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Applying the Principle of Least Privilege to Multi-Cloud Environments

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Read more about author Karim Fanous.

Organizations across all industries are adopting cloud computing models for their flexible, scalable architectures and globally available solutions. Many startups and small businesses are also benefitting from the advanced data security solutions packaged with their cloud service provider offerings, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

However, these data security solutions require careful management. Organizations don’t work in isolation in today’s connected world. For instance, expanding supply chain networks and allowing remote employee access – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – forced many organizations to loosen access restrictions to facilitate day-to-day operations. As a result, one in two organizations experienced a cloud data breach. 

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To simplify these concerns, it’s good practice to apply the principle of least privilege (PoLP) across your organization. PoLP gives resource users the minimum privileges required to perform their authorized jobs. Because PoLP is a holistic security access methodology, you can apply it broadly across various cloud environments and tech stacks.

PoLP is especially critical in multi-cloud environments, where organizations might use a combination of public clouds and private clouds in their architecture.

Let’s explore what PoLP is, the challenges it aims to address in multi-cloud environments, and how you can effectively implement PoLP to solve these challenges.

What Is the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?

PoLP is the practice of assigning only the access permissions a user needs to perform a specific job and only for the duration of that job. It’s vital for ensuring secure, predictable, and controllable access to sensitive resources and protected network areas. The resulting access control structure also increases accountability.

Effectively executing least-privilege methods goes beyond human operators. You also need to give your applications, systems, processes, network services, and IoT devices appropriate access levels. If they violate PoLP, they represent potential vulnerabilities in your infrastructure. That’s why it’s important that you handle assigning privileges by also evaluating how they may be used in a worst-case scenario.

PoLP and Multi-Cloud Environments

As you increasingly move to multi-cloud architectures, administrators should diligently implement the principle of least privilege (PoLP) when designating user access to sensitive resources.

Supply chain network expansion requires organizations to grant IT resource access to external parties like vendors, contractors, and sub-contractors. The numbers on this are staggering: A typical enterprise uses the services of more than 5,800 third parties. Keeping track of all these users in a multi-cloud environment is daunting and prone to various errors – many related to revoking third-party vendor access after the contract ends.

Continually evaluating privileges provides controlled, automatic partitioning of any potential liability across your organization. An effective least-privilege implementation improves data security, shrinks your attack surface, and lets you isolate security incidents and limit the scope of their effects.

Considering the vast extent of modern cybercrime, the value PoLP adds is absolutely worth the additional operational overhead.

The classic example of PoLP’s value is limiting threat actors that successfully compromise a user’s account. Phishing is, by far, the most successful delivery method for ransomware and other malware. But, you can minimize the damage a malicious actor can inflict by ensuring the user can’t directly affect resources outside the scope of their work. 

Least-privilege principles also protect us against more seemingly innocent, routine sources of potential damage in a multi-cloud environment. You can expect to see a reduction in unintentional damage to critical data, systems, and applications caused by well-meaning but uninformed employees.

The Challenges of Multi-Cloud Infrastructures

Tracking access and permissions can be challenging even when working with a single-cloud system. Handling permissions without implementing PoLP only compounds the (many) challenges already present in multi-cloud architectures.

Although multi-cloud architectures offer numerous benefits, they complicate the task of ensuring secure access control. Managing permissions for teams requiring various levels of access to resources spread across multiple clouds presents a formidable challenge, especially in terms of access control and management overhead.

Complex Access Control 

Globally, the average organization used 110 different SaaS applications in 2021. Managing many applications can be challenging in an organization relying on only a single cloud service provider, but it’s not usually a significant burden. A cloud service provider’s tools usually integrate across their shared platform and simplify access concerns.

However, adding more cloud providers complicates access management more than simply adding more applications and users. You may also need to grant some resource access to third-party providers.

Management Overhead

Organizations may have hundreds of employees, contractors, and sub-contractors who need to access applications or data to perform their jobs. Vendors located in different countries might also run these applications. Each of these vendors requires an additional, separate usage contract to track.

Those of us in highly regulated industries also need to comply with various data protection regulations. GDPR, PCI DSS, HIPAA, and others add yet another commitment in preparing audit reports, and there’s no negotiating away this requirement.

For instance, GDPR is the primary data privacy regulation in the EU. It effectively has global jurisdiction because any organization worldwide that collects, processes, or stores the personal information of EU citizens is subject to the GDPR.

In a multi-cloud environment, customers, vendors, and other suppliers’ sensitive information, including personally identifiable information (PII), could be stored in different geographical locations and subject to the GDPR.

Protecting customer data was always important, though often a quiet and unglamorous responsibility. Recently, however, it’s taken on new importance because of data privacy laws gaining public appeal. For example, compliance and privacy concerns ranked as the top security threats for containerized applications in 2019.

These challenges make multi-cloud operations more complex and time-consuming – unless you implement reliable identity and access management (IAM) solutions backed by PoLP to govern user access.

How PoLP Helps

Virtually every organization needs to implement strict technical access controls and organizational measures to protect sensitive data. PoLP is among the top measures organizations must implement. In this context, PoLP helps organizations achieve the following:

  • It keeps malicious actors outside by limiting their entrance points to sensitive network areas.
  • It forces organizations to classify their data, which is considered a prerequisite before implementing the PoLP in multi-cloud environments.
  • It helps organizations comply with various data privacy regulations, such as GDPR, PCI DSS, and HIPAA.

By implementing PoLP from the earliest stages of multi-cloud infrastructure development, organizations can mitigate many of the worst effects of misconfigured access control. Diligent least privilege implementation ensures that even if your access situation becomes difficult to manage, you can be confident that you have granted only the lowest possible privilege levels.

To apply PoLP, organizations typically need to use both IAM and privileged access management (PAM) solutions. IAM is concerned with the organization-wide access to resources. PAM is a subset of IAM that focuses on managing the rights of admins and other privileged users and is more concerned with permissions to change resources.

Deploying both solutions is essential in a multi-cloud environment. Relying on the IT department to manage access control isn’t practical in a multi-cloud environment because of the many human and non-human identities and associated resources they need to manage.

IAM stores user credentials in a central database, enabling an organization to attach the access permission associated with each user to their existing credentials.

To comprehensively implement PoLP, however, it’s also important to address the potential vulnerabilities in privileges left over from changes in employee roles. As employees shift between teams and projects, and you temporarily assign elevated access levels for individual projects, you should track and eliminate residual privileges.

Ideally, you can preempt any problems by setting expiry times for privileges. If you know that a developer will need elevated privileges for a particular project, you can set the time limit to coincide with its expected end date. To catch any oversights caused by timeline changes, you can also assign absolute expiry dates – although managing additional sets of expiry dates in large organizations can be burdensome without automation tools.

Conclusion

As organizations progressively open their IT environments to outside parties, it’s increasingly important to have an overarching strategy and implement the principle of least privilege. PoLP lets you assign strict, workload-specific, and time-gated access permissions based on each user’s role in the organization.

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