Minimizing User Rights Can Increase Security

Minimizing user rights on a machine is a key part of security and risk management, and should be balanced with business continuity concerns.

Sometimes, less is more-at least when it comes to user rights and security.

Taking a least-privilege approach to user accounts is a key part of any in-depth defense strategy, many analysts and security pros say.

"I think it's very important ... not even just as [a component] of security, but in the broader sense [of] risk posed to the business in IT," said Scott Crawford, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "Nowhere is that more true than in a Windows environment where there [are] some things at least on the endpoint or simply can't do without administrative privilege."

In its defense, Microsoft has built the User Account Control feature into Windows Vista, allowing IT administrators to elevate their privilege for specific tasks and application functions while still running most applications, components and processes with a limited privilege. Other companies such as Symark Software and BeyondTrust also look to address the issue of least privilege with their software.

A least-privilege approach, some argue, ensures that users always log on with limited account privileges, and can be used to restrict the use of administrative credentials to certain individuals and for certain tasks, such as installing programs. Malware sometimes is written to exploit elevated privileges and thus spread more rapidly, offering businesses another reason to restrict privileges. However, doing so can affect business productivity, which makes some businesses wary.

"The loss of local administration rights [to] many companies seems a very burdensome prospect, because their internal software programming realm doesn't even think about operating their installations or running their processes under a minimal elevation of rights," said Spherion Senior Technical Architect Gilroy Freeth, who helped remove administrative rights on some 3,500 client machines for the National Nuclear Security Administration's site in Nevada.

"You set yourself [on a personal, home PC] as a local administrator because you know that installing an application isn't going to have an issue," Freeth continued. "You know that running an application isn't going to cause an issue. And that's why most people keep themselves local admin, and that culture is still in place in many corporate environments."

The doctrine of least privilege also extends to broad issues of information security, of course. A recent study by the Ponemon Institute and Aveksa, a vendor that specializes in access governance products for enterprises, found that 44 percent of the 700 IT professionals surveyed believe that individuals have too much access to information assets that are not pertinent to their job descriptions either often or very often. In addition, 69 percent indicated that access policies within their organizations were enforced either poorly or not at all, and only 30 percent reported that their organizations make sure user access policies are validated.

The reasons for the failure in access management were varied; the survey found organizations were unable to keep up with changes to users' roles, with 55 percent stating that their company's ability to grant access rights based on role and job function was poor or nonexistent. Forty-two percent said granting access rights on that basis was not done at all.

"The principle of least-privilege access is a viable approach for organizations to take, as it is the foundation of any access risk management initiative," said Brian Cleary, vice president of marketing at Aveksa. "Least-privilege access ensures that legitimate users have no more access than the minimum required to do their jobs."