As we continue our march through the Privileged User Lifecycle, we have provisioned the privileged users and restricted access to only the devices they are authorized to manage. The next risk to address is the keys or credentials of these privileged users (P-Users) falling into the wrong hands. The best access and entitlements security controls fail if someone can impersonate a P-User.

But the worst risk isn’t even compromised credentials. It’s not having unique credentials in the first place. You must have seen the old admin password sharing scheme, right? It was used, mostly out of necessity, many moons ago. Administrators needed access to the devices they managed. But at times they needed help, so they asked a buddy to take care of something, and just gave him/her the credentials. What could possibly go wrong? We covered a lot of that in the Keys to the Kingdom.

Shared administrative credentials open Pandora’s box. Once the credentials are in circulation you can’t get them back – which is a problem when an admin leaves the company or no longer has those particular privileges. You can’t deprovision shared credentials so you need to change them.

PCI, as the low bar for security (just ask Global Payments), recognizes the issues with sharing IDs, so Requirement 8 is all about making sure anyone with access to protected data uses a unique ID, and that their use is audited – so you can attribute every action to a particular user.

But that’s not all! (in my best infomercial voice). What about the fact that some endpoints could be compromised? Even administrative endpoints. So sending admin credentials to that endpoint might not be safe. And what happens when developers hard-code credentials into an applications? Why go through the hassle of secure coding – just embed the password right into the application! That password never changes anyway, so what’s the risk? So we need to protect credentials, as much as whatever they control.

Credential Lockdown

How can we protect these credentials? Locking the credentials away in a vault meets many of the requirements described above. First, if the credentials are stored in a vault, it harder for admins to share them. Let’s not put the cart before the horse, but this makes it pretty easy (and transparent) to change the password after every access, eliminating the sticky-note-under-keyboard risk.

Going through the vault for every administrative credential access means you have an audit trail of who used which credentials (and presumably which specific devices they were managing) and when. That kind of stuff makes auditors happy.

Depending on the deployment of the vault, the administrator may never even see the credentials, as they can be automatically entered on the server if you use a proxy approach to restricting access. And this also provides single sign-on to all managed devices, as the administrator authenticates (presumably using multiple factors) to the proxy, which interfaces directly to the vault again, transparently to the user. So even an administration device teeming with malware cannot expose critical credentials.

Similarly, an application can make a call to the vault, rather than hard-coding credentials into the app. Yes, the credentials still end up on the application server, but that’s still much better than hard-coding the password. So are you sold yet? If you worry about credentials being access and misused, a password vault provides a good mechanism for protecting them.

Define Policies

As with most things in security, using a vault involves both technology and process. We will tackle the process first, because without a good process even the best technology has no chance. So before you implement anything you need to define the rules of (credential) engagement. You need to answer some questions.

  1. Which systems and devices need to be involved in the password management system? This may involve servers (physical and/or virtual), network & security devices, infrastructure services (DNS, Directory, mail, etc.), databases, and/or applications. Ideally your vault will natively support most of your targets, but broad protection is likely to require some integration work on your end. So make sure any solution you look at has some kind of API to facilitate this integration.
  2. How does each target use the vault? Then you need to decide who (likely by group) can access each target, how long they are allowed to use the credentials (and manage the device), and whether they need to present additional authentication factors to access the device. You’ll also define whether multiple administrators can access managed devices simultaneously and whether to change the password after each check-in/check-out cycle. Finally, you may need to support external administrators (for third party management or business partner integration), so keep that in mind as you work through these decisions.
  3. What kind of administrator experience makes sense? Then you need to figure out the P-User interaction with the system. Will it be via a proxy login, where the user never sees the credentials, or will there be a secure agent on the device to receive and protect the credential? Figure out how the vault supports application-to-database and application-to-application interaction, as those are different than supporting human admins. You’ll also want to specify which activities are audited and how long audit logs are kept.

Securing the Vault

If you are putting the keys to the kingdom in this vault, make sure it’s secure. You probably will not bring a product in and set your application pen-test ninjas loose on it, so you are more likely to rely on what we call the sniff test. Ask questions to see whether the vendor has done their homework to protect the vault.

You should understand the security architecture of the vault. Yes, you may have to sign a non-disclosure agreement to see the details, but it’s worth it. You need to know how they protect things. Discuss the threat model(s) the vendor uses to implement that security architecture. Make sure they didn’t miss any obvious attack vectors. You also need to poke around their development process a bit and make sure they have a proper SDLC and actually test for security defects before shipping. Don’t laugh – it’s not funny. You would be shocked at how many “security companies” don’t do this.

Not that you need to be a protocol ninja, but you need to understand how the communications happen, in case the vault ships the protected credential to a compromised endpoint or app. What protocols are used, what does the endpoint/app agent look like, and how does the agent protect the credentials? In a perfect world the credentials could never make it to a compromised device. But in the real world these are some questions you need to ask.

It’s also good to know whether the vendor has contracted with an application penetration testing outfit to try to break their web interface, especially if you plan to use the vault as a proxy providing single sign-on. If you break the interface you break the system. This is another area commonly overlooked by security vendors.

Discuss deployment architectures with both the vendor and some large reference customers. Single points of failure are a very real concern with vaults. And if the vault fails, your IT ops group is out of business. So design the deployment to ensure you have recoverability.

With all that you have a vault you could be comfortable putting gold bullion in. Moving onto the next Odd Job, it’s time to enforce the entitlements. As even authorized administrators do the wrong thing sometimes – both intentionally and not – so you need to do your diligence and make sure administrators only performs authorized commands.