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According to a 2014 study from IBM and Ponemon, corporations pay an average $145 per record in a data breach

In Privilege We Trust: Locking Down Super-Users for Maximum Cybersecurity

Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is the lowest common denominator in today's most treacherous corporate and governmental security breaches. Or more accurately: Privilege Mismanagement. Sony, Target, Anthem, JP Morgan Chase, the city of San Francisco and many others succumbed to the reality that the identity of a single super-user account can be subverted for the purposes of manipulating sensitive organizational data, correspondence, commercial goods and intellectual property.

It's a numbers game. Think of the janitors who can open all the doors, or the card dealers who take in all the chips, or the bank tellers who process all the cash. These positions are analogous to IT administrators who, while they don't rank as high as the CEO in the organizational hierarchy, nonetheless hold the keys to the kingdom. So when a rogue government wants to find out who among their ranks is leaking information to foreign media, they don't hack individual human-rights reporters or their bosses. They hack the network and email administrators at whichever publications revealed the worst of their transgressions.

According to a 2014 study from IBM and Ponemon, corporations pay an average $145 per record in a data breach, with an average total cost of $3.5 million. The overall cleanup cost of breaches for some of the US's major retailers ranged from just over $4 million to more than $100 million. Lost revenue ranged from approximately $40 million to more than $1 billion. The study also revealed that more than 37 percent of data breaches involved a malicious or criminal attack; 35 percent concerned a negligent employee or contractor (the human factor); and 29 percent involved glitches that included both IT and business process failures.

Today's IT infrastructure is disjointed and scattered
One of the biggest challenges facing PIM is an increasingly decentralized IT infrastructure. The number of exposed surfaces has multiplied from the days of a single onsite server to now include cloud servers, mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) and offsite facilities such test labs and production centers. In fact, as more enterprises embrace the cloud, privileged accounts increasingly lie outside physical headquarters and belong both to internal IT and remote third parties such as contractors and vendors. Therefore it is no surprise that privileged accounts are easy and automatic targets for hackers and malicious insiders alike.

When it comes to securing all of the fragmented pieces of an enterprise network mosaic, challenges rise in four distinct pillars:

  1. Whereas in the past IT administrators operated under the radar for hackers, now they are prime targets
  2. Big Data and the decentralization of systems and infrastructure have vastly increased the scale of privileged accounts; they now span thousands of servers instead of one or two
  3. The consumerization of IT has spawned "Shadow IT," which has multiplied privileged accounts even further
  4. The number of people who actually merit privileged access has increased, due to outsourcing and third-party vendors; in many cases even core IT is outsourced to a third party

It's not just outsiders who have the potential to wreak havoc. Disgruntled insiders can cause damage as well. Consider the infamous case of San Francisco city employee Terry Childs, who was arrested after refusing to grant City Hall access to its own network. The system contained emails, payroll information, police records and a host of other sensitive data. Childs handed over passwords when his one condition was met, which was a private, jailhouse meeting with Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Complicating matters even further, not all insider threats are proactive. A 2014 data breach report from Verizon revealed that half of all IT vulnerabilities and security and operational issues were the result of user and administrator mistakes. In other words, accidental threats have the same potential as malicious ones to cause harm with data, infrastructure and reputations. More than ever, privileged accounts are central to the health and wellbeing of the enterprise and therefore must be carefully guarded.

Identity is the new perimeter
There is a solution to today's advanced threat landscape and it begins with a holistic, purpose-built platform that draws an impenetrable circle around every potential server and device. Identity is the new corporate perimeter, and its footprint extends far beyond a physical campus to encompass an amorphous, identity-activated entity in the cloud.

Legacy systems were built around the assumption that all privileged access would be on-premise. But today we live in a hybrid world where cloud infrastructure is preferred and where the cloud makes concessions for onsite systems, rather than the other way around. With the right cloud PIM system in place, enterprises can take advantage of benefits such as reduced upfront costs, flexible pay-as-you-go pricing and faster ROI. Perpetual licenses are expensive, difficult to deploy and totally anachronistic in today's service-based pricing atmosphere.

Furthermore, today's best PIM solutions not only offer a broad set of capabilities for identity consolidation, privilege management and privileged session auditing, they address security and audit requirements for the management of both cloud and onsite access to critical production systems and applications by employees and third parties - all without the hassle of a VPN.  The net result is increased security, improved compliance and comprehensive reporting and auditing.

The king's guard
For companies looking to gain maximum control over their network, PIM is paramount. Privileged accounts merit an extra layer of security over normal accounts and require constant attention to ensure they're not being violated. No CEO wants to find him- or herself in the same place as leaders at Target and Anthem, and no CIO wants a breach of that magnitude on their record. Now they have an elite guard to protect them.

More Stories By Tom Kemp

Tom Kemp is co-founder and chief executive officer at Centrify. Under his leadership, the company has become one of the fastest growing security vendors in the industry with over 5,000 customers, including nearly half of the Fortune 50.

Prior to Centrify, Kemp held various executive, technical and marketing roles at NetIQ Corporation, Compuware Corporation, EcoSystems Software, and Oracle Corporation. Mr. Kemp was also an Entrepreneur in Residence at leading venture capital firm Mayfield.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and History from the University of Michigan.

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