What is privilege creep and how to prevent it?

What is privilege creep and how to prevent it?

Ever wondered how the tiniest chink in your cyber armour could snowball into a digital catastrophe? In our hyper-connected world, where every click and keystroke leaves a trace, IT security risks loom larger than ever. The more technology we embrace, the wider the gateway for data breaches and cyber threats. 

Overlooking even the smallest vulnerabilities can act as a catalyst for far more serious incidents, privilege creep being a prime example of this (but more on that later).  

When it comes to your cyber security, it’s important to protect against even the smallest or most unassuming risks. Understanding how vulnerabilities can be manipulated and the magnitude of having weaknesses in your cyber security is key.

In this article, we’ll show you the dangers of overlooking even the smallest of vulnerabilities by deep diving into ‘privilege creep’. You’ll learn what privilege creep is, the risks associated with it, and how to protect against it.  

In this article, we cover:

What is Privilege Creep?

Privilege Creep, also called Access Creep, happens when an employee gradually accumulates excessive access permissions or privileges as they move through your company. This usually occurs when an employee moves departments or changes job responsibilities. As a result, they may be left with the same permissions as required for their previous role, whilst also being given additional privileges as part of their new role.  

Privilege creep is surprisingly common and can occur due to genuine oversight or lack of proper access management. Granting users permissions outside of the scope of their job can be dangerous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it poses significant IT security risks by not abiding by the IT security policy initially planned for your business. Failure to comply with security policies leaves vulnerabilities open to attack without sufficient measures in place to protect against them.  

Privilege creep also goes against ‘the principle of least privilege,’ which is an important security rule. This rule says: 

“A security plan should be made so that each person gets the least amount of system resources and permissions they need to do their job.” 

Following the principle of least privilege is a common way to keep your data and systems safe. 

Why is privilege creep a risk to my security?

You should be concerned about any form of unauthorised access when it comes to your business. What would happen if someone outside of HR was able to access performance reviews, contact data or health information about their colleagues? Even worse, what if they purposefully, or accidentally, made that information public knowledge? 

Unauthorised access to your company data, confidential or otherwise, can compromise your intellectual property, customer information, or financial records. If this were to be exposed or cause a data breach, you risk serious damage to your reputation as well as inevitable financial repercussions.  

The first risk to your business comes from your employees. If an employee has access to more systems and data than required, they could accidentally or intentionally use this maliciously. This is known as an insider threat and is more common than you think.  

Secondly, what’s arguably more concerning is the possibility of a cyber criminal infiltrating a user with privilege creep. Access creep creates a ‘privilege pathway’ for attackers by giving them the opportunity to escalate their access and move through your network, avoiding detection and potentially causing widespread damage.  

Privilege creep case studies

These examples demonstrate the seriousness of privilege creep and how it can cause catastrophic outcomes for businesses like yours.  

Privilege creep at Uber 

  • What happened?

In 2016, global transportation giant, Uber, experienced a serious data breach where cyber criminals were able to access the personal data of approximately 57 million consumers and drivers.  

  • Why did it happen? 

Cyber criminals were able to infiltrate an employee’s GitHub account. There, they found credentials that enabled access to Uber’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) account, where the personal data of millions of consumers and drivers was stored.  

  • What does this show? 

This demonstrates just how powerful privilege creep can be and how access to one system can, in turn, grant access to other systems until personal data is exposed. Uber’s data breach is also a good example of how privilege creep can occur through third-party services and apps, as well as in-house systems.  

Privilege creep at Twitter 

  • What happened? 

In 2020, Twitter experienced one of its most prolific cyber attacks. Attackers were able to access high profile Twitter accounts, using them to promote a cryptocurrency scam to millions of users. This led to financial losses for those who fell for the attacks, as well as serious damage to Twitter’s reputation.  

  • Why did it happen? 

Cyber criminals targeted Twitter employees and exploited privilege creep to eventually grant themselves access to influential Twitter accounts.  

  • What does this show? 

