What Is the Principle of Least Privilege (POLP)?

The principle of least privilege is meant to limit user access to protect the organization’s information from being hacked or leaked.

What is the principle of least privilege?

The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) is access control that states a user should only be given the smallest amount of privilege necessary to complete their task. Access should also be given to the subject rather than identity.

What Is “Privilege” in Cybersecurity?

In terms of security and IT systems, “privileges” refer to the capacity of individual users to access system data and resources for purposes related to their position, work requirements, or other criteria.

In many cases, privilege refers to the level of access and control a user has to navigate the system–to read documents, download and install applications, and even change the critical system and security settings.

Some common areas where privileges play a role include:

  • Superusers/System Administrators: Almost every computer system has some sort of user-based privilege system in place. In hardware like servers, sensitive workstations, or applications. Many systems include a “super user” account or an account with unlimited permissions to work on that system. There may also be administrative accounts with identical or slightly lesser privileges than the superuser.

Superuser access is essentially a major target for hackers because, with superuser privileges, they can do whatever they want within a system.

  • Role-Based Access: Privileges may be defined by a user’s role in an organization. Administrators would, for example, have significantly more access to sensitive resources than a day-to-day marketing professional. Along those same lines, different administrators could have drastically different privileges based on their organizational roles.
  • Computational Privilege: With SaaS applications and automation powering more and more systems, it’s just as essential to designate privileges for computational processes as it is for people. Many cloud systems will include definitions of privileges for applications or automated AI agents to ensure they cannot open attack surfaces.

In a large IT infrastructure, assigning and managing privileges across users and applications can become quite complex, and a lack of focus on this practice can lead to several challenging issues for the organization:

  • Phishing Vulnerabilities: If a hacker gains access to a user’s credentials via a phishing attack, they have access to any data or resources that the user has. Accordingly, users that do not have clearly defined privileges or access resources outside the scope of their position or tasks open the system up to vulnerabilities that otherwise should not exist.
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs): Modern cyber threats are comprehensive and complex, using advanced techniques to burrow into infrastructure and propagate undetected, sometimes for months or even years. State-sponsored APTs are the source of some of the more notable hacks in the past five years, and in many cases, these can propagate through accounts with loose privileges.
  • Privilege Creep: Users who have been in an organization for a while may gain new positions and responsibilities, some of which don’t necessarily align with the privileges they need. Over time, user privileges can balloon beyond necessary, leaving open attack surfaces.

What Is the Principle of Least Privilege?

Simply put, the principle of least privilege asserts that any user’s privileges in an IT system be limited to the bare minimum required for their role, task, or job, and nothing else. The simplest form of limiting privilege involves administrative accounts–namely, non-administrators do not get administrative privileges to manage system resources or configurations.

However, the scope of least privilege can be applied across several different layers of system usability. These include:

  • Resource Access and Authorization: At the base of it all, privileged protection is in place to protect resources–files, documents, and any other data. Least privileged access means that users can only access data allotted to them for their job. They cannot sign into different sections of the system nor view or modify any data outside the scope of their tasks or position.
  • Database Access and Privileges: Many business applications are database-driven, and as such, both those applications and users must have specific permissions to query these databases. Additionally, databases will often have administrative roles separate from general IT administration.
  • Application Use and Processing: Not all applications have free reign to system resources. Many operating systems will use “service accounts” to manage resources, and other applications may leverage these to automate tasks or control data workflows. Accordingly, they must have some kind of privilege control in place.

Additionally, some applications handling critical functions (like security) will have internal roles and privileges that must be managed to protect their operationality.

  • Network Access: Both wired and Wi-Fi networks are susceptible to attempted hacks. One sure way attackers can access unprotected networks is through an unmanaged admin account programmed into a router or gateway.

Limiting privileges is a critical security practice, protecting unintended manipulation of resources in applications, databases, networks, and other crucial system resources. Some benefits of implementing the principle of least privilege include:

  • Minimizing Accidental Breaches: If user accounts have limited access to the least privileges, it’s much less likely that a hacker can compromise mission-critical data through lower-level accounts. Furthermore, insider threat challenges become much less pressing if individuals in an organization have well-defined roles and responsibilities that prohibit them from stepping outside of their defined privileges.
  • Limiting Lateral Movement of Malware: APTs often function through “lateral movement,” or using the system access of a single account to propagate into unrelated resources. Implementing strict least privilege access makes it much less likely that an APT can attack lower-access accounts to escalate privileges elsewhere.
  • Auditing and Documentation: Implementing the least privilege access allows an organization to better define how different IT systems, data resources, and user roles and responsibilities interact. Likewise, it becomes much easier to document these interactions and audit security issues when such responsibilities are clearly defined and don’t overlap.
  • Managing Heterogeneous Systems: The concept of system privilege is relatively platform-agnostic, even if the implementation isn’t. When an organization has several heterogenous systems (Linux/Unix, IoT, Windows, Macs, mobile devices, etc.), having a straightforward least-privilege approach to security can make managing access across these systems more efficient and effective.

