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Least Privilege

Definition: The principle of least privilege dictates that any user, program, or system process should be granted the minimum level of access – or permissions – necessary to perform its function.

Enforcing the principle of least privilege is foundational for minimising the potential damage from accidents, errors, or unauthorised use of system resources. By tightly controlling access rights, the attack surface within an organisation’s IT environment is reduced, limiting the capabilities of attackers who might gain access through compromised credentials or systems.

Applying the principle of least privilege involves regular review and auditing of user rights, the establishment of role-based access controls (RBAC), strict access controls for privileged accounts, and the use of tools and technology like user account management systems to effectively manage access permissions. Temporary privilege escalation should be used rather than assigning high-level permissions to user accounts permanently.

When least privilege is not properly enforced, there is an increased risk of malicious activity, such as privilege escalation attacks, where attackers or malware exploit excessive permissions to gain elevated access to sensitive data or systems. The principle remains relevant across all platforms and technologies, including cloud environments, where the dynamism of the infrastructure requires vigilant access management and auditing to continuously uphold the principle.

The most drastic example of a failure of the principle of least privilege is likely the NSA leaks conducted by Edward Snowden. Snowden was given high level access to a plethora of sensitive documentation for the NSA. This enabled Snowden to obtain a large volume of documents, that were then later leaked to the media/public.

Implementing least privilege is an ongoing process, involving the regular re-assessment of roles and rights, and keeping up with changes in the IT environment to ensure that access is tightly controlled consistent with user and application needs.

Key Characteristics:

  • Minimum access necessary for operation
  • Fundamental for risk reduction in IT security
  • Involves user rights auditing and role-based access controls
  • Mitigates the scope of damage in case of system compromise


  • Real-World Example: In a corporate setting, an employee typically has access only to the network resources needed for their job, such as email, certain directories, and specific applications. Access to administration panels, servers, or confidential databases is restricted to only those roles that specifically require it.
  • Hypothetical Scenario: A database administrator requires occasional access to a production server for maintenance tasks. Instead of having 24/7 admin rights, the administrator gains elevated privileges through a privileged access management system only when needed and for a defined time period to perform specified tasks.

Related Terms:

  • Privilege Escalation: A process that violates the principle of least privilege by allowing a user or process to gain higher access levels than initially granted.
  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): A method of restricting system access to authorised users, in line with the least privilege principle, based on roles and responsibilities within the organization.
  • Access Control: Various methods and protocols are designed to limit access to data or resources, closely tied to the principle of least privilege.
  • Privileged Access Management (PAM): Systems and processes used to securely manage and monitor privileged access and credentials, ensuring the alignment with the principle of least privilege.

Learn better by watching a video? Here is a YouTube video explaining the concept.

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