Securing Privileged Accounts in Azure Active Directory

Did you know that privileged accounts could be your biggest security threat? With privileged accounts comes the access to view, modify or even delete sensitive data or administer critical functions. Most organizations operate multiple privileged accounts to help carry out essential administrative tasks within the IT setting. However, when these privileged credentials fall into the wrong hands, they present a severe security risk. Statistics indicate that 74% of data breaches that happened in 2017 were due to lost or stolen login credentials. The consequences could be extreme if anyone with privileged access slipped their credentials mistakenly or knowingly.

What Are Privileged Accounts?

By definition, privilege means to have special rights or advantages. In the IT environment, a privileged account refers to user accounts with elevated rights that grant them special access and freedom within a system. For example, a privileged account can have the right to install or remove programs, modify data or even upgrade the operating system. What makes an account privileged includes the special rights attached to it not available to standard accounts or users.

Usually, a privileged account is tied to a role within an organization. These could be IT admins, application owners, database administrators, security teams, and 3rd party contractors. There are also cases where a privileged account can be between two machines (machine-t-machine, M2M) or application-to-application (A2A), operating without human interaction. Examples include automated payment transactions, daily critical data backup, and intelligent asset tracking in shipping services.

Why Is it Important to Secure Privileged Accounts?

Attackers are often attracted to privileged access accounts and workstations. Indeed, these give them rapid and broad access to business assets with significant impact. To effectively secure privileged accounts, you will need to completely seal off unauthorized pathways and only leave a select few authorized access pathways that are heavily protected and diligently monitored. Further, sloppy management of privileged identities allows attackers to break into your organization’s security perimeters. Additionally, when IT teams have no idea what their employees are doing with their privileges or how privileged accounts are being used, it becomes easy for a malicious insider to take advantage of their privileges and compromise the system or business data.

Today, data is an essential asset for every business, and its security is a top concern. To avoid legal problems due to data breaches and the high cost of handling data compromise, it is crucial that every organization has a streamlined strategy for authenticating access to their data. Azure AD Privileged Identity Management (PIM) comes to the rescue to help protect your organization from identity theft and prevent unauthorized access to all your critical assets. This solution gives IT teams total control and visibility of their privileged assets, resources, and identities. PIM also provides actionable insights that ensure you comply with regulatory standards.

Azure AD Privileged Identity Management (PIM)

Privileged Identity Management is an Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) service that allows you to manage, control, and monitor access to vital Azure resources in your organization’s IT ecosystem. Without PIM, organizations have to manually secure user access to critical resources, which is so much work that most organizations completely ignore, leaving them vulnerable.

The current challenge facing the IT department in many organizations is providing granular access to corporate resources. The departments lack contextual information about users and those requesting data, which is a vital determining factor before granting data privileges. The higher the privileges are, the greater the security risks and, thus, the need for a control strategy. PIM is designed to centralize, control, monitor, and secure access to privileged accounts. This ensures that IT teams have absolute control and visibility of their privileged assets, identities, and resources.

After setting up PIM, you will see the options Tasks, Manage, and Activity on the left navigation menu. As an administrator, you can choose between managing Azure AD roles, managing Azure resource roles, or privileged access groups. For any option you choose, an appropriate set of options for that option will appear.

To manage Azure AD roles for other administrators in PIM, you must be a Privileged Role Administrator or a Global Administrator. Security and Global administrators and Global and Security Readers can also view assignments to Azure AD roles in PIM. In Azure resource roles, only a subscription admin, a resource owner, or a resource User Access admin can manage assignments for other administrators.

How PIM Works to Secure Privileged Accounts

PIM uses several features to help secure privileged accounts. They include:

1. Just-in-Time Access and Time-Bound Access

The just-in-time access feature enhances cyber security by allowing users, applications, or systems privileged access only for a short period and when needed. It is often used when temporary access is required to get into the system and perform a single task. On the other hand, PIM also allows you to assign time-restricted access to resources. The access permission includes a start and end date. Thus, the access rights begin and end automatically within the specified period.

2. Approval to Activate Privileged Roles

Delegated approvers get email notifications anytime there is a pending role request. Using PIM, approvers can view, approve or deny these requests. After a request has been approved, a member can start using their role. While configuring the role activation settings, you can include properties like the duration of the role activation period, role activation notification, and the information a user must provide during activation of their privileged roles.

3. Multi-Factor Authentication for Privileged Accounts

Multi-factor authentication adds at least three layers to the identification procedure, requiring users with access to prove their eligibility in triplicate, at the very least. This reinforces the security and makes it difficult for malicious actors to pose as users with authorized access.

4. Justification and Notifications for Role Activation

Justification helps you understand why users need the privilege access roles, while a notification alerts you every time a privileged role activates.

5. Conducts Access Reviews

Unknown privilege accounts allow threat actors to intrude into your system. Accounts can become unknown for various reasons. For example, an employee assigned the account could have left the organization, or the account is no longer needed and thus becomes forgotten. Conducting regular access reviews helps reduce the risk associated with stale role assignments. You can set the review to recur at your preferred frequency, from weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, or semi-annually. After the review, you discover which users need removal, approval, or have their privileges revised.

6. Download Access History

PIM allows you to audit the history of all role assignments and activations that have happened in the last 30 days for all privileged roles. If you want to keep the audit data for an extended period, you can use the Azure Monitor and route it to the Azure storage account. This feature is helpful anytime there is a need to clarify who had which privileges at what time. It is also very valuable in identifying the source of a breach and informing decisions on how to prevent similar incidents from happening.

7. Create Reports

If you have planned internal or external audits of your security systems, PIM can help generate insightful reports.

Benefits of Implementing a Privileged Identity Management Solution

a man using his privileged accounts on ADD.

It is necessary to have all types of privileged accounts well managed, protected, and secured. Here are some of the advantages of implementing Azure AD PIM:

  • Enhances security by allowing you to track and monitor who has access to what, when, and why. Complete control and visibility help you quickly identify any malicious activity and respond as needed.
  • PIM facilitates accessibility by simplifying the permit and use of access privileges. It also makes it easy for users to restore access if they forget their login details.
  • Ensures your organization stays compliant with regulatory requirements such as those by GDPR. PIM ensures that sensitive data is only accessible by specific individuals and within the required security conditions.
  • Minimizes IT and auditing costs since the PIMs structure eliminates the need to manually contrive each user’s access rights.
  • It helps identify and block all unknown or non-operative accounts that threat actors can use.

How to Implement PIM

To implement PIM in your organization, you must follow these main steps.

  • Develop a policy that specifies how privileged controlled accounts are and what rights and restrictions apply. Your policy must document all critical IT assets within your organization so that priority is given to those in high need of protection.
  • Establish a management model that designates the individual responsible for ensuring adherence to all developed policies.
  • Identify and track all privileged accounts.
  • Create procedures and implement management technologies such as provisioning tools or unique PIM solutions.

Learn More About Securing Privileged Accounts

Are you sure your Azure AD is secure? Are you getting the most out of your Azure AD licensing? In fact, we can offer insights into your AAD environment and help modernize your active directory environment to reduce costs and technical debt. Contact us for details.

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