User Access Review Guide: How to Audit IT Privileges Effectively

Regular permission audits, also known as user access reviews, help organizations identify unnecessary permissions and prevent unwanted access to sensitive data. In this guide, you will learn how to make access reviews swift and painless in order to maximize their security benefit with minimal effort.

What Is a User Access Review?

User access reviews are a periodic audit of IT privileges designed to help organizations identify and remove unnecessary permissions. Access reviews are essential to preventing overprivileged users, which threaten data privacy and security.

By ensuring that permissions are revoked once they are no longer needed, regular audits help organizations minimize the risk of data breaches and internal security incidents like employee data theft.

Why Are User Access Reviews Important?

When employees take on new tasks and projects, they need additional permissions. However, businesses often forget to remove permissions once they are no longer required. Due to this, users end up with more and more permission over time – a process known as privilege creep.

Why is privilege creep a problem? