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What is Privileged Access Management (PAM)?

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As businesses and organizations use information more, it’s very important to protect data and systems. PAM is a strategic solution that safeguards against unauthorized access and breaches of data. This blog explores privileged access management, explaining its importance, implementation, and best practices.

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What is Privileged Access Management?

Privileged access management (PAM) is about controlling and monitoring privileged users’ access to an organization’s IT environment using security practices and technologies. People with higher access rights, like administrators and system engineers, are privileged users. They can do important tasks and make big changes to IT systems and networks.

PAM aims to enhance security and cut the risks associated with privileged accounts. It ensures that privileged access is only given when necessary.

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Significance of PAM

We need privileged access management for the following reasons:

  • To Protect Sensitive Data: Some accounts have access to important data like finances, customer records, and ideas. If someone compromises these accounts, they could steal this data or use it to commit fraud.
  • To Prevent Unauthorized Access to Systems and Applications: Privileged accounts can access any system or application in an organization. If these accounts are not properly managed, an attacker could use them to gain access to critical systems and data.
  • To Reduce the Risk of Data Breaches: Data breaches are a major threat to organizations of all sizes. To prevent data breaches, privileged access management restricts access to sensitive data and monitors privileged account activity.
  • To Follow Regulations: Organizations must protect sensitive data under regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX). Privileged access management can help organizations comply with these regulations.

If you want to make your organization’s security better, you should think about using PAM.

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How Does Privileged Access Management Work?

A privileged access management solution finds and sets the rules for who needs special access. Your PAM solution should support the policies you set, like automated password management and multifactor authentication. Administrators should be able to automate creating, changing, and deleting accounts. Your PAM solution should always watch sessions to create reports that find and study abnormalities.

Privileged access management has two main uses: stopping credential theft and meeting compliance requirements.

Credential theft occurs when a threat actor steals login information to gain access to a user’s account. Once logged in, they can access company data, install malware on devices, and infiltrate higher-level systems. A PAM solution can lower risk by limiting access to admin identities and accounts. It also adds an extra layer of security with multifactor authentication.

Meeting compliance requirements is another main use of privileged access management. No matter what rules your organization follows you need a least-privilege policy. This policy keeps important data, like payments or health information, safe. A PAM solution helps you show compliance by making reports of privileged user activity. The reports show who is accessing the data and why.

We can also use it to automate the user lifecycle. This includes creating, providing, and removing accounts. We can also watch and save important accounts, protect remote entry, and manage outside entry. 

Misusing privileged access can damage any organization’s cybersecurity. A PAM solution offers robust features to help you stay ahead of this risk:

  • Provides just-in-time access to critical resources
  • Allows secure remote access using encrypted gateways instead of passwords
  • Monitors privileged sessions to support investigative audits
  • Analyzes unusual privileged activity that might be harmful to your organization
  • Captures privileged account events for compliance audits
  • Generates reports on privileged user access and activity
  • Protects DevOps with integrated password security

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Types of Privileged Accounts

To keep things secure, most non-IT users should only have standard user accounts. However, some IT employees may need multiple accounts. For everyday jobs, they use a regular user account. For administrative tasks, they use a superuser account.

Examples of Privileged Accounts in an Organization:

  • Local administrative accounts are non-personal accounts that give administrative access only to the local host or instance.
  • Administrative accounts for the domain have privileged access to all workstations and servers.
  • Break glass accounts, also known as emergency or firecall accounts, allow non-admin users to access secure systems during emergencies.
  • Service accounts are special accounts used by applications or services to interact with the operating system. They can be local or domain accounts and have extra privileges.
  • Active directory or domain service accounts enable password changes to accounts.
  • Applications use application accounts to access databases, run batch jobs or scripts, or provide access to other applications.

More and more, privileged accounts are linked to a machine identity, not a human one. IT environments become more complex to secure when there are many machine accounts, such as those used in robotic process automation (RPA) and other automated workflows. This is an important reason to use PAM systems.

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What are Privileged Credentials?

Privileged credentials, or privileged passwords, are special credentials that allow more access to accounts, applications, and systems. Humans, applications, service accounts, and more can associate privileged passwords. SSH keys are a certain type of special password that companies use to get into important servers and access sensitive information.

In DevOps environments, people often refer to privileged credentials as “secrets.”

Superuser passwords are like keys that give the user access to important systems and data. These privileges have a lot of power, making them attractive to insiders and hackers for abuse. Forrester Research found that 80% of security breaches happen because of privileged credentials.

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Organizations use PAM and PIM (privileged identity management) to protect important accounts with special access. But there are some key differences between the two. PAM looks after the security of important accounts. PIM focuses on user identities.

