What is Privilege Creep?


According to Gartner’s top 7 cybersecurity trends, 60% of employees in today’s organizations work remotely. 

As they work remotely, these employees need access to company networks to do their jobs from home. However, this increases a company’s attack surface, meaning that hackers have more opportunities to exploit corporate networks through remote employees. 

Attack surfaces include public clouds, collaboration applications, and other interconnected systems. Businesses often lose track of who has the right permissions to access their networks. This leads to privilege creep, which is a serious cybersecurity risk as explained in this guide.

Defining privilege creep 

To understand the meaning of privilege creep, it is important we define what a privilege means in the context of cybersecurity.

A privilege is the ability to access and make changes to a computing system, application, or network. It allows specific users to make such changes, e.g., installing software or shutting systems down.

Privilege creep means that users can access more network resources than they actually need to perform their jobs. It is also called access creep or privilege sprawl, and it occurs gradually over time. Employees that have excess privileges can view sensitive data and potentially modify systems. This presents cybersecurity risks in two ways: 

  • Malicious actors may hack and take over employees’ accounts then infiltrate systems
  • Disgruntled employees may misuse their access for revenge.

In these scenarios, it means your business is at the mercy of whoever has the most privileges to your applications and networks. Should a data breach occur, the consequences can be far-reaching and more damaging.

Causes of privilege creep

Privilege creep often begins with harmless business activities, where new permissions are granted but previous ones remain intact. 

For example, an employee can get promoted and receive access to the company’s trade secrets. But if the employee leaves the organization, all their privileges must be revoked at all levels to safeguard the company’s secrets.

These are the most common causes of privilege creep: 

1. Third-party vendors

Businesses partner with third-party vendors for various services, e.g., compliance audits and system upgrades.

These vendors need to access company networks and data, so they receive fresh credentials for the duration of their consultation. These credentials must be revoked once the vendors complete their work within the organization. Otherwise, the vendors will have too much access into a business, which may be exploited by bad actors. 

For example, vendors who retain access could share their credentials to competitors or other subcontractors. They could also download confidential business data like employee records. In a worst-case scenario, third parties may install malware themselves or give away the data to malicious actors.

2. Managers being negligent with permissions

Managers can give away their login credentials and passwords to junior employees to avoid consulting with their IT department. 

Let’s say an employee needs specific documents or reports for a project. The employee’s direct manager, pressed for time, will find it convenient to share their permission as a shortcut. 

Often, managers can also grant permissions to employees and then forget to revoke access afterward. This may expose sensitive information to unauthorized users.

3. Short-term projects

Businesses can undertake brief but critical projects that require changes in network and system access, such as: 

  • Digital transformations: Migrating data to the cloud may grant access to employees to use cloud services and tools.
  • Rebranding: Employees may require access to company assets like logos, color schemes, jingles, fonts, and other essential marketing materials.
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs): Creating SOPs requires access to data from various departments that users may not normally be allowed to view.

Privilege creep can arise when these permissions are not revoked upon completing the project. This leads to employees having excess privileges that could be exploited by hackers. 

4. Employees switching roles without updating permissions

Certain platforms enable users to switch roles temporarily to utilize different types of network resources.

For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) allows users to choose roles that expire within an hour, after which the user is automatically logged off the system.

If you are a small business, you might want to assess whether AWS is a right fit for you. We have a resource that discusses this in detail — is AWS beneficial for a small business? 

Role switching is necessary to access project files or test applications. IT administrators are responsible for monitoring these temporary roles and permissions. Otherwise, switching access can expose sensitive business data to unauthorized users.

5. Employees filling in for each other

There are several ways that employees can be temporarily absent from work, such as:

  • Personal leave for family emergencies, bereavement, or other personal matters
  • Sick leave due to injury or illness
  • Jury duty to participate in court proceedings
  • Voting leave to cast ballots in local, state, or national elections, etc. 

In these cases, the absent employee’s role must be filled by others in the organization. This means granting the absentee’s permissions to other users. Privilege creep can happen when the employee returns back to work but their permissions are still granted to colleagues. 

From a cybersecurity standpoint, this is a considerable risk to a company’s sensitive data. Let’s say a salesperson has access to financial data because of filling in for an accountant. If the salesperson’s credentials were compromised, hackers would get direct access to financial data. That’s why privileges must be revoked when absent employees return to work.

The critical risks of privilege creep

According to a Forbes article by former contributor Louis Columbus, 74% of all data breaches begin with an abuse of credentials, such as:

  • Contractor abuse: If a company mistreats or exploits third-party vendors, the vendors may use their credentials to cause harm to the organization for revenge. 
  • Data exfiltration: Employees may deliberately leak or expose business data for personal or political reasons, causing serious damage to an organization.

In addition to these problems, privilege creep exposes an organization to the following risks:

1. Insider threats 

Insider threats can be accidental or deliberate, where authorized users abuse or misuse their privileges. These users could be employees, business partners, vendors, or contractors.

Malicious insiders could steal data, sabotage systems, or sell confidential data to competitors. Unintentional threats occur when employees mishandle sensitive data, fall victim to phishing, or use weak passwords in their credentials. Both kinds of insider threats put the company’s security in serious danger.

