Essential Data Protection Starts with Least Privilege

By Anthony Moillic, Field CISO EMEA & APAC at Netwrix [ Join Cybersecurity Insiders ]
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Every January, the global campaign Data Privacy Week heightens awareness about safeguarding personal data and instructs organizations on effective data protection strategies. What began as Data Privacy Day now lasts a whole week. However, a mere week is trite when considering that cybersecurity teams must prioritize data protection year-round. Despite notable progress in raising data privacy awareness, the persistent news of breaches and cyberattacks indicates that the quest for robust data protection is ongoing.

Exploring the Principle of Least Privilege

The foundation of data security is in the principle of least privilege: Each individual, service and application should be granted only the permissions needed for their specific roles, regardless of their technical expertise, perceived trustworthiness, or position within the organizational hierarchy.

To illustrate the principle of least privilege, consider the layered security measures that banks put in place to protect the cash and other valuable assets they hold. While a bank appreciates all its employees, it must strictly limit what each of them can do: General employees are permitted to access only public areas; tellers have specific rights to their own cash drawers; loan officers review customer credit histories; and certain managers may access safe deposit box rooms. Meanwhile, access to vaults containing gold bullion and other high-value assets is restricted to a highly select group.

A bank’s monetary assets are analogous to your organization’s sensitive data. Just as loan officers cannot access cash drawers and tellers cannot open safe deposit boxes, your IT teams should not be able to view your client databases, while your sales reps should not have access to your software repositories. And very few people should have access to your gold bullion, such as your vital intellectual property.

The Critical Need to Enforce Least Privilege

Failing to enforce the core principle of least privilege puts data privacy at risk in multiple ways. Users can misuse their access, either accidentally or deliberately, to view or modify content that they should not be accessing in the first place. An even greater risk is a threat actor compromising a user account since they can then abuse all the rights and privileges granted to that account.

The threat isn’t confined to human actors: Malware inherits the user account’s privileges that downloaded it. For instance, a ransomware package can encrypt all the data that the user account can modify, whether or not the user actually needed those access rights. Similarly, applications must be limited to only the functionalities essential for their operation in order to minimize the potential for their misuse.

A Multi-layered Approach

More broadly, enforcing the principle of least privilege is not a simple “set it and forget it” event. It requires a multi-layered approach with components such as:

Identity governance and administration (IGA) — IGA involves overseeing the entire lifecycle of identities, including ensuring that each user has only the access necessary for their roles.

Privileged access management (PAM) — PAM gives special attention to managing accounts with elevated access to systems and data since the misuse or takeover of those accounts poses an increased risk to data privacy, security, and business continuity.

Together, these components form a comprehensive framework for strictly controlling access to systems and data, strengthening the organization’s security posture.

Maximizing Operational Potential

Data privacy is a consistent, year-round priority that starts with cultivating a culture of security awareness throughout the organization from the top down. By enforcing the principle of least privilege with effective IGA, DAG, and PAM, organizations can secure data privacy, reinforce customer confidence, avoid costly breaches, and ensure regulatory compliance. This allows them to focus more on maximizing their operational potential and less on mitigating cybersecurity threats.

About the Author

Anthony Moillic is Director, Solutions Engineering at Netwrix for the EMEA & APAC regions. Anthony’s main responsibilities are to ensure customer satisfaction, the expertise of the partner ecosystem and to be the technical voice of Netwrix in the region. His main areas of expertise are CyberSecurity, Data Governance and Microsoft platform management.

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