What Is Privileged Access Management(PAM)? How It Works

Robert MacDonald

User account access is a foundational form of cybersecurity, addressing both internal and external threats.

How does Privileged Access Management (PAM) aid security? PAM centralizes privileged data access control to support protection against unauthorized access.

What Is Privileged Access Management?

Privileged Access Management is a set of technologies and processes to control and monitor access to privileged accounts that control or touch sensitive or mission-critical data. These accounts will have “elevated” privileges or more access to information or processes that could, in the wrong hands, represent threats to security and compliance.

Account access is one of the oldest security concerns in computing, due in no small part to the fact that the first line of user security is ensuring strong and effective account access that prevents untrained or malicious users from stumbling on important system information.

Standard Versus Privileged Account Access

  • Standard accounts are non-privileged accounts typically held by everyday users who only need limited system resource access. Standard accounts can be used to access apps like shared files, email, or productivity suites but can’t get into global systems that handle metrics, configuration files, or executable files.
  • Privileged accounts have elevated permissions and access to critical IT systems. These accounts are typically used by admins that need to make changes to core files or systems, including configuration files, databases, or even data used by operating systems. Depending on the type of system, admins can perform various operations like deleting and moving files or installing programs.

PAM is an approach that allows administrators to delineate users and functions and promote system integrity and security. This is especially true for organizations following the Principles of Least Privilege (PoLP), which states that users should have minimal access necessary to complete their tasks.

What Are Common PAM Controls?

  • Password Management: PAM will include controls that protect passwords from attack, require complex passwords, rotate passwords regularly, and use controls to prevent common password attacks. This can consist of centralized identity management like federated identity or Single Sign-On (SSO) approaches.
  • Access Control: Common forms of control like Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) can centralize rules to ensure that access to resources is limited to those with a reason, a necessity, or clearance to do so.
  • Auditing and Monitoring: PAM solutions will provide auditing capabilities that enable organizations to demonstrate compliance with regulations, policies, and security guidelines. This includes monitoring user account activity and maintaining reports of those activities for predictive security or forensic purposes.

What Are the Benefits of Implementing PAM?

Perimeter security isn’t just about protecting a system from external threats. Internal security typically involves perimeter protection around different resources. This is particularly true in zero-trust systems where no user is inherently trusted and must be re-authorized at every access point. PAM is the very foundation of navigating these approaches to security.

Organizations use PAM for various reasons, including:

  • Reducing Attack Surfaces: PAM solutions will typically use heightened authorization and authentication measures (multi-factor authentication, biometrics, etc.) for privileged accounts. Since these accounts are often targets of attacks, then this approach helps focus security on critical system access.
  • Compliance: Many regulatory frameworks require specific control over private or sensitive data access. PAM is a critical component in meeting these compliance requirements.
  • Principle of Least Privilege: There is only one way to effectively implement PoLP, and that’s clearly understanding and managing privileges accounts and access controls within a system. As such, if you expect to leverage least privilege as a security priority, PAM is necessary.
  • Auditing: Part of a PAM system is using audit logs to determine which user accounts can access privileged information and how they do it. Not only are audit logs critical for security in general, but reviewing logs can help security determine if a threat is imminent–for example if odd behavior from a privileged account suggests that it has been compromised.

What Are the Challenges of Implementing Privileged Access Management?

Implementing a PAM system can be a complex process. The combination of data flows, applications, and users makes proper account management a challenge.

Some of the common challenges of implementing a PAM system include:

  • Integration: If you have existing authentication and security systems in place (like logging systems, SIEM solutions, account management software, etc.), then additional PAM controls must be integrated in a way that doesn’t disrupt any workflows or overall system integrity.
  • Applications and Environments: Many businesses use different environments spread across cloud systems and providers. PAM solutions must support different protocols and access methods to remain effective in complex IT environments.
  • Usability: PAM policies, improperly implemented, can also impact user productivity and experience, leading to frustration and resistance among users.
  • Compliance: Not all access policies are created equal. It’s integral that PAM policies meet compliance requirements, especially if your operations fall under different jurisdictions.

Is Privileged Access Management the Same as Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

While these two security approaches may overlap in practice, they are two distinct practices in user security. IAM and PAM are related, but they differ in their scope and applicability to different user accounts.

  • IAM provides centralized user management services. These solutions are used to manage access to non-privileged accounts within an organization.
  • PAM, on the other hand, is focused on managing access to privileged accounts–that means administrator, IT, or executive accounts.

Support Your PAM Infrastructure with 1Kosmos

Integration is a major issue with PAM systems. You need an authentication system that works with principles of least privilege while maintaining strict security and usability for employees. That means strong biometrics bound to the privilaged user,, decentralized user management, and a consistent user authentication experience regardless of risk. .

With 1Kosmos, you get these benefits, along with the following features:

  • 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.
  • Identity Proofing: BlockID verifies identity anywhere, anytime and on any device with over 99% accuracy.
  • 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.

If you’re ready to learn about BlockID and how it can help you remain compliant and secure, read more about our Passwordless Enterprise solutions. Make sure you sign up for the 1Kosmos email newsletter for updates on products and events.

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Meet the Author

Robert MacDonald

Vice President of Product Marketing

Robert is the Vice President of Product Marketing at 1Kosmos. He is a highly influential senior global marketer with more than 15 years of marketing experience in B2B and B2C software in the biometric authentication space. Prior to 1Kosmos, Rob managed product strategy and vision for the Identity and Access Management portfolio at Micro Focus, leading a team of product marketers to drive sales and support the channel. Earlier in his career he set the foundation for content planning, sales enablement and GTM activities for ForgeRock. He has also held senior marketing positions at Entrust, Dell, Quest and Corel Corporation.