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Preventing Cybersecurity Privilege Creep

How can organizations take a proactive approach to cybersecurity privilege creep?  

Cybersecurity isn’t just about defending against external threats; it’s equally about managing internal vulnerabilities. Cybersecurity ‘privilege creep’ is a term used to describe the gradual accumulation of access rights beyond what an individual needs to perform their job. This phenomenon is a significant security concern as it can expose an organization to both accidental and malicious internal data breaches.  

Let’s look into some basic strategies for preventing cybersecurity privilege creep and maintaining a secure cyber environment.  

Understanding Cybersecurity Privilege Creep  

‘Privilege creep’ is just as insidious as it sounds, often happening slowly and undetected over time, building to a crescendo of vulnerability and weakness, ripe for exploitation by bad actors and dangerously prone to insider risk.

In the hustle and bustle of modern organizations, it’s easy for employees to accrue additional privileges over time. These might be left over from temporary projects, unrevoked from former roles, or mistakenly assigned. Whatever the cause, this unnecessary access can lead to serious consequences, including data leaks, compliance violations, and more.  

Risks of Privilege Creep  

  • Increased Vulnerability: The more people with high-level access, obviously, the more points of vulnerability an organization has. If breached, for example, an account that has unnecessary permissions is an added weakness in the prevention of lateral movement, as the attacker looks to gain a stronger foothold in any environment on the path to achieving their goals – be they ransomware deployment, gaining access to sensitive information, disruption of operations, or the further compromise network integrity, often driven by motivations such as financial gain, espionage, causing reputational damage, or advancing ideological beliefs. 
  • Insider Threats: Whether accidental or malicious, insiders cause a significant percentage of data breaches. An insider threat emerges from individuals within an organization who have authorized access to its systems and data, which could include employees, contractors, vendors, or even business partners. These threats can be either malicious or unintentional. Malicious insider threats are those where individuals deliberately misuse their privileges to compromise the organization’s data or systems. They may engage in a variety of harmful activities such as data theft, espionage, sabotage, or selling confidential information to competitors or other malicious actors. On the other hand, unintentional insider threats occur when employees or other insiders unintentionally put the organization’s security at risk. This can happen when they fall victim to phishing attacks, use weak passwords, access sensitive data via unsecured networks, or mishandle sensitive information. Regardless of the intent, insider threats can cause significant damage. They can lead to loss of sensitive data, financial losses, reputational damage, and regulatory fines. 
  • Non-Compliance: Regulations such as GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS require stringent access control. The implications of non-compliance can be far-reaching. Financial penalties can run into the millions of dollars. Moreover, organizations can face reputational damage that can lead to loss of customer trust and, ultimately, lost business. Regulatory non-compliance can expose an organization to legal action and criminal charges.

The Path to Preventing Privilege Creep  

Preventing privilege creep isn’t just a single step, but a journey of continuous vigilance. Here are key measures to implement: 

  1. Adopt the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)
    PoLP is a security concept where a user is given the minimum levels of access necessary to complete their job functions. This principle minimizes the risk associated with privilege creep and should be applied across all systems and employees, from administrators to executives. Often known as ‘zero trust’, this can involve network segmentation, which divides a network into smaller, isolated networks or segments to enhance security and performance, or microsegmentation, which takes this concept further by establishing granular security boundaries around individual workloads or processes, offering a more refined control and heightened security within a network.
  2. Regular Access Reviews
    Access rights should not be set-and-forget. Regularly review and adjust them to fit role changes, project requirements, and policy updates. Automated solutions can simplify this process, offering comprehensive cybersecurity visibility and management of access rights.
  3. Implement Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)
    RBAC aligns privileges with roles, rather than individuals. When a user’s role changes, their access rights can be easily adjusted to match their new responsibilities, preventing unnecessary access accumulation.
  4. Automate Deprovisioning
    When employees leave or change roles, their access rights should change too. Automated deprovisioning ensures this happens promptly, removing a common source of privilege creep.
  5. Regular Security Training
    Everyone in the organization is part of its cybersecurity defense. Regular training sessions can help staff understand the risks of privilege creep and the importance of proper access control.  

Curbing Cybersecurity Privilege Creep in Healthcare

As an example of cybersecurity privilege creep in practice, within the healthcare sector, where patient data security is paramount, preventing privilege creep is critical.

One major healthcare organization, in particular, asked for our help when they decided to tackle this issue head-on. They implemented our platform to track and manage access rights. With clear visibility of who had access to what, and a benchmark or usual/approved/expected activity, they could then identify instances of privilege creep and take corrective action.

Their proactive approach improved their data security posture and helped them maintain compliance with general (like CIS) and healthcare-specific (like HIPAA) regulations.  

Cybersecurity Privilege Creep is Preventable 

While privilege creep is a significant security concern, it’s preventable. With clear policies, regular reviews, automation, and employee education, organizations can effectively keep privilege creep in check and uphold their cybersecurity defenses. Remember, a proactive approach to access management is always better than a reactive one.  

With the move to the cloud and the necessity of remote working, the cost of ignoring privilege creep could be an organization’s security. It’s critical that organizations stay secure, stay vigilant, and stay proactive in the face of internal cybersecurity threats.  

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