Why Just in Time Access is a Key Pillar of Zero Trust and Least Privilege

In 2023, the global spending on security and risk is predicted to grow by more than 11%, per Gartner. With Zero Trust adoption rates growing, it’s probably safe to assume that this modern security framework will be central to many organizations’ security strategies and plans. Therefore, it’s important to understand what zero trust means and what it comprises. By understanding zero trust, organizations can put measures in place to ensure effective security of their resources.

In this blog post, we dive deep into JIT access, a key pillar of zero trust, and one of its principles: least-privilege. We explain the concept of JIT and how it’s related to zero trust and least-privilege. Then, we dive into implementation considerations and how JIT works. If you’re building your 2023 security strategy, looking to update your security stack with modern solutions or need a secure way to authorize developer access to your resources, this blog post is for you!

What is Just-In-Time (JIT) Access?

Just-In-Time (JIT) Access is a security practice that provides users with access to a system or resource solely for the duration of the task or action that necessitates it. In other words, access is temporary and constrained to a specific purpose and revoked when this need no longer exists.

JIT is a more secure method than granting users long-standing and continuous access to a system or resource. By limiting the amount of time access is granted, the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit any vulnerabilities, perpetrate a data breach, or inject malware – is limited as well. As a result, enterprises can bolster their security posture and meet compliance regulations for least-privilege access.

JIT access is especially useful for securing privileged users accounts. Privileged accounts have elevated privileges and can access sensitive data, systems and applications. If these accounts are compromised, it can lead to severe security breaches and data loss.

By using JIT access, privileged users can be granted temporary access to specific resources only when they need it, making it harder for attackers to gain access to sensitive resources through them. Additionally, JIT access can provide visibility and control over privileged access, allowing organizations to monitor and audit privileged activity in real-time. This allows organizations to quickly detect and respond to any suspicious activity, including unauthorized access attempts.

Which Pain Points Does JIT Access Solve?

The implementation of Just-In-Time (JIT) access can be a valuable security control for organizations, as it addresses several pain points related to access control and security. These include:

1. Unauthorized Access

According to the Verizon 2022 DBIR report, compromised credentials are one of the leading attack vectors into organizational resources. By granting users access only to the resources they need at a specific time, JIT limits the window of opportunity attackers have to access sensitive resources through unauthorized access and compromised credentials. This reduces the overall attack surface and helps mitigate the potential impact in case of a security breach.

2. Lack of Visibility and Governance

Security and IT teams lack control over which resources users have access to and the actions they can perform on them. JIT access provides granular visibility and governance over access permissions, allowing security teams to monitor and audit access requests in real-time, and intervene if necessary.

3. Meeting Compliance Requirements

Compliance regulations can be difficult to meet, especially in the cloud. With JIT access, organizations can enforce the principle of least privilege, which helps them meet compliance requirements by providing fine-grained control over access permissions.

4. Administrative Overhead

JIT access can significantly reduce IT and IAM friction and administrative overhead by automating the process of granting and revoking access. This frees up IT staff to focus on other tasks. This results in more efficient and effective access management processes.

What is Least Privilege Access?

The principle of least-privilege access is a fundamental security principle that restricts user access privileges to the minimum level of permissions necessary to perform their job functions. As a result, the number of users who have access to sensitive systems and data is limited and minimized, which reduces the attack surface of the organization.

When an organization implements least-privilege access, attackers who gain unauthorized access through breached credentials will not be able to easily progress laterally in the network, since there is less of a chance those breached credentials have permissions to sensitive data and resources. This helps prevent the escalation of a security incident and mitigate the potential impact of a security breach.

Why is JIT a Key Pillar of Least-Privilege?

The principle of least-privilege entails allocating user permissions solely on an as-needed basis. JIT access builds upon this principle, extending it to the time dimension, by providing users with permissions to the resources they need for their tasks, but only for as long as they need them for performing those tasks.

In other words, JIT access helps organizations enforce the principle of least-privilege. JIT augments and enhances the principle of least privilege’s capability to minimize the potential attack surface and reduce the risk of a data breach.

Is JIT a Key Pillar of Zero Trust as Well?