Here is a table summarizing the key differences between PAM and PIM:

FocusSecurity of privileged accountsIdentities of users who are granted access to privileged accounts
GoalsTo protect privileged accounts from unauthorized access and misuseTo ensure that only authorized users have access to privileged accounts
Typical FeaturesPassword management, session management, privileged password rotation, and privileged access auditingRole-based access control, least privilege, user provisioning, and user de-provisioning
BenefitsReduced risk of data breaches, improved compliance, increased efficiency, and improved visibility and controlImproved security posture, reduced risk of identity theft, and improved compliance

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Privileged Access Management Best Practices

PAM is important for keeping organizations’ sensitive systems and data secure. Here are some best practices to help you install an effective PAM strategy:

  1. Inventory and Identify Privileged Accounts: Begin by finding all the special accounts in your organization. This includes accounts that have control over systems, applications, and databases.
  2. Least Privilege Principle: Users and systems should only have the least access needed to do their tasks (Principle of Least Privilege).
  3. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Assign roles and responsibilities to users and grant permissions based on their job functions. This helps reduce the risk of excessive privileges.
  4. Segregation of Duties (SoD): To make things simpler, don’t let one person or role have conflicting duties, like approving and reviewing transactions. Implement policies to prevent this.
  5. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implement MFA for all privileged accounts. This adds an extra layer of security to prevent unauthorized access.
  6. Password Management:
    1. Require strong, unique passwords for privileged accounts
    2. Implement password rotation policies and regularly update credentials
    3. Use a password vault or management tool to securely store and retrieve passwords
  7. Session Recording and Monitoring:
    1. Record all sessions involving privileged access, including keystrokes and commands.
    2. Keep an eye on these sessions for any strange activities. Set up alerts for possible security breaches.
  8. Privilege Elevation: Users should only request elevated access when needed and for a limited time.
  9. Access Reviews and Recertification: Regularly review and recertify access privileges to ensure they are still necessary and appropriate.
  10. Audit and Logging: Make sure to log all privileged access events and check the logs for unusual or unauthorized activities.
  11. Automation and Orchestration: Automate repetitive PAM tasks, such as access provisioning and de-provisioning, to reduce the risk of human errors.
  12. Emergency Access Procedures: We need clear rules for emergency access. It should only happen when absolutely needed and carefully controlled.
  13.  Training and Awareness:
    1. Educate employees and privileged users about PAM policies and best practices.
    2. Foster a culture of security awareness within the organization.
  14.  Incident Response Plan: Develop a solid plan for handling incidents, such as breaches or unauthorized access to important accounts.
  15.  Regular Audits and Assessments: Regularly assess and audit your PAM system to find weaknesses and areas to improve security.
  16.  Vendor and Third-Party Access: Extend PAM practices to third-party vendors who have privileged access to your systems.
  17.  Integration with SIEM and Security Tools: Integrate PAM solutions with your SIEM and other security tools to improve threat detection and response.
  18.  Continuous Improvement: PAM is an ongoing process. Keep assessing and enhancing your PAM plan as your organization grows and new risks arise.
  19.  Documentation: Maintain clear and up-to-date documentation of your PAM policies, procedures, and configurations.
  20.  Legal and Compliance Considerations: Make sure your PAM strategy follows the law, like GDPR, HIPAA, or industry rules.

To improve your organization’s security, follow these tips for better privileged access. This will reduce the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches. Keep in mind that PAM should be an integral part of your overall cybersecurity strategy.

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How is PAM Implemented?

Organizations that are new to manual PAM processes find it challenging to manage privilege risks. Automated PAM solutions are strong and can manage numerous accounts and users for enhanced security. The solutions automate management, discovery, and monitoring to close gaps in credential coverage/privileged accounts. They also streamline workflows to lower administrative complexity.

By using mature and automated privilege management, an organization can reduce risk, enhance performance, and mitigate attacks by condensing the attack surface.

PAM solutions can be integrated into one platform to manage privileged access. They can also be assisted by separate solutions for different use classes. PAM solutions are usually organized into the following disciplines:

Privileged Account and Session Management (PASM): These solutions usually consist of password management and session management components for privileged accounts.

Privileged password management keeps all accounts and assets safe by centralizing the onboarding, discovery, and running of important passwords. Managing and securing passwords between applications and databases is crucial in application-to-application password management (AAPM). This involves taking out credentials from code, keeping them safe, and following best practices for privileged credentials. CI/CD workflows and DevOps can use PASM solutions or standalone tools for managing secrets.

Privileged Session Management (PSM): It means keeping track of and controlling all sessions for systems, applications, users, and services with higher permissions and access. PSM provides advanced supervision and control to safeguard the environment from insider threats and external attacks. It also preserves crucial forensic data needed for regulations.

Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management (PEDM): PEDM is not the same as PASM, which is about managing privileged access and sessions. PEDM improves endpoint security in a more detailed way. PEDM does not provide continuous privileged access. Instead, it uses precise controls for each case. This method enhances security by applying specific privileges when required. 

