Privilege Access Abuse expands Organizations’ Attack Surface
Ravi Srivatsav
June 19, 2023
min read

Series Introduction:

Gartner recently published their cybersecurity trends for 2022. In this series, we will take a deep look into these seven, how they affect the enterprise and what can be done about it.  

The first in the series is the “Attack surface expansion.”

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Gartner’s Summary of the problem

“Trend No. 1: Attack surface expansion

Currently, 60% of knowledge workers are remote, and at least 18% will not return to the office. These changes in the way we work, together with greater use of public cloud, highly connected supply chains and use of cyber-physical systems have exposed new and challenging attack “surfaces.”

This leaves organizations more vulnerable to attack. Gartner recommends security leaders look beyond traditional approaches to security monitoring, detection and response to manage a wider set of risks.”: Source: Gartner

The Inside-Out Defense Take on Why ‘Attack Surface Expansion’ is Happening so Rapidly?

  • This past decade, organizations have invested a significant portion of their IT budgets in transforming their applications and infrastructure to meet their business objectives. This has meant a significant adoption of Cloud & SaaS, replacing and/or augmenting their existing portfolio. The pandemic in many ways has increased the velocity of Cloud and SaaS adoption. Every Cloud and SaaS has its own identity system leading to identity sprawl.

  • Business Expansions including M&A have led to organizations having to deal with several of these multiple identity systems

  • Traditional IT applications are being force-fit to make them cloud ready leading to blind spots in access privileges given to users more than they need (excess access privileges)

  • Legacy Identity tools deployed to secure data centers & IT access are being pushed beyond their product limitations to cover the new horizon driven by cloud

  • Privilege access is growing non-linearly and is dynamic. Any missteps in excess, wrong access, or errors in granting privileges can and has resulted in catastrophic consequences

  • These dynamic privileges and resulting consequences end up expanding the organization's perimeter faster than what the organization's IT operations can handle

The Growing threat of Privilege Misuse and Abuse

Users operating in multi-cloud and SaaS application environments carry multiple personas and avatars. They may only be a normal user inside their IAM, but double as an admin on a cloud resource or application (example: AWS EC2, RDS, Workday, Jira, Salesforce etc.), or a host of custom applications. This translates into these users having access to a wide array of organizations’ applications across multiple departments. As their roles in the organization develop and their activities evolve, so do their privileges and access levels add up, resulting in them having too many privileges.   This privilege creep is often more than to the security organization's liking.

Without proper context and understanding of their behaviors, it is difficult to rein in the user privileges, and their different roles. This situation gets murkier with the non-human user and programmatic access elements created through APIs.

Privilege abuse dynamics and Potency for Exposure to Cyberbreaches

Privilege abuses occur in many forms. When setting up a systematic manipulation of the organizations assets, networks, or apps, it is noteworthy to look at the popular forms of abuse. Note: this is not a complete list and is continuously evolving as technology evolves.  

  • Excess Privileges
  • Privilege Creep
  • Privilege Escalation
  • Lateral Movement
  • Deliberate and Malicious Intent (Sensitive Data Access and Theft, etc.)
  • Inadvertent Human Errors
  • Hidden and Zombie Accounts

Looking at the recent cyberbreaches, Inside-Out Defense’s research team has observed that there are often one or more of these abuses occurring simultaneously creating a perfect storm inside the organization and exposing the systems to multiple points of a breach.  Often a single attribute of privilege abuse may merely remain a symptom alone...

Hence, the current approach of IAM and PAM solutions which are focused on developing point solutions to address these problems individually don’t match up to the sophistication of the threats faced from multiple vectors. Organizations need to approach the problem with greater visibility and a more holistic approach that cures the disease at its roots, rather than placing band aids on an already open wound.    

Manifestation of Privilege Abuses in Organizations

The problems that security organizations must deal with are numerous & growing by the day. As noted in the Verizon DBIR report, Privilege abuse-related issues are the #1 threat vector that security teams must deal with.

These Privilege abuses manifest in multiple ways:

  • Unwanted human and non-human activity
  • Insider threat
  • Third-party violations and data exfiltration
  • Contractor abuse
  • Excess vendor access to sensitive systems and data
  • Business disruption

Current solutions need to be more diligent and flexible in the approach to the problem.  

