Skip to content

What is Privileged Access Management?

Cartoon drawing of a bouncer standing behind velvet ropes. Sign above says, 'Privileged Access'

For organizations across every industry, maintaining secure and controlled access to critical systems and resources is paramount. One essential tool in this quest for enhanced cybersecurity is Privileged Access Management, or PAM. But what is PAM? And why should it matter to your organization?

In this blog post, we’ll examine the concept of Privileged Access Management, explaining what it is, how it works, and why it’s a crucial component of a robust cybersecurity strategy. We will differentiate it from Identity Access Management, explore its implementation in IT and business environments, and look at some of the best practices for effectively using PAM.

Whether you’re an IT decision-maker or a business leader, this exploration of PAM will provide you with insights to fortify your organization’s security posture.

What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

Privileged Access Management, commonly referred to as PAM, is a facet of cybersecurity that deals with the management of privileged access rights within an organization’s IT environment. These privileged accesses are typically granted to administrators, allowing them to perform tasks that normal users cannot, such as modifying system configurations, installing software, or accessing sensitive data.

In essence, PAM involves identifying, controlling, and monitoring these privileged users and their actions, with the aim of minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or malicious activity. It involves the implementation of technologies and policies that enforce the principle of least privilege: ensuring that users have just the necessary privileges to perform their job functions, no more, no less.

Within the business context, PAM takes on a broader scope. Not only does it encompass IT-related tasks, but it also covers other areas where privileged access might be required, such as financial systems or HR databases. In these situations, PAM can help to prevent both internal and external threats, protect sensitive data, and maintain regulatory compliance.

How Does Privileged Access Management Work?

PAM manages privileged users and their access rights within an organization’s IT environment. This process usually involves several steps:

  1. Identification: The PAM solution identifies all privileged accounts within the system.
  2. Credential Management: PAM securely stores and manages credentials for privileged accounts, often using an encrypted vault.
  3. Access Control: PAM enforces access controls so users can access only the resources they need to perform their job functions.
  4. Session Management and Monitoring: PAM monitors and records privileged sessions, providing visibility into activities and creating audit trails.
  5. Threat Analytics: PAM solutions often incorporate threat analytics to detect anomalies or suspicious activities, providing early warnings of potential security incidents.

What is the Difference Between Identity Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

To gain a clearer understanding of PAM, it can be helpful to contrast it with another concept in the cybersecurity space: Identity Access Management (IAM).

IAM is a comprehensive framework that manages digital identities within an organization. It involves the creation, management, and removal of user accounts and their access rights. IAM solutions can handle regular user accounts that require access to day-to-day business applications and data, ensuring the right people have the right access at the right time.

PAM, on the other hand, specifically focuses on privileged users who have elevated permissions beyond those of standard business users. PAM solutions provide a means of enforcing control over these powerful accounts which, if compromised, could cause significant damage to an organization’s IT infrastructure or data.

While IAM and PAM may seem similar, they cater to different aspects of access management. IAM is broader, focusing on the entire user population, while PAM concentrates on a narrower, but high-risk, segment: privileged users. In a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, both IAM and PAM play essential and complementary roles.

Privileged Identity Management (PIM) vs. Privileged Access Management

Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is another important concept in the realm of cybersecurity. PIM primarily focuses on managing the identities of privileged users, including their credentials, roles, and responsibilities. It involves processes like provisioning, de-provisioning, and lifecycle management of privileged identities.

On the other hand, Privileged Access Management (PAM) is more focused on controlling and monitoring privileged access to systems and data. While PIM and PAM are distinct, they often work together to provide comprehensive protection. PIM ensures that only the right individuals have privileged identities, while PAM makes sure that these identities are used correctly and securely.

Exploring Examples of Privileged Access

Privileged access is not confined to IT departments; it extends across various business operations.

For example, a financial director may have privileged access to the organization’s financial systems, allowing them to view sensitive information and make substantial monetary transactions. Similarly, a human resources manager may have privileged access to employee records, which may contain confidential personal information.

In the IT sphere, examples of privileged access include system administrators who have permissions to install software, make system-wide changes, or even delete critical data. Network administrators may have access to the organization’s network infrastructure, while database administrators can manage and manipulate databases containing sensitive information.

PAM’s role is to monitor and control these privileged accesses, making sure that they are used responsibly and appropriately, and do not pose a threat to the organization’s security.

Privileged Access Management in Active Directory

Active Directory (AD) is a crucial component of many organizations’ IT infrastructure, and managing privileged access within AD is vital to ensure security. AD administrators typically have broad access and control over the network and its resources, making these accounts a high-value target for attackers.

