Securing Privileged Access – Part 1

After a little bit of a holiday hiatus we’re back to start a segment on securing privileged access. When we refer to privileged access we’re talking about everything from the different levels of administrative access, to privileged users who might handle extremely sensitive data for your organization.

So many organizations still believe that traditional firewalls are enough to keep the big, bad internet at bay. Well, in the modern enterprise it’s foolish to believe that you’re able to keep your data within any boundary while your users begin to work remotely, leverage third party SaaS storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.), or you begin to host your data in an enterprise cloud like Office 365. I’m not here to tell you that those firewalls aren’t absolutely necessary, but it’s important to realize that the days of recognizing your firewall as the security boundary are over and you need to work hard to secure identity, regardless of where your data is hosted.

Recognizing that, let’s take a look at how a typical credential theft takes place in an organization:


An attacker is going to establish a foothold in your organization by targeting end users with social engineering or phishing attacks. Once they’ve got access to that user’s computer they’ll start working on lateral movement, meaning that they’ll begin reaching out to other computers or servers on the network to see what else can be¬†compromised. Maybe it’s by exploiting non unique local admin passwords, maybe the originally breached user has access elsewhere, or maybe an admin isn’t using a separate account for admin activities. Pivoting further and further until control of the directory database is gained (through actual domain admin permissions, by exploiting misconfigurations, or server agent configuration).


The first step is a simple one, and to many organizations it’s already very well ingrained in IT culture. Administrators need dedicated administrative accounts that are not shared with any other admins. I work with too many customers where this isn’t that case. Some have a generic account with domain admin that’s used for automation or just ‘general use’, or they flat out grant admin permission to their day to day account. Admin roles in your org should be reported on regularly to identify these and there should be alerts for elevation of privilege with an actual process for following up on those.

The next steps are again, not technically challenging but require culture change that many admins are adverse to. Privileged Access Workstations need to be deployed for users owning high value admin roles, and unique local admin passwords need to be deployed to workstations first and finally servers to help stop lateral movement. I’ll reach back to these two topics later with dedicated articles, but for now; know that it needs to be accomplished and needs to be prioritized.

Now that we’ve touched on high level goals of attackers and the first steps required to secure privileged access, I’ll follow up soon with part two. I’ll be working through Microsoft guidelines published here so definitely feel free to read ahead a little and ask questions!

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