This is a good example of how disastrous the outcomes of privilege creep can be. Once cyber criminals have gained access to accounts through access creep, they can roll out social engineering attacks (like the cryptocurrency scam), tricking thousands of people into handing over their personal data or clicking on malicious links.  

These real-life examples demonstrate just how dangerous privilege creep can be, and how excessive access permissions can lead cyber criminals down a path of unauthorised permissions. Primarily, they show how important it is to protect your data properly, through a combination of employee education, access control best practices and other cyber security measures.  

How do I prevent privilege creep?

Having a stringent IT security policy is integral to all successful modern businesses, and safeguarding against issues like privilege creep is a critical aspect of that. Having the right security measures in place is essential for protecting sensitive data, ensuring compliance, and maintaining customer trust.  

Below we’ve listed some of the various tools and best practices you can adopt to safeguard against privilege creep as well as other potential security issues.  

  1. Principle of least privilege (PoLP): A crucial measure

We touched on PoLP earlier on in this article. Put simply, PoLP means only granting users the necessary permissions required for them to do their job. This is the quickest and easiest way to prevent privilege creep. If this is something that you haven’t done previously, you may need to do an initial audit whereby you investigate the permissions all your employees currently have. If any have permissions they don’t need, make sure to revoke their access. You will then need to carefully record and manage all permissions going forward, especially when people move to new roles within the business or when new external employees join. Abiding by PoLP will limit the damage caused by potentially hacked emails and and compromised accounts, keeping your business and data secure.  

  1. Rose-based access control implementation (RBAC)

RBAC is a popular control model adopted by many modern businesses. It refers to when permissions are assigned based on job roles, rather than on individual user identities. For example, job identities could include ‘Sales Manager’ or ‘HR Administrator’, both of which would have different access to different applications, systems, and data. If you choose to adopt RBAC, it’s important that roles are well-defined and structured. Permissions should be precise to combat privilege creep whilst also ensuring everyone has the right access to do their jobs.  

  1. Privileged access management (PAM) solutions

PAM solutions work in tandem with identity and access management (IAM) solutions. Whilst IAM solutions authenticate identities, ensuring your employees have the right access when they need it. PAM solutions provide more granular visibility, control and auditing over privileged identities and session activities. Specifically, PAM solutions include monitoring of employee sessions, control permissions and access, and implement effective password management. Thus, having PAM solutions in place is critical for preventing privilege creep and data breaches.  

  1. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) reinforcement 

Multi-factor authentication is a popular cyber security measure which requires users to verify themselves in more than one way. E.g. with a username and password, but then also a fingerprint, SMS code, or Face ID. This provides an extra layer of security to your systems, verifying that employees trying to access systems and data are who they say they are. Enforcing MFA across different apps and systems is a great way to block cyber criminals from gaining access, preventing malicious activity and safeguarding against malicious external parties taking advantage of privilege creep.  

  1. Regular audits and monitoring of proactive security 

Regularly auditing and monitoring the access rights and permissions given to your employees is vital. Often privilege creep occurs due to a simple human error and unauthorised access can be an easy thing to miss. By conducting scheduled reviews of user permissions and analysing who is accessing what, you are better placed to detect discrepancies and act on them before it’s too late.  

How we can help combat privilege creep 

You’ve heard about the dangers of privilege creep and how easily it can occur. If you feel like privilege creep could be an issue for your business, you could benefit from bespoke IT support and consultancy to determine the best security measures for your business.  

At Sereno, we’re cyber security experts and have helped hundreds of businesses protect against privilege creep and other potential security threats. We can help by:  

  • Conducting an initial audit of your access permissions, including who has access to what and how your access management is set up (we want to make sure that your access management is scalable so that it can be easily managed both now and, in the future,)  
  • Work with you to undertake projects that will align your access and permissions with best practices – this includes effective processes for employee onboarding and offboarding  
  • Maintain and update your access management set up in line with our day-to-day IT support service. Once we’ve implemented effective access management, we’ll ensure it stays that way, providing you with regular reporting and audits that are easy for you to understand  


If you need help protecting against privilege creep, or similar IT security issues, please feel free to reach out for a free expert IT consultation. 

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