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Admin Rights: A Critical Vulnerability in Your Organization

Failing to manage admin rights can lead to severe security risks, data breaches, and operational hurdles.

"How does R2-D2 know who Ben Kenobi is? How does he decide to play the recording of Princess Leia for Ben, but not Luke? How does Princess Leia tell R2 her intentions? These three questions touch on fundamental issues of security: authentication, authorization, and usability."  

—Adam Shostack, Threats: What Every Engineer Should Learn From Star Wars

In the world of Star Wars, the answers to these questions are critical for the success of the characters' missions. In the world of enterprise security, the questions of authentication and authorization are equally important. Admin rights, which play a crucial role in authentication and authorization within an organization's IT infrastructure, allow users to perform tasks that would otherwise be restricted, such as installing software, managing network settings, and accessing sensitive data. However, the misuse of admin rights can lead to serious security breaches and data loss. 

As businesses grow increasingly reliant on technology, the risks associated with administrative privileges — popularly called “admin rights” — are becoming more and more significant. In 2020, a major US healthcare provider was hit by a ransomware attack that disrupted patient care and put sensitive medical data at risk. The attack was traced back to the Ryuk ransomware: the actors managed to gain privileged access to the system, as Windows OS supports privilege escalation for certain tasks.

In this blog, we’ll delve into the critical importance of managing admin rights effectively, the risks associated with failing to do so, and some best practices that should be employed.

Understanding Admin Rights

Admin rights are the highest level of permissions granted to a user, which allow them to access and control all areas of a computer or network, including sensitive data and system settings. Essentially, admin rights grant users the ability to perform tasks that are restricted to standard users. 

There are several types of admin rights commonly used in IT environments: 

  1. Local Admin Rights: These are granted to individual computers and allow a user to make changes to that specific computer. These changes can include installing software, changing system settings, and creating new user accounts. Local admin rights are typically granted to IT staff or power users who require elevated privileges to perform their job duties. 
  2. Domain Admin Rights: These are granted at the network level and provide users with control over multiple computers in a domain. This type of admin right allows a user to make changes that affect all computers on the network, such as installing software or changing network settings. Domain admin rights are typically granted to IT administrators who are responsible for managing the entire network. 
  3. Application Admin Rights: Some applications require specific admin rights to function properly. For example, an IT administrator may need to grant application admin rights to allow access to certain system resources or perform certain tasks. 
  4. Database Admin Rights: A user with database admin rights has full control over a database, including the ability to add, modify, or delete data, manage security settings, and perform backups and restores. 

The specific admin rights available in an organization may vary depending on the type of IT environment and the software and systems being used. Typically, admin rights are granted on a case-by-case basis. For example, an IT administrator may be granted local admin rights on their work computer, while a system administrator system administrator may be granted privileged access to manage an organization's workstations, servers, networks, etc. However, admin rights can also be granted on a more widespread basis, such as all employees in a specific department being granted local admin rights on their computers. 

The Risks of Admin Rights

Admin accounts with elevated privileges are commonly known as "keys to the kingdom" because they usually control access to sensitive, confidential, and proprietary information that is frequently targeted by hackers and unauthorized users.

All admin rights pose significant security risks to any company that leaves them unmanaged. Failing to manage admin rights can lead to severe security risks, data breaches, and operational hurdles — and IT administrator accounts are usually the most targeted by threat actors. A recent report revealed that 32% of enterprises experienced unauthorized access to cloud resources and another 19% were unaware if unauthorized access occurred. 

Security & Compliance Risks

  1. Malware Attacks: Malware can be introduced to a system through various methods such as phishing attacks, malicious emails, or infected software. If a user with admin rights unintentionally downloads malware, it can quickly spread throughout the network and cause significant damage. Once an attacker gains access to a system through an admin account, they can easily move laterally throughout the network and access sensitive data, causing widespread damage.
  2. Unauthorized Access: Admin rights provide users with access to sensitive data and system settings that are not available to standard users. If admin rights are not properly managed, unauthorized users may be granted access to information that they should not have. This can result in data breaches, theft of intellectual property, and unauthorized modifications to critical systems. This can lead to the exposure of confidential information or the modification or destruction of critical systems and data.
  3. Insider Threats: An employee with admin rights who has malicious intentions can cause significant harm to an organization, either intentionally or unintentionally. When admin rights are not managed with discretion, insider attacks can be exceedingly difficult to detect, and can cause significant damage to an organization.
  4. Lack of Accountability, Visibility, and Control: When employees across the board have admin privileges, it can be difficult to track who is making changes to critical systems, when such changes were made, and what exact changes were made. This lack of visibility and control can make it challenging to detect and respond to security incidents, or even maintain compliance with regulations and standards. This also makes it difficult to hold individuals accountable for their actions.
  5. Compliance Violations: Failure to manage admin rights properly can lead to compliance violations and result in hefty fines and legal penalties. For example, HIPAA requires organizations that handle protected health information (PHI) to implement administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic PHI. An employee with admin rights, who is not properly trained on information security, may inadvertently access, copy, or share PHI, which can result in serious compliance violations and penalties.

