What is Privileged Account ?

Privileged accounts are user accounts that have elevated access privileges to an organization’s systems and data. They include accounts like administrators, root, and service accounts. These accounts are highly sought after by attackers because compromising them provides broad access to the data and systems of privileged users.

Administrative accounts, or admin accounts, are user accounts with full administrative privileges to make changes to a system. They can install software, change system configurations, create or delete user accounts, and access sensitive data. Root accounts, common in Linux and Unix systems, have unlimited privileges. Service accounts are tied to specific applications and services, allowing them to start, stop, configure, and update services.

Because of their powerful capabilities, privileged accounts are considered a major security risk and require strong safeguards. If misused or compromised, they can inflict major damage.

Proper management of privileged accounts is a crucial part of an organization’s cyber securitystrategy. By implementing controls and monitoring these powerful accounts, you can reduce the risk of them being compromised and used to compromise your network.

Failing to properly manage privileged access is like leaving your doors unlocked—sooner or later, someone will get in. With dangerous cyber threats on the rise, privileged account security should be a top priority.

Types of Privileged Accounts

There are several types of privileged accounts that provide elevated access to systems and data. Understanding the differences between these account types is crucial for managing privileges and mitigating risks.

Domain Admins have full control over Active Directory and other directories and can access resources across an entire domain. These highly privileged accounts should be carefully monitored and secured.

Local Admins have elevated privilege rights on a single system or device. While their privileges are limited to that system, compromised local admin accounts can still enable an attacker to access sensitive data or install malware. Local admin access should be restricted whenever possible through the principle of least privilege.

Service Accounts are used by applications and services to access resources. These accounts typically have more privileges than a standard user and are often overlooked in privilege management programs. Service accounts should be audited regularly to ensure privileges are appropriate and accounts are properly secured.

Root accounts, also known as superusers, have unlimited privileges in Unix and Linux systems. Root access enables a user to fully control the system and should be strictly controlled. Users should only access the root account when necessary to perform administrative tasks.

Emergency Access Accounts, like firecall accounts, provide a last line of access in the event of an outage or disaster. These highly privileged accounts need to be secured and monitored closely due to the significant damage that could result from unauthorized use. Access should be granted only when an emergency situation arises.

Privileged accounts that are not properly managed pose a serious risk to organizations. Implementing least privilege and privilege separation, monitoring account activity, and requiring multi-factor authentication are crucial controls for securing privileged access. With vigilance and the right strategy, privileged accounts can be safely governed to support business operations.

The Risks of Unmanaged Privileged Accounts

Privileged accounts provide administrative access to critical systems and data, so they pose substantial risks if not properly managed. Unmanaged privileged accounts can lead to data breaches, cyber-attacks, and loss of sensitive information.

According to research, 80% of data breaches involve privileged account compromise. Privileged accounts like system administrators have unrestricted access to networks, servers, and databases. If compromised, they give attackers free rein to steal data, install malware, and wreak havoc.

Attackers often target privileged accounts through phishing emails with malicious attachments or links. Once an attacker gains access to a privileged account, they can move laterally within the network to find valuable data and cover their tracks. It can take organizations months or even years to detect a breach involving privileged account compromise.

Unmanaged privileged accounts also pose risks from within. Overly permissive access rights and a lack of control over privileged accounts enable malicious insiders to abuse their access for personal gain. Insider threats are difficult to detect since insiders have legitimate access to systems and their behavior may not seem suspicious.

To reduce risks from privileged accounts, organizations must implement privileged access management (PAM) controls and continuously monitor privileged account activity. PAM controls like multi-factor authentication (MFA), least privilege, and privileged session monitoring help organizations strengthen security, gain visibility, and facilitate compliance.

MFA adds an extra layer of security for privileged account logins. It requires not only a password but also a security token or biometric scan to log in. MFA protects against phishing attempts, brute force attacks, and unauthorized access.

The principle of least privilege limits privileged account access rights to only what is needed to perform job functions. It reduces the attack surface and limits the damage from compromised accounts or malicious insiders. Privileged roles and access are granted only for specific, limited purposes and time periods before expiring.

Privileged session monitoring records and audits privileged account activity to provide accountability and detect suspicious behavior. Monitoring can detect threats in real time and provide forensic evidence for investigations. Organizations should log and monitor all commands, keystrokes, and activity for privileged accounts.

To summarize, unmanaged privileged accounts pose major cybersecurity risks that can have devastating consequences. Implementing controls like MFA, least privilege, and monitoring is critical for managing privileged account risks. With strong PAM practices in place, organizations can gain visibility and control over their privileged accounts, reducing vulnerabilities and strengthening their security posture.

