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Applying Principle of Least Privilege to Public Cloud

Author: Eric Kedrosky | Date: December 18, 2021
Read Time: 5 minutes
Skill Level: Learner
Skill Level: Learner

The Principle of Least Privilege, also known as POLP, is a fundamental security concept. When dealing with public cloud security, the Principle of Least Privilege concept entails that all identities—both people and non-people—should be granted the least access necessary to perform their respective duties. Additionally, an often forgotten standard is that identities should be granted the access for only the timespan needed to complete their task. This blog will take you through the many challenges of maintaining an environment in compliance with these standards of POLP.

Challenge of Implementing Principle of Least Privilege

In many ways, the Principle of Least Privilege is the holy grail because every business wants to achieve it, but it's not easy to implement. Even organizations with mature security programs, management, and technology struggle to adopt POLP nevertheless maintain it because of the sheer complexity of the concept. This is especially true when dealing with hybrid and public cloud infrastructure. 

A new truth has emerged about managing data security in the complex nature of the cloud: it is no longer feasible to protect or see the ever-growing varieties of services, compute, and identities across all cloud and accounts. With no one tool being able to provide a comprehensive view of all data, it is apparent that identities provide a better platform on which to build upon the POLP.

Public cloud environments where users and roles have broad permissions that they are not using can lead to insider threats and breaches. To deliver on the promise of business agility in the cloud, we need an approach that balances developer freedom and velocity with security best practices. POLP is a critical component of security, and it has countless benefits to offer all stakeholders who are concerned with the organization's security. 

Benefits of Adopting Principle of Least Privilege

When implemented properly, the principle of least privilege introduces a handful of advantages to organizations, including the following:

Reduce Liability: Whether accidental or intentional, when an identity has contact with data or applications they don't need, it can open the door to liability and opportunities for exploitation events. Least privilege policies minimize the likelihood of identities accessing sensitive or critical information unnecessarily and ensure those who do have access have a good reason and limited time. 

Protect Against Risks: Organizations help protect themselves against some common attack methods, reduce risk and minimize disruptions by allowing only the minimum required authority to perform a duty or task.

Limit Damage: When looking at the worst-case scenario of a bad actor gaining access to your organization's systems, the Principle of Least Privilege ensures they'll find locked doors at every turn. This helps protect your organization from damaging discoveries, where access is the key to stolen company data.

Classify Data: In order to implement the Principle of Least Privilege framework, managers have to classify and organize data first so they can then determine who needs access to what. This classification process is essential in keeping data safe, secure, and organized as a whole. Plus, it helps organizations meet regulatory requirements, too.

Improve Security: The Principle of Least Privilege allows organizations to reduce the size, impact, and blast radius of a breach. Even if a bad actor is able to elevate their privileges by acquiring access to a high-level user account, a system that tracks the activities of identities will help organizations identify suspicious behavior and stop it immediately.

How to Configure Least Privilege Identities

Part of implementing the Principle of Least Privilege architecture is defining the permissions of each identity that will have access to cloud infrastructure. These identities can be people or non-people, like serverless functions.  Determining the privileges that each identity needs is easily one of the hardest parts of implementing the Principle of Least Privilege at scale – a CIEM tool can help with this.

Without a doubt, assigning the proper privileges to each identity is difficult and takes time. It's not a process that can be sped up by historical review or user survey–it requires someone sitting down and actually asking: What does each identity require to do today's job? And, how will those needs change over time?

‘Privilege Creep’ is a very real problem, and one that would be thwarted by implementing a least privilege policy. In order to figure out which permissions are necessary for each identity, organizations can take many paths, but most form anti-patterns. Meaning, security teams begin with good intentions, but find themselves taking a path that only works against their original efforts. Examples include:

  • Asking users what permissions they need. The principle of least privilege cannot be implemented if you simply rely on the users to tell you what access they need. 
  • Granting permissions based on approval. Just because a user has been approved access to something, it doesn't mean they need it or still need it. Privileges tend to accumulate over time, but they also change over time. 
  • Continuing to provide dormant identity access to an existing resource.

Best practice for least privileges comes down to the assignment of roles and responsibilities, limiting access based on what’s required, and creating a separation of duties.

Treating Least Privilege as a Process

Instead of viewing the Principle of Least Privilege as an adoption initiative, it's best viewed as a continuous process. After all, upholding the Principle of Least Privilege concept requires the frequent review of identities and entitlements that don’t accumulate unnecessary access over time. When treating the Principle of Least Privilege as a process, implementing it into public cloud infrastructure begins to seem much more doable. The steps to implement this dynamic approach to Principle of Least Privilege as a process include:

  • Gaining a single point of visibility into identities permissions across all of your public cloud infrastructures. 
  • Monitoring the permissions that are actually being used, or attempted to be used, and how resources are accessed. 
  • Removing inactive identities and unnecessary permissions from identities that go unused for 90 or 180 days, depending on what time period your security team deems most appropriate. 
  • Identifying permissions that identities only need for short periods and implementing automated processes to grant and remove these permissions, so least privilege is granted for only the time required.
  • Implementing on-demand processes to speed up permissions elevation when specific resources are necessary for an identity's responsibilities, helping to maintain company agility.
  • Investigating suspicious behaviors, particularly unusual usage or attempted usage of privileges, complete with automated remediation when possible.
  • Ensuring continuous control over compliance, helping to maintain Principle of Least Privilege and regulatory compliance across the organization's cloud environment.
  • Using best practices in permissions management across the entire organization's cloud platform. 

Making Least Privilege Work for Your Organization

Ultimately, the goal of the Principle of Least Privilege is to reduce permanent privilege and the accumulation of privilege and instead assign dynamic permissions to users and machines based on what's needed at the moment. Doing so will take time to learn and implement, but with a process-based approach, the Principle of Least Privilege is entirely achievable and offers countless benefits to organizations willing to invest the time into making it work.

The concept of least privilege poses a difficult task for a large-scale organization, but, it's arguable that the larger your organization, the more complex your user base becomes and the more advantageous utilizing a Principle of Least Privilege solution will prove to be.

Are you interested in learning more about the principle of least privilege and how to implement solutions for your organization? Reach out to Sonrai Security today for more information.

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