Privileged User Monitoring

Privileged users know all the big company secrets and have access to the most vulnerable parts of the corporate network–precisely why they are an essential part of any organization.

But despite its unrestricted access to data and corporate servers, privileged user activity often remains unseen. This puts most organizations at a greater risk of data breaches, especially since one-third of the reported incidents were related to privilege misuse.

In this guide, we’ll tell you why you need privileged user monitoring and how you can implement it to decrease any threats to your system.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

What is Privileged User Monitoring Anyway?

Privileged users, as the name suggests, have more privileges than regular users. They have permanent and full access to protected data, systems, and applications.

As users get assigned more privileges, they should be monitored more closely. Plus, you should know what’s going on with your organization to maintain complete oversight into who’s accessing your critical data and systems.

This is where privileged user monitoring comes into the picture.

Technically speaking, privileged user monitoring involves managing privileged accounts, which have permanent access to your organization’s critical assets and information. Despite the confusing name, PUM is all about accounts and not specific people who work in a company.

If you think having a security system is enough to alert you whenever any weird activity takes place, we have (bad) news for you: It isn’t.

No security solution is perfect and if anyone does successfully infiltrate your systems—whether through hacking or stealing legitimate credentials—you should have a record of every user that accesses your system.

Admittedly, every user can’t monitor every moment of the day manually. It’s unrealistic to think so. That’s why organizations should consider implementing continuous user monitoring tools to keep a 24/7 check on user activity.

It’s the only way to safeguard all your critical assets and limit any unauthorized access effectively and easily.

How Privileged User Monitoring Works

Every organization has facilities with different access restrictions.

  • You can have basic facilities that any employees or even guests can enter freely.
  • You can have working facilities that allow entry to all regular employees of the organization.
  • You can also have restricted areas that only a select few users with special access levels can enter.

As you may have guessed, we’re concerned with the third type of facility.

Now, suppose you have a badge that lets you pass through security checks at the restricted areas. As there’s no name on it, you can use it yourself, as well as hand it over to your colleague and ask them to do your job as a favor.

This is how privileged user monitoring or PUM (sometimes also called privileged user management) works.

It involves managing a system’s existing accounts, such as administrator, root, and other administrative service accounts. As these accounts are built into the application or system, they cannot be removed and are limited in number.

Furthermore, you can use PUM tools to store account passwords, keys, and other important credentials in their encrypted vaults. Password history is also available, which lets you restore backups as needed.

Example #1: Performing Security Audits

Privileged user monitoring can be incredibly useful when it comes to carrying out security audits.

Instead of investigating the activity of multiple users with elevated privileges, you can conduct a report on the activity of a limited number of accounts. Everyone is assured of uninterrupted entry as the access is permanent, which, in turn, can boost IT efficiency and improve vendor auditing.

Example #2: Domain Admin Management

Domain admins are a type of privileged account. These accounts have unrestricted access across all workstations and servers on a Windows domain, as well as full control over all domain controllers and administrative accounts within the domain.

To limit access permissions and make them temporary and on-request, you have to implement privilege account management or PAM. Contrary to popular belief, PAM and PUM aren’t substitutes for each other and can instead complement each other to boost your data security.

You can enforce the principle of least privilege on desktop devices like Windows and macOS to continuously monitor privileged users. Endpoint management solution will remove local administrative rights and treat every user as a standard user—even when they hold privileges.

This ensures the privileges for users are elevated on an as-needed basis and for specific applications or processes only.

Combining PAM and PUM approaches will allow you to limit the amount and the duration of access, which, in turn, will condense the attack surface and threat window for any malicious activity that can potentially abuse privileges.

Example #3: Secure Privileged Account Credentials

PUM lets you gain control and accountability over all your privileged accounts—human and machine both.

You can use privileged password management solutions to automate the discovery, onboarding, management, and monitoring of the different types of human and machine privileged accounts or credentials and bring them under management within a centralized password safe. This includes application passwords, privileged user passwords, SSH keys, DevOps, certificates, and so on.

This will let you prevent or mitigate password reuse attacks, along with other backdoors, into the IT environment.

How to Get Started With Privileged User Monitoring

Without effective privileged user monitoring, malicious users can cause immense damage without being detected. Plus, industry and compliance regulations, such as PCI DSS and SOX, have made it mandatory for organizations to closely monitor privileged users and authorize their activities.

So privileged user monitoring isn’t a choice anymore—it’s a necessity.

Wondering how to do it right? Here’s a step-by-step rundown of how to get started with privileged user monitoring:

Step One: Identify and Manage Privileged Access

If you want to promote visibility and control within your organization, you have to practice ongoing discovery and management across all your privileged accounts and sensitive assets. This includes discovering and profiling privileged user accounts, shared accounts, known and unknown assets, and service accounts.

You should regularly check which users have privileged access and determine whether they truly need those privileges. You see, restricting privilege access—or being stringent when it comes to granting privileges—will give you better control over your organization’s security.

Generally, privileged users should have proper credentials, their own unique account that isn’t shared with others, and the right level of access (view, comment, or edit).

Step Two: Regularly Monitor Privileged User Activity

You can get by with monitoring and logging a select few actions or a sample of actions for non-privileged users. But this is a luxury you can’t afford with privileged users.

You must monitor all privileged user usage—every activity, every click, every deviation.

To do this, you’ll need their log file information. Once you get that you’ll be able to trace all actions, including their user ID, time, and database object. Try to find out whether the list of records was accessed or altered and what was the exact action executed to stay at the top of things.

We also recommend restricting modification permissions of users that are being monitored. You can restrict write access for these users by hosting the logs separately from the databases.

Establishing policies to define legitimate behavior for privileged users is also crucial. This will help you weed out individuals who violate your policy and rules, and simultaneously block any suspicious and unauthorized activity as well as issue organization-wide alerts.

Step Three: Analyze User Behavior

Atypical behavior includes malicious user activity or a database attack, which understandably is a threat to your system’s security. It’s why you should learn to identify deviations from typical user behavior effectively and swiftly.

For instance, if you find a privileged user account that typically reads a few records a day from specific tables has unexpectedly started reading many times, you should treat it as a red flag and take immediate action by either sending out alerts or blocking the user.

Of course, this isn’t an easy task. It’s why you should consider utilizing machine learning to baseline typical access for privileged users and receive alerts on deviation from the usual behavior.

You can also set up machine learning analytics to identify the highest security risk activity to take prompt actions.

Step Four: Regularly Review Reports

Besides real-time monitoring, reporting based on accumulated logs to trace a privileged user’s activities, along with the complete details of every transaction, can also be useful to prevent data breaches. Reviewing these reports regularly will help you catch any issues the real-time monitoring systems may have missed.

You can trace the origin of every suspicious activity, which will help you remedy the situation and block malicious activities from that specific source in the future.

And that’s it!

You can now put preventative measures in place to exercise a strong grip on overall privileged user security and boost your team’s productivity. Trust us, having an effective privileged user monitoring system is all you’ll need to protect the integrity of all your databases in the best possible way.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira