Privileged identity management

Privileged identity management (PIM) is a domain within identity management focused on the special requirements of powerful accounts within the IT infrastructure of an enterprise. It is frequently used as an information security and governance tool to help companies in meeting compliance regulations and to prevent internal data breaches through the use of privileged accounts. The management of privileged identities can be automated to follow pre-determined or customized policies and requirements for an organization or industry.

See also privileged password management – since the usual strategy for securing privileged identities is to periodically scramble their passwords, securely store current password values and control disclosure of those passwords.

Different market participants refer to products in this category using similar but distinct terminology. As a result, some analyst firms refer to this market as "PxM" indicating multiple possible words for "x":

The commonality is that a shared framework controls the access of authorized users and other identities to elevated privileges across multiple systems deployed in an organization.

Special requirement of privileged identities

A privileged identity management technology needs to accommodate for the special needs of privileged accounts, including their provisioning and life cycle management, authentication, authorization, password management, auditing, and access controls.

Risks of unmanaged privileged identities

Unmanaged privileged identities can be exploited by both insiders and external attackers. If they are not monitored, held accountable, and actively controlled, malicious insiders, including system administrators, can steal sensitive information or cause significant damage to systems.

A 2009 report prepared for a US congressional committee by Northrop Grumman Corporation details how US corporate and government networks are compromised by overseas attackers who exploit unsecured privileged identities. According to the report, "US government and private sector information, once unreachable or requiring years of expensive technological or human asset preparation to obtain, can now be accessed, inventoried, and stolen with comparative ease using computer network operations tools."

The intruders profiled in the report combine zero-day vulnerabilities developed in-house with clever social exploits to gain access to individual computers inside targeted networks. Once a single computer is compromised, the attackers exploit "highly privileged administrative accounts" throughout the organization until the infrastructure is mapped and sensitive information can be extracted quickly enough to circumvent conventional safeguards.

Privileged account passwords that are secured by a privileged identity management framework so as to be cryptographically complex, frequently changed, and not shared among independent systems and applications offer a means to mitigate the threat to other computers that arises when a single system on a network is compromised.


Because common identity access management frameworks do not manage or control privileged identities, privileged identity management software began to emerge after the year 2000.

Among the reasons for a special category of software to secure access to privileged accounts (rather than using "generic" identity and access management solutions):

Privileged identity management software frameworks manage each of the special requirements outlined above including discovery, authentication, authorization, password management with scheduled changes, auditing, compliance reporting, and access controls. The frameworks generally require administrators to check out privileged account passwords before each use, prompting requesters to document the reason for each access and re-randomizing the password promptly after use. Even after logging in, administrator actions are managed using access controls.

In doing so privileged identity management software can guard against undocumented access to configuration settings and private data, enforce the provisions of IT service management practices such as ITIL, and provide definitive audit trails to prove compliance with standards such as HIPAA 45 § 164.308(1)(D) and PCI-DSS 10.2. In addition, the more advanced frameworks also perform discovery of interdependent services, synchronizing password changes among interdependent accounts to avoid service disruptions that would otherwise result.


    1. ^ Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation by Northrop Grumman Corporation
    2. ^ Mismanaged Privileged Accounts: A New Threat To Your Sensitive Data by Chris Stoneff
    3. ^ Behr, Kim and Spafford, "The Visible Ops Handbook," p. 28.
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