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What Are Privileged Accounts? Common Types & Security Risks

by Chris Brook on Monday December 4, 2023

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In cybersecurity, privilege refers to the authority that certain accounts have; what they can and can't perform. When it comes to privileged accounts, there's a handful of different types, and with them, no shortage of challenges for managing and securing them.

Separation of roles or concerns has given rise to the proliferation of privileged accounts. These privileged accounts usually come with high levels of elevated privileges compared to standard accounts. 

While they are advantageous, privileged accounts also have significant downsides. Due to their high level of access to system resources, privileged accounts are a top target for cybercriminals and thus need to be carefully managed and secured.

What Is a Privileged Account?

A privileged account is a type of user account with more permissions and access rights than a standard account. Privileged accounts allow users to make significant changes to a system, such as changing system configuration, installing software, accessing sensitive data, or creating new user accounts. 

These accounts are typically used by system administrators, managers, or other high-level IT personnel. They are granted administrative privileges to execute actions closer to the operating system shell and are, therefore, more dangerous when abused. 


The concept of privilege can also factor into how organizations deploy role-based access control (RBAC) - which is dependent on the access a person has to data in an organization - and the Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) - the idea of only giving a user enough privilege to do perform their required job.

What are the Common Types of Privileged Accounts?

System administrators rarely adopt a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach for privileged accounts. Here are several common types of privileged accounts typically adopted:

  • Root: As its name suggests, the root account is the base and most powerful privilege account. It is often called a superuser account because it has the broadest and highest access privileges for the underlying system, database, or server.
  • Local Administrative Accounts: Often known as admin or Administrative accounts, these non-personal accounts provide administrative access to the local host or instance. System administrators typically use the root or local administrative accounts for system maintenance.
  • Privileged User Accounts: These accounts have been granted special permissions beyond those of a standard user. They are unique to each individual and can have administrative access to one or multiple systems. 
  • Domain Administrative Accounts: These accounts provide administrative access across all workstations and servers within a Windows domain. They can modify every system and user account on a network.
  • Service Accounts: Service accounts are used by an application or service to interact with the operating system. They are automated accounts and have the potential to gain high privileges if not managed correctly.
  • Application Accounts: These exist within applications to perform specific functions, like accessing data and interacting with databases.
  • Emergency Accounts: Also known as firecall or breakglass accounts, these are accounts of last resort that users can access during a crisis when regular systems fail. 
  • System Accounts: These are accounts used to administer systems, with broad privileges that can include the ability to modify system settings, manage system processes, and access all files on a system.
  • Active Directory or AD accounts: These manage services in a Windows network. They can create, manage, and delete accounts within the directory.
  • Privileged Data User Accounts: Standard users with elevated access levels, typically within a specific system or application, that allow them to access sensitive or confidential data. 

Remember, all privileged accounts pose potential security risks if not managed properly and often become primary targets for cyber attacks.

What are Privileged Account Management Challenges?

Privileged Account Management (PAM) comes with a set of challenges that organizations need to address:

  • Tracking and Identifying Privileged Accounts: Given the numerous systems and applications across an organization, identifying all privileged accounts is challenging. When left unidentified, these accounts can be easily exploited by cybercriminals.
  • Managing Shared Accounts: Shared accounts with administrative privileges often lack individual accountability. This can make it difficult to trace who performed a particular action or to link activities to a specific user.
  • Ensuring Regular Credential Rotation: Regularly changing privileged account passwords is vital for security, but it’s a tedious process, especially in large organizations with many such accounts.
  • Single Password Usage: A single password is often shared across multiple accounts for convenience. This increases risk exposure if that password is compromised.
  • Securing Third-Party Access: Granting access to third-party vendors can pose a risk as control over their security practices is limited.
  • Detecting Unauthorized Access: Timely detection of unauthorized access or unusual activity on privileged accounts is challenging but critical for preventing data breaches.
  • Enforcing Least Privilege Principle: Assigning minimum necessary privileges to users can be complex but crucial to preventing unnecessary access to sensitive data or systems.
  • Compliance Requirements: Meeting the varying compliance requirements like GDPR, HIPAA, and SOX, which dictate proper PAM processes, is a major challenge. 
  • Overseeing Human Errors: Even well-meaning employees can accidentally expose sensitive data, making it vital to continuously train and remind staff about security best practices. 

PAM solutions can help organizations overcome these challenges by providing secure, centralized access control, regular password rotation, secure third-party access, session monitoring, and detailed auditing and reporting capabilities.

What are the Privileged Access Management Best Practices?

Privileged Access Management (PAM) is a strategic approach to managing and securing privileged account access. Here are some of its best practices:

Account Inventory

Fully understanding and cataloging all privileged accounts across your systems is a crucial first step. This includes application accounts, human user accounts, and machine accounts.

Least Privilege

This mandates following the principle of least privilege. This means only providing as much access as is necessary for someone to complete their job. Don't give them administrative access if they don’t need administrative access to execute their tasks.

Limit the Number of Privileged Accounts

Minimize the number of privileged users to reduce vulnerability. This can be achieved by using privilege elevation, i.e., temporarily assigning privileges only when needed.

Monitor and Audit Privileged Sessions

All privileged sessions should be monitored and logged. This includes logging keystrokes and screen activity and implementing real-time analytics to detect anomalies.

Regularly Validate and Update Access Rights

Regularly check the status of privileged users and accounts, ensuring that access rights align with job responsibilities and that rights are removed for staff who have left the organization or changed roles.

Apply Multi-factor Authentication

Implement multi-factor authentication to provide an additional layer of security. This drastically reduces the risk of an attacker gaining control over a privileged account.

Use a Privileged Access Management Solution

Employ a PAM solution to automate and manage the above processes. A PAM solution should securely store privileged credentials, monitor and record sessions, detect unusual activity, and limit access on a need-to-know basis.

Conduct Regular Security Training

Regular security awareness and training can help educate employees on the importance of following these PAM procedures. Moreover, security training reduces accidental data breaches and phishing attack attempts.

Lifecycle Management

Always have a process for the complete lifecycle management of privileged accounts, from creation through decommissioning.

Regular Audit

Organizations should conduct regular privilege audits to identify misconfigurations or abuses of privileged access rights.

These practices can significantly enhance an organization's security and greatly reduce the risk of a data breach.

Learn How Digital Guardian Can Help Protect Your Privileged Accounts

Our data protection and data loss prevention (DLP) are among the best in the industry at safeguarding against privileged accounts risks and attacks.

To protect and get the best from your privileged accounts, schedule a demo with us today to learn more.

Tags:  Cybersecurity Secure Collaboration

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