What Is Least Privilege Access?

3 min. read

A basic best practice when configuring roles and permissions for any software environment is to apply least privilege access. By restricting access rights to the minimum required for each user or group to do their job, least privilege access helps to minimize security risks.

Least Privilege Access, Defined

Least privilege access is when you only give a user or group the minimum level of permissions needed to perform a given task.

In other words, when you adhere to the principle of least privilege, you focus on ensuring that no user or group has access rights or permissions that exceed the minimum required to perform their role within the organization.

Least privilege access is sometimes also referred to as minimum privilege access or least authority access.

Benefits of Least Privilege

The main benefit of least privilege is that it restricts the potential damage caused by a security breach.

In an environment where users have access to more resources than they strictly need, anyone who manages to compromise their accounts will likewise have access to those systems. But by restricting access to the minimum necessary, you limit the impact of a breach.

Least privilege access also offers the benefit of making audits more effective. When you follow the principle of least privilege, you can perform audits of your access policies to determine whether any policies give users more access rights than they require. You can then take steps to address the risk.

Example of Least Privilege Access

To understand what least privilege means in practice, consider a cloud environment that is shared by multiple users within an organization. Some of the users are developers, while others are IT engineers. The developers use one set of dev/test VMs to build and test applications. The IT engineers use another to deploy applications for production use.

To configure least privilege access in this scenario, you would configure cloud identity and access management (IAM) roles and policies in such a way that the developers could create, modify, and run only the specific VMs they use for dev/test purposes. Likewise, the IT engineers would only be able to access production VMs.

The opposite of least privilege in this example would be to create IAM rules that give all team members access to all VMs. That may be tempting to do because you may assume that developers might sometimes need to access production VMs, and IT engineers might sometimes want to see what is happening in the dev/test environment. However, this approach would not be optimal from a security perspective because it would increase the potential impact of a security breach. If a developer’s account is compromised, for instance, the attackers would be able to access all VMs in the environment if the account has access to all of them. But with least privilege access in place, only the dev/test environments would be exposed.

Least Privilege vs. Zero Trust

Least privilege access is similar to, but distinct from, the principle of zero trust.

Zero trust means not assigning any access rights to a user, group, or other resource until you have verified that the entity can be trusted. This is another way to help mitigate the risk of breaches. However, zero trust is different from least privilege access because you need to establish trust before you can apply least privilege access. Until trust has been established, no access rights can be enabled at all under the zero trust model.

Managing Least Privilege Access

The main challenge associated with setting up and managing least privilege access is determining which access rights each user or group actually needs, then creating policies that enforce those rights. You must also ensure that least privilege remains in place as the access needs of users and groups change and policies are updated.

Staying on top of all of this information manually is a challenge. To streamline the process, teams can scan IAM configurations within their environments to determine which access rights are assigned to whom, and whether anyone has unnecessary levels of access to any resources. Automatic and continuous scanning of access rules helps prevent accidental oversights that could lead to unnecessary security exposures.

Least Privilege Access FAQs

The least privilege principle mandates that users and systems are granted only those access rights essential for their roles. Aimed at reducing the attack surface, this principle ensures that even if credentials are compromised, the potential for damage is minimized. It is foundational to a robust security posture, particularly in cloud environments where dynamic access requirements demand careful management.
Access control governs who can view or use resources within a computing environment. It encompasses both physical and digital measures to protect data from unauthorized access. In cloud security, access control mechanisms are critical, ranging from user authentication and authorization to the implementation of policies that define and enforce how resources are accessed.
Role-based access control (RBAC) is a method of restricting system access to authorized users based on their roles within an organization. It simplifies access management by assigning permissions to roles rather than individuals, ensuring consistent and scalable security measures that align with the organization's structure and operational needs.
Minimum necessary access involves assigning the least amount of access required for users to perform their job functions. This concept, key to the least privilege principle, limits the potential for unauthorized access or damage if a user's credentials are compromised, by ensuring that permissions are tightly controlled and aligned with specific role requirements.
Privilege management involves controlling, monitoring, and auditing privileges or rights within a computing environment. It ensures that users and systems have the appropriate level of access and that any elevation in privileges is granted securely and temporarily when necessary. Privilege management tools are crucial for enforcing security policies and mitigating insider threats in cloud infrastructures.
Secure access management entails the processes and technologies that regulate user access to critical information within an organization's network. It combines user authentication, authorization, and auditing to ensure that only authorized users gain access to secured resources, thus protecting against unauthorized breaches and facilitating regulatory compliance.
Just-in-time access is a security model that grants users temporary access to resources only when needed, significantly reducing the window of opportunity for access abuse or data breaches. This dynamic access control method aligns closely with the principle of least privilege, enhancing security in environments like the cloud where user roles and access requirements frequently change.
Permission restriction involves the deliberate limitation of user rights and privileges within software systems and networks. By carefully allocating only the necessary permissions required for specific tasks, it minimizes security risks associated with excess privileges, such as unauthorized data access or lateral movement by potential attackers.
Privileged account management (PAM) is a subset of identity governance that focuses on monitoring and protecting accounts with elevated access rights. PAM solutions are designed to handle the lifecycle of privileged credentials, ensuring secure authentication, authorization, and auditing of users with administrative or special access to critical systems and data.
Privilege creep prevention aims to thwart the accumulation of unnecessary user rights over time, which can elevate security risks. Implementing regular audits and revoking permissions that are no longer required for a user's role are key strategies to prevent privilege creep. Effective prevention is crucial, particularly in dynamic cloud environments, to maintain a lean security posture and minimize the risk of insider threats or exploitation by external actors.
An access review is a security control process to evaluate and verify user access rights within an organization's network and systems. It ensures that users retain only those privileges necessary for their current roles. Regularly conducted, these reviews are integral to compliance, governance, and preventing privilege accumulation, particularly in cloud services where user roles can rapidly evolve.
A credential policy is a set of guidelines governing the creation, distribution, and lifecycle of authentication credentials. It includes password complexity requirements, rotation frequencies, and multi-factor authentication mandates. A robust credential policy is critical in cloud security for mitigating the risk of unauthorized access due to compromised or weak credentials.
Identity and access management (IAM) is a framework for managing digital identities and their permissions across cloud and on-premise environments. IAM systems enable administrators to ensure that the right individuals have appropriate access to technology resources. They are essential for implementing security policies, auditing user activities, and enforcing compliance in the cloud.
Segregation of duties is a key control that splits critical tasks and functions among different people or systems to reduce the risk of fraud or error. In cloud security, it prevents any single user or service from having enough access to perform unauthorized actions, thereby protecting sensitive data and critical operations from potential internal breaches.