PAM in Active Directory can help enforce a least privilege policy, where administrators have only the necessary access to perform their tasks. This approach minimizes the risk of accidental misconfigurations or deliberate misuse of privileges. Furthermore, PAM can provide detailed audit trails of administrators’ actions, enabling organizations to identify any unauthorized or suspicious activities swiftly.

Different Types of Privileged Accounts

There are several types of privileged accounts that PAM systems must manage, such as:

  • Local Administrative Accounts: These accounts have full control over a local system, and can create, manage, and delete accounts, install software, and change system configurations.
  • Domain Administrative Accounts: These accounts have extensive control over an entire network domain, including the ability to modify other administrative accounts.
  • Service Accounts: These accounts run applications or services and often have elevated privileges to perform their tasks.
  • Emergency Accounts: Also known as “firecall” or “break-glass” accounts, these are used in emergency situations and typically have high-level access.

PAM systems must manage all these account types, enforcing least privilege policies and closely monitoring their activities to make the IT environment secure.

Best Practices for Privileged Access Management

Creating a robust PAM strategy involves the careful execution of several best practices, each of which helps strengthen the security posture of your organization.

  • Adopt a Least Privilege Policy: This policy entails providing users, systems, services, and applications with the bare minimum permissions and access rights they need to perform their roles. This reduces the risk of access abuse, whether accidental or malicious.
  • Conduct Regular Access Reviews: One of the pillars of an effective PAM strategy is to periodically review access rights. This means verifying who has access to what, as well as checking that all their access rights are necessary and justified. Regular reviews also help identify dormant accounts that could be potential targets for cybercriminals.
  • Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Even with the most complex passwords, privileged accounts are still prime targets for attackers. Implementing MFA can add an additional layer of security. MFA requires users to verify their identities using two or more authentication methods, making it much harder for unauthorized users to gain access.
  • Monitor and Audit Privileged Sessions: Continuously monitoring privileged sessions and retaining the logs can serve multiple purposes. It allows you to detect and investigate any malicious activities, providing accountability for actions taken during privileged sessions. It also deters potential insider threats, as users are aware their actions are being monitored.
  • Manage Privileged Passwords Effectively: Privileged accounts should have unique, complex passwords that are changed regularly. Automating password resets can help avoid human error and ensure consistent password security. Secure vaults should be used to store privileged passwords, protecting them from both physical and digital theft.
  • Implement Zero Trust: Zero trust is a security concept centered on the belief that organizations should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeter. By implementing a zero trust model, you validate each request as though it originates from an open network, regardless of where the request comes from or what resource it accesses.
  • Incorporate Threat Analytics: By integrating your PAM with threat analytics, you can identify anomalous behavior and potential threats. This can provide early warning signs of a potential breach or misuse of a privileged account.
  • Educate and Train Employees: Even the most sophisticated PAM tools will fall short if your team doesn’t understand their responsibilities in maintaining security. Regular training sessions can keep your staff up to date on best practices, company policies, and potential threats.

By following these best practices, you can be confident that your PAM strategy is comprehensive, effective, and agile enough to adapt to changing threats.

Why is Privileged Access Management So Important?

In today’s complex and evolving threat landscape, PAM plays an essential role in any organization’s cybersecurity strategy. With the rise of insider threats and Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), uncontrolled privileged access can leave an organization vulnerable to severe data breaches and system disruptions.

Without effective PAM, organizations may struggle to detect and respond to security incidents, leading to potential data loss, regulatory fines, and reputational damage. Therefore, implementing a robust PAM strategy is critical to safeguarding your organization’s sensitive data and systems.

How to Implement PAM Security

Successfully implementing a PAM system involves a series of organized steps:

  1. Identify Privileged Accounts: Start by identifying all privileged accounts within your organization.
  2. Implement a PAM Solution: Select a PAM solution that suits your organization’s needs and integrate it into your IT environment.
  3. Monitor and Review: Continually monitor privileged access and conduct regular access reviews.
  4. Train Your Staff: Make sure your staff understands their responsibilities and how to use the PAM solution effectively.

Seeking professional IT services for PAM implementation can greatly enhance the effectiveness and smoothness of the process. Experts can provide valuable advice and assist with each step, ensuring your PAM strategy aligns with industry best practices.

Secure Your Privileged Access Management with the Right Solution

Understanding and implementing PAM is a crucial step in securing your organization’s sensitive data and systems. This comprehensive look at PAM has shown its indispensable role in managing and monitoring privileged access, mitigating potential threats, and enhancing your overall cybersecurity posture.

As cyber threats evolve, so must our defense strategies. Developing and refining your PAM strategy should be a priority.

I hope you found this information helpful. As always, contact us anytime about your technology needs.

Until next time,


Meet the Author
Tim Burke is the President and CEO of Quest. He has been at the helm for over 30 years.
Contact Quest Today  ˄
close slider