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What is the Principle of Least Privilege?

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18th Sep, 2022
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What is the Principle of Least Privilege?

In the contemporary world, the importance of data is immense as it allows for easy decision making, understanding performances, bringing in modifications to pre-existing infrastructure, and likewise. Unfortunately, this importance accrued to data has also attracted worldwide hackers, and the USA alone faced over 1000 data breach cases in 2020. It is estimated that one data breach attempt is made every 14 seconds, and this alarming situation is costly and can also cause sufficient damage to one’s brand reputation. Such a scenario makes it crucial to opt for adequate information security.

Information security is a multidimensional discipline, the goals of which are the ‘CIA triad’ (confidentiality, integrity, and availability). The least privilege approach to security is one supporting program that can help an entity achieve these goals. This piece will walk you through the principle of least privilege, how it works, how to implement it, and much more.

Principle of least privilege: what is it?

The principle of least privilege(POLP) refers to providing the least access to the users. The concept is similar to using parental controls on devices to protect children from accessing harmful content. This information security concept restricts the user permissions to only those actions vital to their job. It is thought to be one of the best cyber security practices to protect privileged information.

For instance, any user profile whose goal is backup creation doesn’t need any permission for software installation, or if the purpose of a user profile is payroll processing, then that profile doesn’t require any admin rights.

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To what or whom is the least privilege applicable?

The principle of least privilege doesn’t only provide the least privilege to humans but also goes beyond. This principle applies to:

  • Services
  • Programs or Applications
  • Networks
  • Devices and connected devices

Like humans, all of these are ‘subjects’ for access control. These subjects would require access to ‘resources,’ like files, systems, databases, etc., before they can operate.

Superuser: what is it?

As opposed to any user with the least privilege, a superuser is a user account that has unlimited privileges. They can access, execute authority or make changes throughout a network. This privilege is offered to only the trusted members of an organization, and their activities can range from software installation, settings modification, deleting files or data, etc.

Privilege creep: what is it?

POLP doesn’t only mean restricted access but also access monitoring. Privilege creep refers to a software developer’s tendency to gradually add access to a user’s account beyond what they require, which can potentially cause a data breach. For example, certain employees might require temporary access to databases from their earlier position after promotion. Monitoring is needed here because once the need is over, it is vital to revoke the privilege, failing, which can cause cybersecurity risk.

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Examples of using the principle of least privilege

The least privilege approach to security can be applied to any end-user, network, system, database, etc. The examples include:

  • The least privilege in user accounts can prevent information breaches. If any employee, say, is responsible for data entry to the database, they do not require any other admin permissions. If this employee’s system is malware-infected, the attack will be limited to database entries only.
  • In the case of web applications with the goal of data retrieval, access to deleting or changing data is never required.
  • Another example of least privilege is server hardening, where all unnecessary ports are shut down by putting advanced security measures.

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Importance of principle of least privilege

Many organizations often take the principle of least privilege for granted, which violates the CIA triad. Here are a few reasons why this principle holds importance against cyber attacks.

Better data security

Due to limited data accessibility, fewer persons deal with sensitive or privileged data is. This significantly reduces internal leakage chances. If there are any breaches and your information is compromised, tracking and resolving such a breach is easier.

Reduces attack surface

One primary reason to opt for the least privilege approach to security is that it will limit the malware attack surface. A broader attack surface poses more challenges while defending and has the potential to cripple an entire network system.

Enhances system stability

Any user possessing access to various databases, programs, files, etc., beyond their job scope increases the chances of data removal or configuration by mistake. However, with limitations imposed on their access, these unintentional, human-induced errors are minimized, and in turn, you boost the system’s stability.

Limited malware spread

When any superuser handles the network resources, there is a high probability that malware will spread to every other system they are linked to. But, when the least privilege approach to security is applied, malware stays where it was initially downloaded, and the scope of the damage is reduced. For instance, in the case of SQL statements, there is a unique hack type named SQL injection where malware codes are inserted into the statements. Limiting the accounts to only read permission breaks the attack chain entirely.

How to implement the principle of least privilege?

Now that you know how the principle of least privilege can help you, you should also know how to implement it. Here are a few ways:

Audit your already existing privileges

Auditing your organization’s existing processes or accounts thoroughly will give you a clear picture of the settings. This will, in turn, help you to analyze if every program or service has correct access or not.

Make it your default settings

For all new accounts that are being set up, make sure that the principle of least privilege is the default for them. Then, you can add them as and when the necessity arises after evaluating their needs for higher-level permissions.

Make higher-level privileges strictly situational basis

For any employee, if at all higher privileges are required, the access should be given on a situational basis. This temporary access would be available to the staff members only for the required project or time-bound tasks, ensuring there isn’t any security breach.

Privilege separation

To protect your organization from any security breach, you must correctly identify the permissions required for specific roles and ensure privilege separation. For example, the administration accounts should be separated from other standard accounts to ensure maximum cyber security. Similarly, system functions should be segregated between higher and lower levels.

Regular auditing and monitoring

Monitoring the privileges regularly will prevent any older user or account from accumulating their privileges, irrespective of whether or not they are needed. In addition, POLP maintenance is easier than starting afresh because you have a smaller batch of credentials to look into, which are assessed quicker.

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Pavan Vadapalli

Blog Author
Director of Engineering @ upGrad. Motivated to leverage technology to solve problems. Seasoned leader for startups and fast moving orgs. Working on solving problems of scale and long term technology strategy.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1What does cyber security mean?

The practice of protecting your computer, data or server, or any other electronic device from data breaches and malware attacks is cyber security. Some common threats include software attacks, identity theft, information theft, sabotage, etc.

2What are some approaches to the principle of least privilege implementation?

To implement the least privilege principle, you can opt for the following approaches: Group-basis access Need-basis access Location-based access Machine-basis access

3What are some other security principles like POLP?

Apart from POLP, there are two similar principles of cyber security. The first is the ‘need to know’ principle that grants specific permissions on a need basis. For instance, a sales manager will not need personnel files and hence, is not provided access for the same. The second is ‘separation of duties,’ where critical tasks are distributed in a group, and no single person has complete control of the action.

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