privilege creep

Privilege creep is the gradual accumulation of access rights beyond what an individual needs to do his or her job. In information technology, a privilege is an identified right that a particular end user has to a particular system resource, such as a file folder or virtual machine.

Privilege creep often occurs when an employee changes job responsibilities within the organization and is granted new privileges. While an employee may need to retain his or her former privileges during a period of transition, those privileges are rarely revoked and result in an unnecessary accumulation of access privileges.

Privilege creep, which is a common problem in IT organizations of all sizes, creates a two-fold security risk. First, an employee with excess privileges may be tempted to use those privileges inappropriately. Second, if an intruder gains access to an end user's account -- and that end user has excess privileges -- the intruder will also have excess privileges. Either scenario poses a risk that could result in data loss or theft.

The security risks caused by privilege misalignment is so great that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued a public service announcement, warning that an increase in insider threats from disgruntled and/or former employees can be traced to privilege creep and authorized access to sensitive information and the networks. According to research by Intermedia and Osterman Research, 89% of employees leave their jobs with a valid login and password to at least one business application belonging to their former employers, and 49% admitted to logging in to an account after leaving the company.

Privilege creep can be minimized by enforcing the principle of least privilege (PoLP) and limiting permissions to the minimal level an employee needs to perform his or her job. Privilege creep can also be minimized by conducting periodic access rights reviews. This is a process in which system owners and managers confirm each employee's need to access specific roles and rights in an effort to discover and revoke excess privileges. An identity and access management (IAM) system can facilitate a review by providing administrators with the ability to instantly view and change access rights.

This was last updated in June 2019

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