Traditional & New Age IAM & PAM systems Don’t Measure up to the Challenges

As discussed above, Privileges are dynamic in nature and difficult to manage. We see different forms of Privilege misuse in the market some of which may be inadvertent error, others a result of compromised accounts.  Why?

  • Privileges are dynamic but current IAM & PAM solutions focus on managing access manually or in an automated way based on the users’ roles, whereas users may have multiple personas across the various environments (cloud, SaaS).
  • Current IAM & PAM solutions rely solely on role-based access control (RBAC) and Access decisions based solely on role-based privileges may prove erroneous
  • The access grants that the IAM & PAM solutions offer on RBAC is perpetual, however granular (1 day or 1 hour or for even a few minutes)
  • The IAM & PAM solutions lack visibility & reach over ALL access activities across the organization perimeter which is almost always expanding.
  • The IAM solutions today lack control over the assigned & federated Privileges
  • The PAM solutions do not detect all of the users’ personas/avatars; and

Most importantly, the current set of solutions lacks real-time decision-making & enforcement of access guardrails across growing footprints of infrastructure & applications.

What was otherwise a simple process, the intersection of IT changes and the cloud has rendered the basic access governance in user commissioning and de-commissioning messy and prone to the risk of security exposure

Organizations have been left to employ more and more solutions in and around identity management such as PAM, workflow-based tools, CIEM etc. in order to make up for the gap in what till now is a true lack of Privilege Governance.

For example, workflow-based tools lack control when deployed at scale, unless you have an SOC team that has significant bandwidth to deal with a stream of alerts/notifications and can manually prioritize signal to noise. This is a significant cost center for the enterprise and is an extremely inefficient way to manage the governance needed for identity and access management .

A CIEM provides lots of insights but lacks context, has no understanding of the intent of access and needless to say, lacks any real-time remediation;

Right now the modus operandi has security teams building a reactive posture for access governance, and that is like only playing defense on a football field.  Ultimately the opponent will still score, but still your own team has no chance of winning.

Why should you care?

The why is simple.  Cyberattacks occur beyond the boundaries of the current set of solutions.

With the current set of IAM & PAM vendors largely unable to solve this massive problem, enterprises' security teams are forced to make more investments in point solutions to stitch their defenses to rein in privilege abuse in their organizations. This is costly and inefficient, and still does not fundamentally get to the root of the problem.  More of the same approach, trying to band aid existing solutions together won’t cut now, and especially not in the future.  The Privilege abuse problem is moving at a furious pace, and solutions are failing to maintain pace with the threats.

Unless the intent behind users’ every activity and behavior is understood, it is almost impossible to anticipate users’ next move.  Enterprises require the ability to make real-time decisions and enforce & validate access guardrails behind every human and non-human activity.  This is a fact!

At Inside-Out Defense we have seen firsthand for our customers that a lack of implementing a true Privilege Governance solution, and relying solely on the current PAM solutions raises the risk of exposure exponentially.  Current solutions have created a breeding ground for repeated ransomware attacks, as threat actors have figured out that certain customers haven’t entirely addressed their security flaws with real-time guardrails.  

What is Inside-Out Defense & How can we help you ?

Inside-Out Defense is a SaaS, agentless Privilege Governance platform that supports all clouds & on-prem environments built for ‘Continuous Validation of Trust’™. In Sum:

Inside-Out Defense Enables Enterprises to Govern Access Privileges in Real-Time

The Inside-Out Defense platform provides critical insights, delivers real-time decisions, remediation, and drives enhanced value creation for security organizations inside the enterprise.

Advantages of adopting the Inside-Out Defense platform:

  • Prevent in REAL-TIME any access-related malicious behavior by Users, API's or 3rd parties (human/non-human actors)...behaviors like:
  • Privilege Escalation
  • Privilege Creep
  • Excess Privileges
  • Hidden/Zombie user detection & remediation
  • Lateral Movement across your distributed environment
  • Deliberate or inadvertent human errors,
  • …and more.

  • Track the lineage of every single user and their entitlements while detecting malicious users like zombies & hidden abusers.

  • Identify & resolve conflicts in your identity groups & access privileges.

  • Have real-time forensic audit on access, eliminating the need for expensive, laborious, and reactive quarterly audits.

  • Establish the context behind who has access to what, why, when & where.

Change the paradigm in security from being reactive to stopping Privilege Abuse in its tracks.  If you’d like to discuss this with Inside-Out Defense, please reach out to us at