2. Non-compliance 

Access control is a major part of regulatory compliance across industries. Some examples include: 

  • Access logs: Companies must log each time a user logs into their networks, what they accessed, and from where. This creates a clear audit trail for sensitive data. 
  • Restricting access: Businesses must allow only authorized users to view and modify sensitive data. 
  • Security protocols: Regulators require businesses to implement password policies, biometrics, and multi-factor authentication (MFA) to restrict access to their data. 

All these apply to the following regulations: 

In this context, privilege creep means a direct violation of these compliance requirements. It means there is failure to audit and adjust access to data. Noncompliance leads to financial penalties and impacts customer trust in a business. It can also attract legal action against a business in the aftermath of a data breach.

Also read: What is Cybersecurity Insurance and Why is it Important?

3. Increased attack surface 

Users with unnecessary or excess permissions are the weakest link in cybersecurity. The greater the number of such users, the more opportunities for bad actors to exploit the organization. 

Cybercriminals always seek to get the deepest access into their target’s networks because that’s where the most valuable data lies. If they get this data through privilege creep, they can cause tremendous damage in terms of financial losses, reputational damage, and disrupted operations.

How to prevent privilege creep 

It is clear that privilege creep is a major concern for businesses today. But with the right policies and tools, privilege creep is preventable. You can manage privileges with the following solutions:

1. The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP)

The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) is a cybersecurity best practice. It ensures that users have access to the bare minimum IT resources they need for their tasks. It also means that users have only essential permissions, rather than broad-sweeping or universal access to an organization’s IT infrastructure. With POLP, employees use company resources on a need-to-know basis.

Some examples of least privilege:

  • Adding security controls to a search database to prevent accidentally exposing sensitive data
  • Changing default passwords for guest accounts
  • Setting expiring credentials for outsourced vendors
  • Safeguarding application programming interfaces (APIs) from accessing sensitive data in the back-end. 

POLP tools ensure that there are no permissions that are out of date, and that nobody gets full-time access to systems. This limits privilege creep significantly because all permissions are monitored continuously.

2. Identity Governance and Administration (IGA)

An Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) tool helps to automate privileges in an enterprise. It works as a safeguard against insider threats, whether deliberate or accidental. 

According to the 2019 Insider Threat Report by Core Security, 50% of businesses considered IGA the most effective tool to prevent insider threats. About 75% of businesses also saw a decrease in unauthorized access when they implemented IGA tools. 

Automating privilege provisions lets you avoid the manual assigning of permissions or making bulk approvals. IT administrators can keep up with changes in staff, departments, and projects. 

3. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a method of restricting access to a network based on each person’s role in a business. Roles can be based on the seniority level of the employees, their departments, and their job descriptions. 

For example, managers receive more privileges to company data than new hires. Similarly, the members of an accounting department can have access to the company’s finance software, but not marketing teams. Employees only view and modify information they need for their duties.

The right RBAC tool can help to apply new permissions automatically for new and promoted employees. It can also apply changes to privileges across an organization, making it useful for companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.

4. Identity and Access Management (IAM)

An Identity and Access Management (IAM) tool safeguards a company’s resources like databases, applications, and emails. Only verified users can access these resources to perform their tasks.

With IAM, you can keep an updated record of all users, including: 

  • Employee names
  • Job titles 
  • Mobile phone numbers
  • Personal email addresses, etc.

The IAM system then matches a user’s login credentials to this database for authentication. If there is a mismatch between the credentials and the identity database, access is denied.

IAM also monitors which resources the authenticated users will access in their sessions. It ensures that users can read or modify data that is suitable for their job title, project type, and clearance level.

IAM is a critical tool for preventing sophisticated cybersecurity threats. Even when hackers manage to access an employee’s login credentials through fraudulent means, they still cannot log into company systems without further authentication.

For example, multi factor authentication (MFA) means that the hacker will need the victim’s phone to retrieve the one-time passkey, which expires within minutes. The MFA system also restricts multiple login requests, requiring the malicious actor to wait several hours before attempting again. This puts additional protections in case employees are targeted through.

Go big on automation to strengthen protection against privilege creep

A report published on Statista indicates that in 2021 alone, 74% of businesses had embraced cloud infrastructure like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services. This number increased rapidly due to the Covid-19 pandemic as companies adjusted to remote work. 

Businesses now rely on multiple software for remote and hybrid teams to secure business data and maintain operations. Different software and users require permissions to access company data. 

Unfortunately, it’s easy to struggle to keep up with changing access requirements as the business grows, or when employees change roles or leave the organization. This leads to privilege creep, particularly in companies that have IT budget limitations.

An automated privilege access management (PAM) system can firm up the war on privilege creep. It quickly identifies every employee’s permissions and updates them automatically if roles change. It can track which resources each employee uses and detect anomalies in their access patterns. It also resolves access issues such as overlapping roles and inadvertent errors. 

What’s more, a PAM tool can be cost-effective and efficient, which solves the issue of limited resources.

For overall automation across the IT infrastructure, please check this guide on automating IT processes.

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