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Six ways to apply the principle of least privilege to your Active Directory

Six ways to apply the principle of least privilege to your Active Directory
Unlock the power of least privilege in Active Directory with these six essential steps. Strengthen security and reduce risks effectively.

The principle of least privilege is simple but important: it states that users only have the minimum access necessary to perform their job. For organizations using Active Directory (over 90% of the Fortune 100), this means the minimum necessary permissions to access resources such as file shares, printers, and applications. The approach helps reduce an organization’s attack surface and prevents accidental or intentional misuse of sensitive information.

In organizations where security is not prioritized over simplified administration, users receive more permissions than needed as this is the easy way to provision user accounts and minimize the troubleshooting of security permissions. However, this means that if an attacker compromises any user’s account, they’ll have wide-ranging access within the organization and be free to move laterally between different systems and applications. This can lead to a situation where an attacker could pick up admin-level permissons by phishing a new joiner in a junior position.

If an organization is putting the principle of least privilege into practice, less damage can be done from a compromised account or by a potential malicious insider – buying precious time is bought for security to act.

We’ll walk you through the following key areas to consider when implementing least privilege access in Active Directory.

  1. Role-based Access Control

  2. Group Policy Objects

  3. Password Policies

  4. User permissions

  5. Adding users to appropriate groups

  6. Auditing and reporting

Six steps to effectively enforce least privilege

1. Role-based access control (RBAC)

Role-based Access Control (RBAC) is an excellent way to align your organization with the best practice methodology of least privilege. With RBAC, you create a role for a particular type of user based on their job duties. In Active Directory, it generally equates to creating groups that have specific permissions assigned, and adding the users who need those permissions to the groups.

RBAC and least privilege go hand in hand. For example, you could create a security group for HR, a security group for IT, and so on. You would grant members of the HR department access to HR-related resources while denying access to members of other departments, and the case is similar to other groups and departments. This way, you can ensure that users only have the minimum necessary permissions to access the resources they need to perform their job responsibilities.

2. Group policy objects (GPOs)

Group policy objects (GPOs) are powerful components for restricting access and controlling configuration settings. GPOs are a feature of AD that allows you to manage security settings and configurations for a group of computers or users. For example, you can use GPOs to enforce password policies (such as length, complexity, and periodic password changes), restrict access to specific resources (such as sensitive files shares or applications), and enforce security settings on workstations and servers.

By using GPOs in conjunction with RBAC, you can ensure that users only have the minimum necessary permissions to access the resources they need to perform their job responsibilities.

3. Password policies

Password policies are a crucial aspect of securing user accounts. With Active Directory password policies, organizations can enforce password requirements. The Active Directory password policies included with Group Policy are essential, allowing admins to set password length and complexity requirements. However, with native Active Directory password policies, you can’t prevent incremental passwords or breached passwords in the environment.

Active Directory password policies are an important aspect of overall security in conjunction with least privilege access. Strong password policies can include passphrases, and the prohibition of common and breached passwords.

active directory group policy password policies
Strengthen your organization's security with Active Directory Group Policy and robust password policies. Protect your data with best practices

Active Directory Group Policy password policies

4. User permissions

User permissions go hand in hand with least privilege access and are essential to Active Directory security. Least privilege access uses Active Directory permissions to ensure users only have the minimum necessary permissions to access the resources they need to perform their job responsibilities. Admins can enforce least privilege access by assigning permissions to security groups and then assigning the security groups to the required resources.

5. Adding users to the appropriate groups

Regular auditing of users and user permissions is integral to good security hygiene. Continuous auditing can help to prevent “permissions creep,” where users may have additional permissions assigned to their accounts. Admins and SecOps must continually audit user permissions in the environment and ensure users have least privilege access.

It also means there need to be onboarding and offboarding processes to effectively disable and remove users from groups after leaving the company. In addition, when a user’s role in the company changes, permissions and role-based access controls should also change.

acitive directory security group
Safeguard your organization's data with Active Directory security groups. Take control of access and protect sensitive information.

Active Directory security group

In addition to auditing standard accounts, privileged administrator accounts should continually be monitored and audited for the appropriate permissions in the environment. Admin accounts could do the most damage if compromised so need special attention paying to them.

6. Auditing and Reporting

Auditing and reporting can bolster role-based access control and the principle of least privilege. Audit logs and reports should be reviewed to identify potential security issues, such as unauthorized access to sensitive resources. Active Directory has built-in auditing for successful and failed logons, file access, and password changes. Again, admin accounts should be closely audited for any suspicious behavior or signs of comrpromise.

Specops Password Policy

While Active Directory contains many excellent capabilities and features allowing organizations to align with least privilege best practices, it can be lacking in the realm of password policies and password auditing. Specops Password Policy is a powerful tool allowing companies to extend the native password policy capabilities found in Active Directory and provide a better solution to protect users and privileged accounts.

In addition to bolstering password security using the Specops Password Policy solution, a newly added feature with the December 2022 update helps to support least privilege access in the environment for those using the Specops platform.

In the latest release of Specops Password Policy, a new Specops Password Policy Admins security group has been introduced. Admins can now add users to this group to administrate most password policy settings without elevating user privileges to domain administrators.

Active directory roles screen
Streamline user access and bolster security with Active Directory roles. Efficiently manage permissions and minimize risks.

Specops Password Policy helps organizations align with least privilege access with the latest release

Organizations with large teams that need to share in password policy administration activities can take advantage of this new group with the Specops Password Policy solution and better align with least privilege security best practices.

Specops Password Policy provides the tools needed to secure your Active Directory passwords and align password policy administration with least privilege best practices.

Author: Marcus White, Specops cybersecurity specialist


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