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Privileged accounts, like their name suggests, are accounts designed to provide elevated access to systems and data. They are an integral part of every IT infrastructure and play a key role in a large variety of day-to-day operations, from the management of operating systems and application servers by administrators to providing appropriate security contexts for running services, or securing communication between interdependent business applications.

Because they exist in one form or another in virtually every server, workstation or appliance in the enterprise, the larger the environment, the more challenging it becomes to maintain an accurate repository of information related to these types of accounts. At the same time, due to their privileged nature, they are a prized target for attackers and one of the first items IT auditors focus on when assessing the security posture of an organization. It is therefore crucial for enterprises of any size to implement processes -- be they manual or automated -- for discovering and managing most if not all of their privileged accounts.

From a high level perspective, privileged accounts fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Administrative accounts:

    These are accounts used to establish interactive login sessions to systems and applications. Often shared by multiple IT people, they provide the administrative access permissions required to install applications, apply patches, change configuration, manage users, retrieve log files, etc.

    Administrative accounts can be further divided based on their access scope:

    • Local administrative accounts:

      These privileged accounts have a more limited scope, since they only provide administrative access to the local host or application on which they reside. Examples of local administrative accounts include members of the local administrators group on a Windows workstation, such as Administrator, the root account on Unix/Linux servers, the sa account on MSSQL Servers or SYSTEM on Oracle databases.

    • Domain administrative accounts:

      These accounts typically provide administrative access to all systems that are members of a given domain. A common example here would be domain accounts that are members of the Domain Admins security group in an Active Directory domain.

  2. Application accounts:

    These accounts are used by one application to connect, identify and authenticate to another. Common examples include accounts used by a web application to connect to a database server or accounts used by a batch script to connect to a web application's API service. Because of their intended purpose, credentials for this type of accounts are often lacking an adequate protection, making them a prime target for attackers.

  3. Service accounts:

    These are non-personal privileged accounts, configured with either local or domain level access, whose purpose is to provide a security context in which to run unattended processes, such as scheduled tasks, services or "daemons."

The discovery and management of service accounts are the main focus of this document. Within this context, we are mostly concerned with the management of Windows service accounts, because -- unlike on other platforms -- on the Windows operating system, to start a process in the security context of a given account, the password for that account must be provided. This creates the need to manage passwords for service accounts on Windows (on other platforms, service accounts normally do not have a password).

This document is intended for a technical audience which has been tasked with replacing static, manually maintained embedded Windows service account credentials with an automated process where these credentials are periodically changed to new, random values.

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