By Brian Prince
Minimizing user rights on a machine is a key part of security and risk
management, and should be balanced with business continuity concerns.
Sometimes, less is moreat least when it comes to user rights and
Taking a least-privilege approach to user accounts is a key part of any
in-depth defense strategy, many analysts and security pros say.
"I think it's very important not even just as [a component] of
security, but in the broader sense [of] risk posed to the business in
IT," said Scott Crawford, an analyst with Enterprise Management
Associates. "Nowhere is that more true than in a Windows environment
where there [are] some things at least on the endpoint or desktopyou
simply can't do without administrative privilege."
In its defense, Microsoft has built the User Account Control feature
into Windows Vista, allowing IT administrators to elevate their
privilege for specific tasks and application functions while still
running most applications, components and processes with a limited
privilege. Other companies such as Symark Software and BeyondTrust also
look to address the issue of least privilege with their software.
A least-privilege approach, some argue, ensures that users always log on
with limited account privileges, and can be used to restrict the use of
administrative credentials to certain individuals and for certain tasks,
such as installing programs. Malware sometimes is written to exploit
elevated privileges and thus spread more rapidly, offering businesses
another reason to restrict privileges. However, doing so can affect
business productivity, which makes some businesses weary.
"The loss of local administration rights [to] many companies seems a
very burdensome prospect, because their internal software programming
realm doesn't even think about operating their installations or running
their processes under a minimal elevation of rights," said Spherion
Senior Technical Architect Gilroy Freeth, who helped remove
administrative rights on some 3,500 client machines for the National
Nuclear Security Administration's site in Nevada.
"You set yourself [on a personal, home PC] as a local administrator
because you know that installing an application isn't going to have an
issue," Freeth continued. "You know that running an application isn't
going to cause an issue. And that's why most people keep themselves
local admin, and that culture is still in place in many corporate
The doctrine of least privilege also extends to broad issues of
information security, of course. A recent study by the Ponemon Institute
and Aveksa, a vendor that specializes in access governance products for
enterprises, found that 44 percent of the 700 IT professionals surveyed
believe that individuals have too much access to information assets that
are not pertinent to their job descriptions either often or very often.
In addition, 69 percent indicated that access policies within their
organizations were enforced either poorly or not at all, and only 30
percent reported that their organizations make sure user access policies
The reasons for the failure in access management were varied; the survey
found organizations were unable to keep up with changes to users' roles,
with 55 percent stating that their company's ability to grant access
rights based on role and job function was poor or nonexistent. Forty-two
percent said granting access rights on that basis was not done at all.
"The principle of least-privilege access is a viable approach for
organizations to take, as it is the foundation of any access risk
management initiative," said Brian Cleary, vice president of marketing
at Aveksa. "Least-privilege access ensures that legitimate users have no
more access than the minimum required to do their jobs."
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