Is there really no way to avoid shared user accounts?

In various discussions over the past month, mainly in the context of Privilege Management, I raised the (somewhat provocative) claim that shared accounts are a bad thing per se and that we must avoid these accounts. The counterargument  I got, though, was that sometimes it is just impossible to do so.

There were various examples. One is that users in production environments need a functional account to quickly access PCs and perform some tasks. Another is that such technical user accounts are required when building n-tier applications to, for instance, access databases. Administrators commonly tend to groan when approaches for avoiding the use of shared accounts such as root are considered.

There are many more examples, but when you look at reality there are sufficient examples and reasons of how it is possible to avoid shared accounts (or at least their use). In many healthcare environments, fast user switching has been used for years now. The strict regulations in this sector frequently have led to implementing Enterprise Single Sign-On tools that allow for rapid authentication and access to applications with an individual account. These solutions frequently have replaced previously used shared functional accounts. So why shouldn’t they work in other environments as well?

When looking at n-tier applications, it is worth it to dive somewhat deeper into end-to-end security. There are many ways to implement end-to-end security. Standards such as OAuth 2.0 make it far easier to implement such concepts. Provisioning tools have supported database systems and other systems for a number of years. Oracle has just “re-invented” database security in its Oracle Database 12c, with tight integration into IAM (Identity and Access Management). Aside from the argument that end-to-end security just does not work (which is wrong), I sometimes hear the argument that this is too complex to do. I don’t think so. It is different to do. It requires a well-thought-out Application Security Infrastructure, something I was writing about years ago. It requires changing the way software architecture and software development are done. But in many, many cases technical accounts are primarily used due to convenience reasons – architects and developers just do not want to consider alternative solutions. And then there always is the “killer argument” of time to market, which is not necessarily valid.

When I look at administrators, I know about many scenarios where root or Windows Administrator accounts are rarely used, except for firefighting operations. The administrators and operators instead rely on functionally restricted, personal accounts they use aside of their other personal accounts they use for standard operations such as eMail access. That works well and it does not hinder them from doing a good job in administration and operations. But it requires thoroughly thinking about the concept for these accounts.

So there are many good reasons to get rid of shared accounts, but few, if any, valid ones to continue using them. Given that these accounts are amongst the single biggest security risks, it is worth starting to rethink their use and openly consider alternative solutions. Privilege Management tools are just helping with the symptoms. It is time to start addressing the cause of this security risk.

Have a look at our KuppingerCole reports. We will publish a new Leadership Compass on Privilege Management soon. Given that shared accounts are a reality and will not disappear quickly, you might need a tool to better secure these. Have a look at the new report, which will help you selecting the right vendor for your challenges.


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