Control over access to privileged accounts is a cornerstone of IT security. Privileged access management (PAM) systems control access to administrator, service and application-to-application accounts, which represent a higher security risk than any other login IDs. Per Mark Diodati, Research Vice President at Gartner, “Privileged account management products can improve the security of sensitive information by restricting access to privileged account passwords and authenticating system administrators and programmatic processes prior to releasing the password.”

Privileged Access Management FAQ

What are the business problems related to privileged accounts?

Many organizations have insecure processes for managing privileged accounts – IDs and passwords on servers, workstations, applications and network devices with elevated privileges. Inappropriate disclosure of these passwords could lead to serious security breaches:

  • Hundreds to thousands of workstations and servers often share the same ID and password. If the password on one device is compromised, all of the devices that share the credential are compromised.
  • Where a password is used on many systems or needed by many people, it is difficult to coordinate password changes. As a result, passwords on privileged accounts are often left unchanged for months or years, creating an extended window of opportunity for an attacker.
  • If privileged passwords are rarely changed, when IT staff leave an organization, they retain access to sensitive systems.
  • When many people know the password to a given account, it is impossible to reliably connect changes (or security compromises) to individual users.

How does a privileged access management system work?

Several technological approaches can be applied to more securely managing privileged passwords.

  1. Eliminate shared passwords entirely and assign personal administrator-level accounts to each IT user, on each asset. This can lead to systems with too many administrator-level accounts.
  2. Create and delete personal administrator-level accounts for users on demand.
  3. Use software installed on each device to periodically change local passwords. Send a copy of these passwords to a secure vault, shared by many systems. Note that this requires software on each managed system.
  4. Use software installed on a central system to periodically push new, random passwords to each device and keep copies in a secure vault. Note that this requires connectivity from a central application to every managed system.

By far, the most common approach to securing privileged accounts is to randomize privileged passwords regularly. Normally this process is initiated by a central server, to eliminate the need for change control on each managed system.

How often should passwords on privileged accounts be changed?

A good rule of thumb is daily. With a daily password change, if a system administrator quits, he would only have access to a few accounts (on systems where he did work on his last day) and all that access would automatically expire within 24 hours. Longer password change intervals introduce the possibility of access retention for more time, creating a longer window of vulnerability. Shorter password change intervals may interfere with work. For example, an administrator may need to sign into a system for several hours to make a complex change, and an hourly password change might interfere with this work.

How should access to privileged accounts be controlled?

Two scenarios can be applied to control access to privileged accounts:

  • Routine access: for example, Windows server administrators need frequent access to privileged accounts on Windows, Linux administrators on their servers, desktop support on user PCs, etc.
    • For routine access, administrators should be pre-authorized to gain access whenever they need it. For them, a privileged access management system becomes a launch-pad for single sign-on to accounts they use to do their job.
  • One-time access: for example, data center staff may need access to systems during an emergency in the middle of the night or programmers may need temporary access to diagnose a production problem.
    • For one-time access, an approvals workflow is required. Users can sign into request access to specified accounts. Other users are then invited via e-mail or SMS to review these requests. They respond by signing into a web portal and approving or rejecting the proposed access. Approved logins behave just like routine access, but only for a limited time.

In either case, user roles and account groups play a part in reducing the complexity of system setup. Users should be assigned roles, such as “Windows administrator.” Systems and privileged accounts should be collected into groups. User roles can then be assigned rights to system groups.

Can these systems support a “two keys to launch” scenario?

Using the one-time access workflow described above, a privileged access management system should support multiple authorizers. For example, user A might request access to privileged account P on system S. This request could be routed to multiple people to review – say users B, C and D. If any two of B, C and D approve the request, then user A will be allowed to sign into P.

What about securing passwords to Windows service accounts?

On the Windows operating system, service programs are run either using the SYSTEM login ID, which possesses almost every privilege on the system (and consequently can do the maximum harm) and which has no password or using a real user's login ID and password, in order to execute with reduced privileges. This means that on each Windows workstation and server there are a number of service accounts, each with its own password, which are used to run service programs such as web servers, backup agents, antivirus software, etc.

How about mainframes, ERP applications and other systems?

Some privileged access management systems include a rich set of connectors and can manage passwords across the enterprise, rather than just on Windows servers and via scripted SSH sessions. It is helpful to deploy a system that can handle the majority of systems in an organization, rather than having to use different applications for each platform.