Zero Trust is a cybersecurity framework that assumes that all users, devices, and applications are not to be trusted, regardless of their location inside or outside of the organization’s network perimeter. Instead, and based on the principle of “never trust, always verify”, the Zero Trust model requires continuous verification and authorization of all users and access attempts to systems, resources and data.

Zero Trust has been gaining increasing popularity with the adoption of the Cloud and hybrid workstyles. With users accessing resources that are located globally and with the users themselves working anywhere in the world, the traditional physical perimeter has become irrelevant. Therefore, securing on-prem infrastructure and systems is not enough to ensure the security of organizational assets, data and systems. In Zero Trust, identity is the new perimeter, which means users need to be verified to ensure they do not post a threat.

The principle of least-privilege is a core component of Zero Trust. Per the Zero Trust assumption that perpetrators are already in the organizational network and no one can be trusted, least-privilege limits the trust given to users. To extend access permissions, users need to be verified.

JIT Access, Least-Privilege and Zero Trust: How They All Come Together

JIT access is a key component of least-privilege access and least privilege access is a key pillar of Zero Trust, making JIT access a key pillar of Zero Trust. More specifically, JIT access provides temporary access to a resource or system for users, only for the duration they need it to perform their tasks. This ensures that users are not granted long-standing access to resources, which reduces the overall attack surface and minimizes the risk of unauthorized access.

In a Zero Trust environment, every user and every request for access must be verified and authenticated, and access controls must be continuously monitored and enforced. JIT access abides by this approach by providing granular access controls that allow organizations to grant access based on a verified need at a given time, and then revoke that access when it is no longer required.

By limiting the time frame in which access is granted, JIT access minimizes the potential for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to sensitive resources. As a result, JIT helps organizations enforce the principle of least-privilege and the Zero Trust model and stay secure in an environment where threats are constantly evolving.

Now that we’ve established how JIT access, least-privilege and zero trust are connected, let’s circle back to JIT access and dive deeper into how it works. But first, let’s explore if the JIT workflows should be manual or automated.

Should JIT Access be Manual or Automated?

Just-In-Time (JIT) access can be automated or manual, depending on the specific needs and requirements of the organization. However, automated JIT access is recommended for organizations that have a large number of users and resources, as it can help streamline the process of granting and revoking access. With an automated system, access requests can be automatically approved or denied based on predefined policies and rules, without requiring manual intervention.

Manual JIT management requires an IT or security professional to review requests and decide whether or not to approve them. This is a tedious and error-prone process, which can cause delays and create unrequired stress and friction. As a result, it defeats the purpose of least-privilege and zero trust, since it might result in users receiving permissions they do not require or having permissions for longer than they actually need them.

How JIT Access Works

In permissions management, the flow starts from the developer. Developers need access to various environments and codebases so they can develop, debug, troubleshoot, test and release. Here’s how they request and obtain access in a JIT workflow.

  • Step 1: Requesting access – The request includes the resource, the type of action to be taken on it and how long access is required for.
  • Step 2: The request is validated.
    • In an automated workflow:
      • Some approval flows can be approved/disapproved based on predefined policies. Approval is granted in seconds.
      • More sophisticated requests require the admin’s discretion. Automated platforms can still help with manual approval by providing admins with context for making the decision and helping them gain visibility into the organization’s permissions.
    • In a manual workflow:
      • All requests go through the admin to manually sift through the requests and grant access, if justified.
  • Step 3: If approved, the user gains access to the resource to perform the required task for as long as access has been granted.
  • Step 4: Once the approves time is up, access is revoked.

This process can take place through simple means like emails or chats, or through more sophisticated automated platforms that streamline the requests and reduce friction. Many automated platforms also integrate with tools in the developer workflow, like Slack, to reduce friction even more.

JIT Access for Cloud-focused Organizations

To ensure secure access in the cloud and to SaaS apps, permissions must be managed at a highly granular level and according to the principles of Zero Trust and least-privilege access. Doing so manually creates friction and blind spots that impede the ability to comply with these principles. JIT automation can help organizations ensure permissions are granted – and revoked – in a timely manner, so they can reduce the attack surface, meet compliance demands and free themselves for more complex tasks that require their focus and attention. Automating these processes eliminates the manual friction, removes blind spots, and helps organizations properly and consistently manage permissions, reducing the attack surface and enabling compliance with ease. See how.

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