Best Practices for Securing Privileged Accounts

Securing privileged accounts is crucial for any organization. These accounts, like administrator, root, and service accounts, have elevated access and permissions, so protecting them should be a top priority. Failure to properly manage privileged accounts can have devastating consequences.

Least Privilege Access

The principle of least privilege means only granting users the minimum level of access needed to perform their jobs. For privileged accounts, this means only assigning elevated rights when absolutely necessary, and for limited periods of time. When admin access is no longer needed, permissions should be promptly revoked. This limits opportunities for accounts to be compromised and abused.

Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security for privileged accounts. It requires not only a password, but also another method of authentication like a security key, code sent to a mobile device, or biometric scan. MFA helps prevent unauthorized access even if a password is stolen. It should be enabled for all privileged accounts whenever possible.

Separate Accounts

Personal and privileged accounts should be separate. The same account should never be used for both normal and elevated access needs. Separate accounts allow for more granular permission assignment and auditing. Personal Internet usage and activities should also be kept completely separate from privileged accounts used for administrative tasks.

Monitoring and Auditing

All privileged account activity should be closely monitored to detect misuse or compromise as quickly as possible. Enable logging for all privileged accounts and review logs regularly. Monitor for anomalies like logins from unknown devices or locations, access during unusual hours, changes to security settings, or other suspicious behaviors. Audits provide visibility into how privileged accounts are being accessed and used over time.

Change Default Passwords

Default passwords for privileged accounts provide easy access for attackers and should be changed immediately. Require strong, unique passwords for all privileged accounts that follow standard complexity guidelines. Passwords should be routinely rotated, at least every 90 days. Reusing the same password for multiple privileged accounts should never be allowed.

Restrict Remote Access

Remote access to privileged accounts should be avoided when possible and heavily restricted when necessary. Require MFA for any remote logins and monitor them closely. Disable remote access completely for highly sensitive privileged accounts. On-premises access with a physical workstation is ideal for the most privileged accounts.

By following security best practices for privileged accounts, organizations can significantly reduce risks from compromised credentials and insider threats. Proper management and protection of privileged access is well worth the investment.

Solutions for Privileged Access Management

Privileged access management (PAM) solutions aim to control and monitor privileged accounts. These specialized accounts have elevated permissions that provide administrative access, allowing users to make changes that impact systems and data.

Access Control

PAM solutions implement access control policies that grant privileged access only when needed according to the principle of least privilege. This may involve restricting which users can access which privileged accounts and what those accounts can access. Solutions may use tools like password vaults, multi-factor authentication, and password rotation to secure privileged accounts when not in use.

Session Monitoring

PAM solutions monitor privileged sessions in real time to gain visibility into administrator activity. This deters malicious behavior and helps identify policy violations or areas where education is needed. Monitoring may capture details like keystrokes, screenshots, and session recordings. Analysts can then review these session details to detect anomalies and ensure compliance with security best practices.

Threat Detection

Some PAM solutions incorporate user behavior analytics and machine learning to detect threats targeting privileged accounts. By analyzing details from monitoring privileged sessions and access requests, the solutions can identify suspicious activity that may indicate account compromise or data exfiltration. They may detect threats like brute force attacks, privilege escalation, and lateral movement between systems.

Workflow Automation

PAM solutions can automate components of privileged access management to improve efficiency and scalability. They may automate processes such as access request approvals, password changes, and account reviews. Automation reduces the burden on IT staff and helps ensure consistent enforcement of security policies.

Reporting and Alerting

Effective PAM depends on understanding how privileged accounts are being used. PAM solutions provide reporting and alerting capabilities that offer visibility into privileged account activity. Reports may show details like who has accessed which accounts, policy violations, and threats detected. Alerts notify administrators of any urgent issues that require immediate action like account compromise or data theft.

In summary, privileged access management solutions help organizations gain control over their privileged accounts through access control, monitoring, threat detection, automation, and reporting. Implementing a PAM solution is a key step organizations can take to improve their cybersecurity posture and reduce risk.


As cyber threats become increasingly sophisticated, ensuring proper access control and monitoring of privileged accounts is critical for any organization. Privileged accounts, like administrator, root, and service accounts, have extended access and permissions within IT systems and networks. If compromised, they can be used to gain broad access to sensitive data and resources.

However, they are necessary for the routine management and maintenance of infrastructure and services. This article provides an overview of privileged accounts, why they are targets for cybercriminals, best practices for securing them, and strategies for monitoring them to detect potential misuse or compromise.

For cybersecurity professionals and IT managers, understanding privileged accounts and how to properly manage the risks associated with them is fundamental to building a robust security posture.