Are there alternatives to displaying passwords to administrators?

Displaying passwords from the vault should only be available as a last resort. In most cases, where connectivity is available to the system in question, one of the following mechanisms should be used instead:

  • The privileged access management system can launch login sessions using Terminal Services (RDP), SSH (PuTTY), VMWare vSphere, SQL Studio, etc. and inject passwords from the vault, providing the IT user single sign-on and eliminating the need to display plaintext passwords.
  • A copy of the password could be placed in the user's copy buffer, so that the user can paste it into a login screen. The copy can also be automatically removed from the copy buffer after a minute or two.
  • The authorized user's personal (and normally unprivileged) Active Directory account can be temporarily attached to security groups on Active Directory or on domain-member computers.
  • The authorized user's public SSH key can be temporarily appended to the .ssh/authorized_keys file of a privileged account on Unix or Linux.

Can single sign-on be included?

Yes, as described above, this can be done by launching RDP, SSH or similar sessions; by temporarily adding a user's AD account to security groups or by temporarily creating SSH trust relationships.

What happens when a login to the physical console of a server is needed?

Password display is needed where a login to a system's console is required. This access disclosure mechanism should be handled via the one-time access disclosure workflow, rather than in the context of routine access.

What about privileged accounts on laptops?

A password management system can easily make connections to servers, which have fixed network addresses, are always on and are continuously connected to the network. It is much harder for a central password management server to connect to mobile laptops, for several reasons:

  • Laptops frequently move from site to site.
  • Even when they remain in one place, laptop IP addresses may change dynamically, due to use of DHCP.
  • Laptops are often turned off and do not respond to network inquiries when deactivated.
  • Laptops may be unplugged from the network, either to move them or for periods of disuse.
  • Laptops may be protected by a firewall that blocks network connections inbound to the PC.

In short, while it is easy for laptops to contact a central server, it is nearly impossible for the reverse to happen reliably. To secure privileged accounts on laptops, a privileged access management system must include client-side code, which initiates password changes from the laptop, rather than from the central server.

This architecture supports:

  • Laptops that are periodically disconnected or powered down.
  • Laptops behind firewalls or with un-routable IP addresses (NAT).
  • Laptops with dynamic IP addresses.

Can the administrator actions be recorded?

Modern privileged access management systems support session recording. This technology is used to record login sessions made by administrators to privileged accounts and later search and playback of these sessions.

The approaches used to accomplish this vary widely:

  • Instrumentation installed in advance on the user's PC.
  • Instrumentation on the user's PC implemented dynamically via ActiveX.
  • Instrumentation on managed servers.
  • A proxy server which intercepts, records and analyzes connection protocols.

Hitachi ID Systems Promotes Privileged Access Management

To promote the importance of privileged access management, Hitachi ID Systems recently announced to over 900 existing customers a one-time promotional package, valid over the next two months It includes 5 days of complimentary professional services, to plan and implement Hitachi ID Privileged Access Manager.

Gideon Shoham, CEO says, “This promotion is intended to encourage our customers to evaluate our technologically advanced and cost effective Hitachi ID Privileged Access Manager. This solution is complementary to the user password management solution many of our customers have already deployed.”

About Hitachi ID Systems, Inc.

Hitachi ID Systems, Inc. is a leading provider of identity and access management solutions. Hitachi ID software helps almost 1000 organizations with over 12 million combined users meet security, internal control, regulatory compliance, IT cost reduction and user service objectives.

Hitachi ID Identity and Access Management Suite includes Hitachi ID Identity Manager, Hitachi ID Password Manager and Hitachi ID Privileged Access Manager These products manage identities, entitlements and authentication factors across both on-premises and SaaS applications in the cloud.

Industry analyst Ovum Consulting recently recognized Hitachi ID Systems as an enterprise identity and access management powerhouse, citing the company's robust technology and exemplary customer support. Ovum “believes that Hitachi ID's focus on reducing the administrative and helpdesk burden and the company's focus on bottom-up IAM reflects the way in which organizations operate.”

For more information about Hitachi ID Systems and its products, please visit or call 1.403.233.0740.

For more information, please contact:

Dawn Mallyon, VP Marketing
Hitachi ID Systems
(403) 233-0740, ext 324