Operational & Productivity Risks

  1. Operational Obstacles: Poorly managed admin rights can introduce operational risks such as service disruptions, compatibility issues, software conflicts, and system downtime – due to a lack of standardization in the organization's systems and configurations. For example, if multiple users have admin rights, they may inadvertently make conflicting changes to system configurations or settings, which can cause systems to fail or behave unexpectedly. IT staff may need to spend significant amounts of time troubleshooting and fixing issues caused by unmanaged admin rights, which can take away from other critical tasks. All this adds up to a heavy impact on the bottom line.
  2. Productivity Loss: When employees have admin rights, they can install software and make changes to their computer without permission, which can cause conflicts and compatibility issues with the organization's software and systems, resulting in crashes and slow performance that affects work. Additionally, employees may use their admin rights to install games, social media apps, or other non-work-related software that can be a distraction and lead to decreased productivity. 
Best Practices for Admin Rights Management

It's important for businesses to understand the full scope of the risks associated with unmanaged and poorly managed admin rights and take steps to mitigate them. By implementing best practices for admin rights management, businesses can improve their security posture and reduce the risk of security breaches and other threats. 

A few best practices to keep in mind include:

  1. Principle of Least Privilege: The principle of least privilege is a crucial security concept in admin rights management. It means that users should only be given the minimum level of access necessary to do their job, and admin rights should only be granted on a need-to-know basis. By limiting the number of users with admin rights, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access and potential security breaches. 
  2. Regular Access Reviews: Regular access reviews are necessary to ensure that users still require the access they have been granted. Access reviews should be conducted regularly, such as quarterly or annually, and any unused or unnecessary admin rights should be revoked. 
  3. Role-Based Access Control: Role-based access control (RBAC) is an effective method for managing admin rights. Instead of granting admin rights to individual users, RBAC assigns rights based on job roles and responsibilities. This ensures that users only have access to the systems and data necessary to perform their job functions. Implementing user profiles instead of admin ones involves creating a standard user account for employees and reserving admin rights for a select few, such as system administrators. This can be done by using group policies or access controls to restrict access to certain features and functions. 
  4. Case-by-Case Management: Admin rights should be granted on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the employee's job duties and the potential risks and responsibilities involved. For example, an employee in the IT department may require admin rights to perform their job duties, while an employee in a different department may not. Organizations should also have policies and procedures in place to ensure that admin rights are regularly reviewed and revoked when no longer needed. This case-by-case management of admin rights can help minimize the risk of security breaches and compliance violations.
  5. Multi-Factor Authentication: Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an essential security measure for admin rights management. MFA requires users to provide two or more forms of authentication, such as a password and a biometric factor, before gaining access to a system. This adds an extra layer of security, making it more difficult for unauthorized users to gain access. 
  6. Employee Training and Awareness: Employee training and awareness is critical to the success of secure admin rights management. Employees should receive regular training on the organization's security policies and procedures, including how to identify and report suspicious activity. This helps employees understand the importance of security and their role in keeping the organization's data safe. 
  7. Continuous Monitoring and Auditing: Continuous monitoring and auditing of admin rights is essential to detect and prevent any unauthorized activity. Monitoring can be done through various methods, such as logs and alerts, and regular audits should be conducted to ensure that admin rights are being used appropriately.
How Evren Can Help

Evren is an operating system that has been specifically designed for improved security and streamlined, simplified IT management – with the principle of zero trust and least privilege at its core.

Evren offers a comprehensive set of tools and functionalities to help organizations strengthen their security posture. Among its features are integrated application control capabilities that allow for trust-based filtering and restriction of unauthorized applications from executing, thus ensuring only authorized access to network resources. 

With Privilege Access Management, Evren enables IT admins to control who has access to administrative privileges on their devices. Users do not have admin privileges, and the admin password is only available to the IT admin using the OS manager portal. The admin password is device-specific and only valid for 24 hours. This helps prevent unauthorized access and reduces the risk of insider threats. 

Further, Evren provides Advanced Device Management Solutions, which allow administrators to securely and remotely configure enrolled devices. Once a device is enrolled, administrators can update software and device settings, monitor compliance with organizational policies, remotely erase or lock devices, and install apps developed in-house. With Managed Bookmarks, administrators can set a list of bookmarks that must always be displayed on the user's browser, and they cannot modify it. This ensures that users have access to the latest documentation, company policies, and portal information at all times.

Proper management of administrative privileges is just the first step towards enhancing security, but it's a critical one, and Evren helps you simplify this process effortlessly. This and other with a range of other in-built security features allows Evren to help you preemptively mitigate advanced security risks and meet high-stakes compliance requirements.

To learn more about Evren’s capabilities and how they can help your organization stay one step ahead of threat actors, get in touch with us: https://www.evren.co/contact