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What is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

Learn everything you need to know about the principle of least privilege and how it helps maintain strict access controls throughout your cloud infrastructure. 

What is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

The principle of least privilege, or POLP, outlines the importance of providing employees with the least possible access privileges. POLP states that employees should only be allowed to access the resources, data, or functionalities required to complete the assigned tasks. PoLP is instrumental in implementing access controls and reducing the attack surface for companies. 

According to Goldstein, 60% of data breaches were caused by insider threats back in 2020. PoLP helps to tackle Insider threats or any damages caused by compromised accounts. It is also known to be one of the primary concepts in Zero Trust Security. PoLP is used to implement fine granular access control without administrators bothering about all the network constructs.

How Does the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) Work?

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) works by understanding how much access to the network an individual requires to complete their tasks. By reducing employee access, PoLP enables companies to reduce the attack surface for cyber attackers. 

To further explain this concept, imagine having a safe and two keys to open it. One key that you keep with yourself and another with your close friend. But you wouldn’t make more copies of the key and give it to other people around you because that wouldn’t be rational. The more keys you have to the safe, the higher the probability of one of the keys getting compromised and you losing your valuables. PoLP works to prevent that.

Replace the safe with your data and the keys being employees that can access it. By allowing only the least amount of access to data, PoLP helps decrease the probability of it getting stolen. Organizations that do not use the least privilege principles create over-privileged employee accounts that can harm the company if compromised. 

Examples of the Principle of Least Privilege

The Principle of Least Privilege in cybersecurity extends its influence across various layers of an IT environment, from individual users to systems, networks, and databases. Different scenarios highlight the practical application and potential consequences of adhering to or deviating from this principle.

Here are some principle of least privilege examples for you: 

User Accounts with Least Privilege:

  • Adherence to PoLP: A user responsible for data entry requires only the necessary permissions to add records to a database. In the event of a malware infection or a phishing attack on their system, the potential damage is limited to the scope of their privileges.

  • Deviation from PoLP: A security incident could spread system-wide if the same user possesses elevated privileges like root access. The malicious activity could extend beyond the intended database and compromise the entire infrastructure.

MySQL Accounts with Least Privilege:

  • Adherence to PoLP: In a MySQL setup, employing different accounts for specific tasks aligns with the PoLP. For example, an account used by an online form to sort data should only have sorting privileges. This limits the impact of an attack, confining the attacker’s capabilities to the granted privileges.

  • Deviation from PoLP: Granting excessive permissions, such as the ability to delete records, increases the risk of a more severe compromise. An attacker exploiting the system through the online form could potentially wipe out the entire database, emphasizing the importance of least privilege.

Just-in-Time Least Privilege:

  • Adherence to PoLP: Users requiring infrequent elevated privileges, like root access, can benefit from just-in-time least privilege. By working with reduced privileges most of the time, the attack surface is minimized. Retrieving temporary elevated access credentials from a secure vault further enhances security.

  • Deviation from PoLP: Failing to implement just-in-time least privilege may result in users retaining unnecessary elevated access for extended periods. This increases the risk of accidental or malicious actions with heightened benefits, potentially leading to security incidents.

Why is the Principle of Least Privilege Important?

The principle of least privilege access focuses on the importance of restricting access rights for users, systems, and processes to the bare minimum necessary to perform their tasks. This principle is essential for enhancing overall security by minimizing the potential impact of security breaches or insider threats. 

Organizations can significantly reduce the attack surface and mitigate the risk of unauthorized access or malicious activities by limiting access to only the essential resources and functionalities required for a specific role or task.

Moreover, PoLP promotes accountability and helps organizations follow the principle of “need-to-know” or “need-to-use,” enhancing overall system integrity. 

How Does the Least Privilege Principle Relate to Zero Trust Security?

The Least Privilege Principle and Zero Trust Security are very similar concepts, both focusing on an active approach to minimize cyber threats. 

The Least Privilege Principle states that individuals or systems should have only the minimum level of access or permissions necessary to perform their tasks, reducing the potential impact of security breaches. 

Zero Trust Security, for instance, operates under the assumption that no entity, from any position, should be trusted by default. It requires constant verification of the identity and security posture of every user, device, or system trying to access resources. 

The connection between these principles lies in their shared goal of mitigating potential security threats. By adhering to the Least Privilege Principle within a zero-trust framework, organizations limit the scope of potential breaches, as users and systems are granted only the precise level of access essential for their functions. 

Best Practices for the Principle of Least Privilege 

Best Practices for the Principle of Least Privilege

Implementing POLP  is essential for improving your overall cyber security architecture. Here are some best practices that you can follow to get the most out of this principle:

User Role Definition:

Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the organization. Assign permissions based on job functions to ensure users have the minimum access necessary for their tasks.

Regular Audits:

You should conduct periodic reviews of user permissions and access rights. Remove unnecessary privileges and adjust permissions as job roles evolve to maintain the principle over time.

Access Control Lists (ACLs):

Leverage access control lists to restrict access to resources. Use ACLs to define who can access specific systems, networks, or data, limiting exposure to potential security threats.

Centralized Authentication:

Implement centralized authentication systems such as Active Directory to manage and control user access. This ensures consistent application of the least privilege principle across the organization.

Privilege Elevation:

Consider using privilege elevation mechanisms like temporary privilege escalation or “just-in-time” administration to grant more access only when necessary, reducing the window of vulnerability.

Monitor and Logging:

Implement robust monitoring and logging systems to track user activities. Regularly review logs to detect any unusual or unauthorized access attempts and respond promptly.

Education and Training:

Educate employees about the importance of the least privilege principle and promote a security-conscious culture. Training programs can help users understand the risks associated with unnecessary access.

Automation:

You can utilize automation tools for user provisioning and de-provisioning to ensure swift and accurate adjustments to access rights based on changes in job roles or responsibilities.

Least Common Mechanism:

Apply the principle of least common mechanism, minimizing shared resources and reducing the impact of security breaches by compartmentalizing access to sensitive information.

Regular Updates:

Keep software and systems up to date to patch vulnerabilities and reduce the risk of unauthorized access through known exploits.

FAQs

Which statement best describes the principle of least privilege?

“Granting only the permissions required to complete the tasks” – This statement best describes the principle of least privilege. 

What are the risks of the principle of least privilege?

The main risk of the principle of least privilege is a potential hindrance to productivity, as users may lack the necessary permissions. Striking the right balance is crucial to avoid operational challenges and ensure efficient system functionality.

Conclusion

Looking at the rise in data breaches worldwide, it has become increasingly important to secure cloud infrastructure and the data in it. Insider risk is one of the major concerns in upholding the security of cloud infrastructure, as a single error on the employee’s end can make the whole cybersecurity infrastructure tumble. We hope this guide has been helpful in your quest to learn more about the principle of least privilege (PoLP).

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Anshu Bansal
Anshu Bansal
Anshu Bansal, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, currently co-founds CloudDefense.AI, a cybersecurity solution with a mission to secure your business by rapidly identifying and removing critical risks in Applications and Infrastructure as Code. With a background in Amazon, Microsoft, and VMWare, they contributed to various software and security roles.
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