Managing the risk of privileged accounts and privileged passwords in government agencies

 

Reduce risk while streamlining administrative workflows

 

 

 

We’ve come a long way to enhance authentication in our enterprises. Many organizations are taking strong steps to ensure users and administrators alike are who we think they are. Many organizations have implemented two-factor authentication to add a level of trust, but even when two-factor authentication is in place, we must still deal with passwords: service account passwords, local account passwords, Windows local administrator passwords and Unix/Linux root account passwords. Managing them in a way that meets requirements can be a tedious full-time job and can make even a simple job, such as applying a hotfix, a complex, multi-step process that introduces far too much risk.

With One Identity Safeguard, managing privileged passwords is easy and far more secure. This white paper explains how.

 

 

Introduction

 

Even with two-factor authentication in place, passwords still present challenges.

 

Organizations have come a long way with authentication. Instead of allowing users to authenticate with just user names and passwords, many organizations have implemented some form of two-factor authentication. There’s no question this significantly reduces the vulnerable user and even administrator accounts to password attacks. When these steps are taken the attack surface is significantly reduced, but not eliminated. With every enterprise comes several accounts that remain vulnerable to password attacks. These accounts exist on nearly every system in the enterprise.

 

All IT environments are full of service accounts and local accounts that are tightly woven into the functions of applications. Service accounts are used for applications that need to authenticate against either a domain or a local identity repository. These accounts may or may not be assigned any special permissions, but they authenticate with just a password. In addition, all Windows operating systems (servers and workstations) have a local administrator account and other local accounts, and platforms such as Red Hat Linux, Ubuntu, Fedora, Solaris, HP-UX and even Macs have root accounts. All of these accounts have passwords.

Passwords exist in just about every environment. Some of them are buried in appliances or built into operating systems. These accounts and their passwords have been treated as incurring an acceptable level of risk, but that risk is becoming more and more difficult to accept. After all, we’re really just hoping:

Hoping the people that know or have access to these passwords are honorable and will protect the passwords. Hoping that when they leave the organization, they magically erase the passwords from their memory. Hoping they change the passwords at the required intervals to meet compliance requirements. Hoping they use these accounts only for the purposes intended.

 

Managing passwords to meet requirements is a tedious and time- consuming job — but doing it right is critical to business continuity.

 

Some organizations have delegated the management of service and administrative account passwords to a security team or even a single person. But these passwords must often meet specific requirements. Maintaining compliance can require turning a highly trained security engineer into a full-time passwordresetter.

Why? When a service account password is reset in a typical Active Directory environment, it must also be entered everywhere the service is running; otherwise, the next time that service restarts, it will fail — which could affect hundreds of servers, cause an application outage and seriously hurt productivity. Most admins are accustomed to this problem and know that when a service account fails, they need to retrieve the password and reset it on the service to get the application going again. The larger the enterprise, the more pain this will cause. And, unfortunately, this task can be the first one overlooked in the heat of an application failure.

 

The traditional way to manage privileged passwords

Just applying a single hotfix is a multi- step process.

 

 

In an organization that puts some level of control around these privileged passwords, the daily life of an admin can get somewhat complicated. For example, suppose that in my organization, all passwords are managed by the security/auditing department. As an administrator, I need to apply a hotfix to an application, but this hotfix must be applied while I am logged on with the service account. Let’s look at all the steps required for this seemingly simple task:

 

1. I need to submit a request to the security/ auditing department to justify my need for the password and the timeframe when I plan to use it.
2. A security auditor will consider my request.
3. Upon approval, the auditor will open a safe, retrieve the password and communicate it to me.
4. Now that I have the password, I can log on to the server running the application with the service account. I can then apply my hotfix (and do anything else I want to).
5. When I complete my task, I will notify the auditor.
The auditor will (or should):
6. Change the password in Active Directory.
7. Connect to each server where the service is running and enter the new password on the running service.
8. Document the new password and lock it back in the safe.
Finally, the job of applying the hotfix is complete!

This may seem like a tedious process, but it’s (close to) the right way to do business. These are common procedures, and for the most part, they provide a slightly better security posture than sharing the passwords between admins.

 

 

The problems with the traditional process

 

Of course, there are huge holes in this process:

 

• The workload and time required to perform these functions — Security auditors are some of the most highly skilled people we have. Do we really want to burn hours of their day resetting passwords?

• Risk of application downtime — If the auditor changes the password but fails to enter it on any one of the servers where the service runs, the service will fail.

• Too much power — A second problem is that the auditor — who is tasked with meeting compliance requirements and keeping the network running — has no idea what the admin did with that password while he had it. All the auditor can hope is that the admin had honorable intentions.

• Lack of visibility and accountability — Probably the most serious problem is all the unknowns. In this scenario, the security auditor has access to the password. If something malicious is done with the account, we have to look to the people who might know the password. Most auditors would not want to be in that position. Moreover, if more than one person has access to the password, auditing is an exercise in futility.

 

 

 

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The solution: One Identity Safeguard

 

One Identity Safeguard makes managing privileged passwords easier and far more secure. For example, the process of applying my hotfix using a service account now looks like this:

1. I open a browser and connect to a web user interface (UI) or I can use my Safeguard desktop client and I authenticate with my smart card or other multi-factor system. I look for the service account password I need and request it with a few clicks.

2. A security auditor receives an email saying I have requested the service account, reviews my brief justification and approves the request.

3. When I receive notification that my request was approved, I reconnect back to the web UI or use my Safeguard desktop client, and I am allowed to check out the password for the time specified. I can then log on to the server and do my administration.

4. When I’m done, I check in the password. Safeguard will automatically:

• Initiate a password change to a randomly generated password based on an organization policy (for example, a password that has 30 characters, including eight uppercase, eight lowercase and seven special characters).

• Change the password everywhere the service is running to make sure enterprise applications continue to operate.

 

 

Stepping beyond password control

 

The next logical step in privileged password management is taking the passwords out of the picture or having them completely obscured from all persons. One Identity Safeguard provides the ability to give the admins the sessions they need, logged in as the privileged account, only when they need it. Adding the session management capability allows the admin to request the privileges and use them without actually seeing any passwords, and with Safeguard they can use the same method of access they have always used – security and convenience rolled into one solution.

 

Benefits

 

The advantages of this process are significant:

 

• Time savings — One Identity Safeguard streamlines the workflow for requesting and approving the use of a privileged password, saving valuable time.

• Business continuity — One Identity Safeguard automatically resets the password and changes it everywhere it is required, eliminating the risk of application failure due to password issues.

• Real-time visibility and accountability — The security auditor can decide my justification is valid but want to audit my actions while I have access. Instead of allowing me to check out the password, he or she can simply grant my session directly to the server. I will receive notification my session request has been approved.

• Auditing — When I wrap up my work, I simply log out of my session. The security auditor then has the option to review my work through a DVRlike playback. • Security — If the auditor grants my session directly to the server, I won’t even need to know the password for the service account.

 

Conclusion

 

One Identity solutions for privileged accounts reduce the risk of improper use of administrative and service accounts through tightly controlled access rules — and at the same time, they significantly reduce the manual effort required to manage these privileged identities. Dell’s end-to-end security solutions ensure that your users, applications, critical data and mission are protected against internal threats — giving you the power to do more.