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Cyber Security & the Principle of least privilege

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27th Jul, 2022
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Cyber Security & the Principle of least privilege

With a massive volume of data being generated every minute, it is vital to ensure that information remains safe and secured. And this is where information security comes into the picture. Information security is a multifaceted and complex discipline standing upon some basic principles. The main goals of any information security program are integrity, confidentiality and availability. The principle of Least Privilege is a supporting principle using which organisations can achieve their information security goals. 

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To understand more about the Principle of Least Privilege, keep reading. 

What does the Principle of Least Privilege mean?

The Principle of Least Privilege, also known as POLP,  is a concept related to computer and information security in which users’ access is restricted. A user is given minimum access levels to complete the assigned work without any problem. Users get the permission to write, read, or execute only those resources or files needed to complete their jobs. This principle is also known by two other names – the principle of minimal privilege and the access control principle. 

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Along with restricting access for resources and files, the Principle of Least Privilege also limits access rights for systems, applications, and processes to only authorised individuals. Therefore it is evident that the least privilege extends much beyond human access. This is among cyber securities’ best practices and a crucial step towards protecting privileged access to high-value assets and data. With effective enforcement of least privilege approach to security, it can be assured that even non-human tools have requisite access needed.  

It is essential that privileged credentials are secured and centrally managed and have flexible controls so that compliance requirements and cybersecurity can be balanced with end-user and operational needs. And this is successfully possible with the implementation of the Principle of Least Privilege. 

How does the Principle of Least Privilege function?

The Principle of Least Privilege functions by providing limited access for performing any required job. In an IT environment, following the least privilege principle helps in reducing the risks of cyber attacks and related threats. This is because it becomes difficult for attackers to access sensitive data or critical information by compromising low-level user applications, devices or accounts. With the implementation of the Principle of Least Privilege, it is possible to contain compromises so that they do not spread to the system at large. 

The Principle of Least Privilege can be applied to every level of a system for better security. This is applicable for systems, end-users, networks, processes, applications, databases, and to every other facet in an IT environment. 

What do you mean by privilege creep?

Business organisations often have to take away all administrative rights from users. In such a situation, the IT team will have to recreate access and privileges so that it becomes possible to carry out specific tasks. Many people believe that the Principle of Least Privilege is nothing but taking away privileges from users. But, POLP is also about monitoring access for those users who do not require it. 

Privilege creep occurs when software developers usually develop more access rights and permissions beyond what users need to do their job. Obviously, with such access, the organisation’s cyber security might be compromised to quite an extent. Sometimes, unnecessary accumulation of privileges and rights occurs, leading to data theft or loss. 

With the implementation of least privilege access controls, organisations can handle’ privilege creep’ to quite an extent. These controls ensure that both non-human and human users have minimum levels of access mandatorily required. 

What are the benefits offered by the Principle of Least Privilege?

When it comes to security principles, least privilege is the most common security principle. Mentioned below are some of the benefits offered by the implementation of the Principle of Least Privilege:

  • Minimised surface for attack

Hackers can gain access to vast volumes of confidential data of any organisation if there are no restrictions on users’ access. However, implementing the Principle of Least Privilege makes it possible to combat this problem. As a result, few people have access to sensitive data, and the attack surface is minimised for cybercriminals. 

  • Reduces chances of cyber attacks

Most cyber-attacks occur when the attacker can exploit the privileged credentials of any organisation. With POLP, the system is protected and secured as there is limited access to confidential data, and no unauthorised individual can access this data. As a result, the volume of damage caused will be less and chances of cyber attacks will be reduced. 

  • Enhanced security of systems

Vast volumes of data have been leaked from various business organisations, causing extreme losses. In most of these cases, it was found that someone with admin privileges was the main culprit. By implementing the least privilege principle, it is possible to revoke higher-level access and powers from almost 90% of employees. This ensures enhanced security of systems. 

  • Helps in limited malware spread

Malware attacks are among the most common kinds of cyber-attacks, damaging a whole system. If least privilege is enforced on endpoints, malware attacks will not use elevated privileges to increase access. As a result, the extent of damage caused by malware attacks can be controlled and limited to a small area of the system. 

  • Boosts end-user productivity 

When users only get the required access to complete their jobs, end-user productivity gets boosted. Moreover, the number of trouble-shooting cases also decreases by implementing the Principle of Least Privilege. 

  • Helps in streamlining audits and compliances and improves audit readiness

It has been seen that the scope of audit can be minimised significantly when the system has the Principle of Least Privilege implemented. Moreover, implementation of the least privilege is also a mandatory part of some organisations’ internal policies and regulatory requirements. The implementation helps minimise and prevent unintentional and malicious damage to critical systems and acts as compliance fulfilment. 

  • Plays a critical role in data classification

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With the Principle of Least Privilege concepts, companies can track who has access to what data in the organisation. In any case of unauthorised access, it is possible to find the culprit quickly. 

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To sum up, the Principle of Least Privilege plays a crucial role in organisations by bolstering their defences against cyber attacks and cyber threats. Companies can safeguard their confidential data and provide access to such data to limited people. Implementation of least privilege in business organisations guarantees that the organisation is protected from high-level cyberattacks or hackers with malicious intent. 

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Making a career in cyber security is a lucrative opportunity for many students. But if you are already in the field and looking to enhance your career in cyber security, you must check out Advanced Certificate Programme in Cyber Security from IIITB. Along with becoming an expert in cyber security, you will have specialisations in cryptography, network security, application security, data secrecy, etc. Specifically designed for working professionals, this course offers one-on-one career mentorship sessions and high-performance coaching.  


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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1Why are privileges necessary for different users?

In a business organisation, users get privileges to accomplish their assigned tasks. However, if unnecessary privileges are granted, it can compromise the organisation's security. This is the reason the Principle of Least Privilege should be implemented.

2What are the benefits of implementing the Principle of Least Privilege in your organisation?

There are innumerable benefits of implementing the Principle of Least Privilege in a business organisation like: Better security of systems, Minimised risks of cyber attacks and threats, Helps in data classification, Betters end-user productivity, Helps in audits and regulatory compliances.

3What are two other names by which the Principle of Least Privilege is known?

Principle of minimal privilege and access control principle are the alternative names of Principle of Least Privilege.

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