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Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): Benefits and How to Implement

Natasha Murphy | 7 min read| Updated On - June 11, 2024

Principle of Least Privilege

What is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) is an information security concept in which a user is given the minimum levels of access needed to perform their job functions. For example, a user account created for extracting records from a database does not need admin rights, and a programmer whose main function is updating lines of code doesn’t need access to financial data.

Applying this principle is a highly effective way to greatly reduce the chance of an attack within an organization. The more a given user has access to, the greater the negative impact if their account is compromised or if they become an insider threat.

The principle of least privilege can also be referred to as the principle of minimal privilege (POMP) or the principle of least authority (POLA). Following the principle of least privilege is considered to be a best practice in information security.

How the Principle of Least Privilege Works?

The principle of least privilege works by allowing only the bare minimum level of access to for a user to perform their job. In an IT environment, following the principle of least privilege reduces the risk of attackers obtaining access to critical systems or sensitive data by compromising a user account, device, or application. Apply the POLP helps contain any compromises and stops them from spreading to the system at large.

Examples of the Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege can be applied to every level of a system. It applies to end users, systems, processes, networks, databases, applications, and every other area of an IT environment. Below are some of the different ways that POLP can be used within an organization:

  • User Account with Least Privilege: Following the principle of least privilege, an employee whose job is to enter information into a database only needs the access permissions to add records to that database. If malware infects that employee’s computer or if the employee clicks a link in a phishing email, the malicious attack is limited to making database entries. However, if that employee has admin access privileges, and their computer becomes infected, the infection can spread across the network.
  • MySQL Accounts with Least Privilege: A MySQL setup can follow the principle of least privilege when it employs several different accounts to perform unique tasks. For example if there is an online form that allows users to sort data, it should use a MySQL account that only has sorting privileges. By doing so, an attacker who exploits the form has only gained access to sort records. In contrast, if the account is given the power to delete records, the attacker now has the ability to delete everything in the entire database.
  • Using Just in Time Least Privilege: A user who only occasionally needs admin privileges should work with reduced privileges for most of the time. To increase traceability, that user can retrieve admin access credentials from a password bank as needed. Using disposable credentials tightens the security achieved by the just in time least privilege.

How to Implement PoLP

The first step is to conduct a privilege audit. All existing accounts, processes, and programs need to be checked to ensure that they only have the bare minimum of permissions required to do the job.

All accounts should be started with the least privilege available. The default for all new account privileges should be set as low as possible and then specific higher-level privileges can be added as needed to perform the job.

Follow the segregation of privileges. Separate accounts into higher-level and lower-level privileges, and then segregate these into further subgroups, based on a user’s role or location. These distinctions create hard boundaries between high privilege accounts and basic profiles which then reduces an attacker’s ability to move laterally in the event of a data breach.

Use just in time privileges. Wherever possible, restrict raised privileges only to moments when they are needed. Employ expiring privileges and one-time-use credentials.

Make individual actions traceable. User IDs, one-time passwords, monitoring, and automatic auditing can make it easier to track and limit damage.

Have regular auditing of privileges. The regular auditing of privileges prevents a situation where older users, accounts, and processes accumulate privileges over time, whether they still need them or not.

Benefits of the Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege is one of the most effective ways for organizations to control and monitor access to their networks, applications and data. This approach includes the following benefits:

  • Reduced attack surface: Cyber attackers can gain access to your system by silently infiltrating your network and elevating permissions for additional access. By imposing POLP restrictions, the attack surface is reduced, minimizing the spread of a data breach. In addition, employing the principle of least privilege means that privileged credentials can be closely monitored, making it more challenging for potential attackers to exploit them.
  • Better visibility: Carrying out regular privilege audits can give an organization a clear view of who is accessing the network and user behavior. If carried out effectively, organizations can maintain a clear overview of all network users and devices, and their related activity.
  • Increased efficiency: If users only have the access privileges required to do their jobs, they are likely to work more efficiently.
  • Enhanced stability: Beyond security, the principle of least privilege also reinforces system stability by limiting the effects of changes to the area in which they’re made.
  • Limited spread of malware: By segmenting identities, organizations can efficiently contain a potential security breach, reducing any potential damage. The ability to move laterally is restricted by hard boundaries between groups, making it easier to track down the intruder and stop the spread.
  • Compliance with Regulations: When implemented effectively, POLP can provide evidence for an organization’s security posture. This supports accurate reporting and compliance with regulatory requirements.

How does the Least Privilege Principle Relate to Zero Trust security?

Zero Trust security is a security framework that assumes that any user or device may present a threat. This contrasts with older security models that consider all connections from inside an internal network to be trustworthy.

The principle of least privilege is one of the key concepts of Zero Trust security. A Zero Trust network sets up connections one at a time and regularly re-authenticates them. It gives users and devices only the access they absolutely need, making any it easier to contain any potential threats inside the network.

For instance, a non-Zero Trust approach might be to require a user to connect to a virtual private network (VPN) to access corporate resources. However, connecting to a VPN gives access to everything else connected to that VPN. This is often too much access for most users and if one user’s account is compromised, the entire private network is at risk. Attackers can move laterally within such a network very quickly.

How Lepide Can Help Implement the Principle of Least Privilege

The Lepide Data Security Platform can aid in enforcing the Principle of Least Privilege by providing valuable insights into user activities, access privileges, stale user accounts, and more. All privileges can be reviewed via a centralized dashboard, with various sorting and searching capabilities. The platform uses machine learning techniques to establish typical usage patterns which can help security teams determine who should have access to what resources. By observing user actions, organizations can identify when a user attempts to access resources or perform tasks beyond their authorized permissions. Additionally, the Lepide Solution can automatically detect and manage inactive user accounts.

If you’d like to see how the Lepide Data Security Platform can help you implement and enforce the Principle of Least Privilege, schedule a demo with one of our engineers or start your free trial today.

Natasha Murphy
Natasha Murphy

Natasha is a dedicated customer success advocate, helping Lepide customers to get the most out of their solutions.

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