An EPM solution does everything in one place and provides detailed observation and reporting for privileged access. Distinct tools can merge or segment these capabilities, catering to different aspects, including:

1. Endpoint Least Privilege Management:

This category includes enforcing the least privilege, which means both raising and sharing privileges. These controls apply to Mac and Windows devices, including desktops, laptops, and similar platforms.

2. Server and Infrastructure Privilege Management:

These solutions help organizations set access permissions for Linux, Unix, and Windows servers. They also define what actions can be taken with that access. Besides, these solutions could also include managing privileges for network devices and important OT and SCADA systems. File integrity monitoring helps protect important files and systems from unauthorized changes.

3. Application Control:

Application control has three roles: block listing, allow listing and gray listing mechanisms provide detailed governance over application execution. This extends to specifying how and in what context applications can run. To stop attacks that use common programs like PowerShell and Wscript, we use trusted application protection. It’s a smart way to defend against fileless or living-off-the-land (LoTL) attacks.

4. Active Directory (AD) Bridging:

AD bridging solutions help connect Linux, Unix, and Mac to Windows. This leads to steady management and policy application, plus the convenience of single sign-on. You can now use Microsoft Active Directory’s Kerberos authentication and single sign-on on non-Windows platforms. Additionally, by extending Group Policy to non-Windows platforms, it becomes simpler to handle various environments.

Secure Remote Access (SRA) Software: Many VPNs give too much access and don’t have good controls for secure use. Deploying VPN-less remote access security solutions becomes pivotal. These solutions allow employees, service desks, and vendors to securely access information from a distance. They also impose privilege management practices. Secure Remote Access solutions are crucial because they safeguard against cyberattacks on remote access. These solutions also ensure an audited and secure infrastructure approach. Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM) is a new term. It refers to solutions that manage vendor privileges. VPAM also covers other sensitive access situations in modern setups, like edge computing. SRA technologies also find utility in managing access to cloud infrastructures.

Cloud Infrastructure Entitlements Management (CIEM): This is a new type of product that focuses on adjusting cloud access efficiently. These solutions work on cloud platforms such as Azure and AWS. They make it easier to enforce minimal privileges. CIEM products use automated fixes to identify and resolve instances of excessive special access.

PAM is important in the growing field of identity threat detection and response. Modern PAM has evolved to focus on both detection and response, not just prevention.

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How to Implement PAM Security

To start using privileged access management, create a thorough plan to:

  1. Attain comprehensive visibility into all privileged accounts and entities:  Your PAM solution should help track the privileges used by people and workloads. Once you have made things clear, disable the default admin accounts and use the principle of least privilege.
  2. Administer and regulate privileged access:  It’s important to stay informed about special access and maintain control over gaining more privileges. To protect your organization’s cybersecurity, we need to take this precautionary step to avoid unnecessary growth.
  3. Supervise and audit activities associated with privileged access:  Make guidelines for how privileged users should behave and specify actions that are not allowed.
  4. Implement automation within PAM solutions: You can make your security efforts more effective by automating how you find, control, and monitor things. This way, you can protect many important accounts, people, and things. This improves safety and following rules while reducing the workload and difficulty of administrative duties.

You can use your PAM solution in its default setup as part of your IT department. Over time, you can add modules to expand its capabilities. At the same time, you must follow security control recommendations that match your compliance rules.

You can also link your PAM solution to your SIEM solution for improved security. This consolidation can lead to enhanced synergy between your security systems.

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Best Path to Privileged Access Security Controls

Many companies start by making their security better in a few important areas and doing the easy things first. Then, they improve security controls for privileged access throughout the whole company. Cyber insurers now want their customers to use privileged access security. This means they want to watch what those special users are doing and not let them have too much power. To figure out what’s best for most companies, begin by auditing the risks associated with privileged access management (PAM). Then, make a plan for how to have the best security rules for an ideal privileged access security policy.

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  1. What is PAM?
    Privileged access management (PAM) is a set of security controls that are used to protect privileged accounts and credentials. Privileged accounts are those that have elevated permissions, such as administrator accounts.
  2. Why is PAM important?
    PAM is important because privileged accounts are a major target for cyberattacks. If an attacker can gain access to a privileged account, they can do a lot of damage, such as stealing data, installing malware, or disrupting operations.
  3. What are the benefits of PAM?
    PAM can help organizations reduce the risk of data breaches, improve compliance with security regulations, increase the efficiency of IT operations, and reduce the cost of security.
  4. What are the different types of PAM solutions?
    There are a variety of PAM solutions available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the most common types of PAM solutions include privileged password management (PPM), privileged session management (PSM), privileged identity management (PIM), and privileged application access management (PAA).
  5. How do I choose the right PAM solution for my organization?
    The best way to choose the right PAM solution for your organization is to consider your specific needs and requirements. Some factors to consider include the size and complexity of your organization, the types of privileged accounts you need to protect, and the security regulations you need to comply with.

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