Is The Principle of Least Privilege the Same as Zero Trust?

No. Zero-Trust infrastructure encompasses a series of practices around overall security, including network security, Identity and Access Management (IAM), application security, and others. The principle of least privilege is a critical part of zero trust in that it protects against implicit assumptions that users can be trusted regardless of role. However, the reverse isn’t true, and you can implement least-privileged access controls without diving fully into zero-trust principles.

How Can My Organization Implement Least Privilege?

The principle of least privilege is a strategy and philosophy that translates into implementation in your organization. As such, it takes support from multiple stakeholders in the organization.

To implement most minor privilege philosophies in your enterprise, consider the following steps:

  • Audit and Inventory All IT Resources: This might seem redundant for most security and compliance efforts, but it’s necessary to understand all critical IT resources (data, processing, networks, etc.) and how they interact with both each other and the business at large. With an inventory of these systems, you can work from the bottom up in terms of who, exactly, should be able to have access and to what extent.
  • Create Policies Around Least Privilege: Documentation and policymaking are crucial to ensuring that the practices around least privilege are followed correctly. As such, having clearly defined and available policies for relevant employees, administrators, and stakeholders will ensure that such policies are deployed and maintained uniformly throughout the organization.
  • Limit Accounts: Least privilege is an essential approach to managing account access, but it’s just as important to eliminate redundant or old accounts that might open up vulnerabilities.

This means ensuring a process for closing out employee accounts in retirement or termination, maintaining a short leash on guest accounts, and only creating the minimum number of accounts required for the business’s operations.

  • Enforce Strict Authentication: An insecure account will eliminate many of the benefits of least privilege access–for example, if a hacker breaches an employee’s email account with limited privileges, they can still wreak havoc through phishing attempts.

Following this, it’s essential to have strong authentication measures in place, including multi-factor authentication (MFA), biometrics, and automated logging-out users after a period of inactivity.

  • Review and Time-Limit Privileges: Never assume that specific security privileges will remain universal forever. Conduct regular reviews of user accounts and privileges to reassess privileges if necessary. Also, consider implementing time-limited privileges that must be renewed regularly so that the system forces repeat monitoring and reviews of user access.

Ensure Your Least Privilege System Remains Secure with 1Kosmos

Identity management and authentication are the cornerstones of solid security built on the principle of least privilege. An organization investing in “least privileges” approaches as a security principle must have strong authentication to ensure users are who they say they are and that the IT infrastructure can guard against spoofing or fraud.

1Kosmos brings the most innovative approaches to identity management currently on the market. With user-focused identity verification built on strong biometrics, passwordless security, mobile usability, government-compliant identity assurance, and liveness proofing, 1Kosmos BlockID gives your organization the tools it needs to implement the principle of least privilege properly.

Some of these tools include:

  • SIM Binding: The BlockID application uses SMS verification, identity proofing, and SIM card authentication to create solid, robust, and secure device authentication from any employee’s phone.
  • Identity-Based Authentication: We push biometrics and authentication into a new “who you are” paradigm. BlockID uses biometrics to identify individuals, not devices, through credential triangulation and identity verification.
  • Cloud-Native Architecture: Flexible and scalable cloud architecture makes it simple to build applications using our standard API and SDK.
  • Identity Proofing: BlockID verifies identity anywhere, anytime and on any device with over 99% accuracy.
  • Privacy by Design: Embedding privacy into the design of our ecosystem is a core principle of 1Kosmos. We protect personally identifiable information in a distributed identity architecture, and the encrypted data is only accessible by the user.
  • Private and Permissioned Blockchain: 1Kosmos protects personally identifiable information in a private and permissioned blockchain and encrypts digital identities, and is only accessible by the user. The distributed properties ensure no databases to breach or honeypots for hackers to target.
  • Interoperability: BlockID can readily integrate with existing infrastructure through its 50+ out-of-the-box integrations or via API/SDK.

To learn more about least privilege and zero trust, read about 1Kosmos Zero Trust Access.

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Meet the Author

Javed Shah

Former Senior Vice President Of Product Management

Javed has spent his entire twenty year career designing and building blockchain and identity management solutions. He has led large customer facing pre-sales teams, led product management for identity management platforms like the ForgeRock Identity Platform and the ForgeRock Identity Cloud. Javed has an MBA from UC Berkeley.