only helps the users but also helps reduce the number of support tickets, troubleshooting needs, and IT burdens.

Regulatory compliance

Complying with regulatory bodies such as HIPAA, GDPR, PCI DSS, etc., has become necessary for modern businesses. It’s due to data privacy and safety risks increasing rapidly. By enabling the POLP concept in your organization, you can track access permissions, who uses what, and detect unauthorized access, if any.

This also helps you during data audits and documentation, and you can save your organization from penalties while ensuring your and your customers’ data remains safe.

How to Implement POLP?

Implementing POLP is not tough. If you want to rip its benefits in your organization, here’s how you can implement it.

  • Privilege audit: Start verifying all the accounts and users in your organizations to understand how access permissions are allocated at present. Analyze your passwords, access and SSH keys, permission levels of users, and so on.
  • Define privilege: Aim to provide the least level of privilege to each user, just to fulfill their job roles, not more than that. At this point, determine superuser and standard users and can enable privilege bracketing.
  • Continuous monitoring: Monitor your users, devices, systems, and applications constantly to ensure everything is working smoothly. If you detect any unauthorized permissions, address the concern immediately.
  • Secure your systems: Use advanced security techniques and technologies to safeguard your systems applications and third-party vendors as well. You can use multi-factor authentication systems, Zero Trust Security techniques, firewalls, and other emerging safety measures.

You can also enable a privileged access management service to help secure your organization and its resources.

Conclusion

Cybersecurity issues are evolving more than ever, targeting organizations both from outside and inside with harmful intent. To this, a concept like the principle of least privilege (POLP) can be a great solution.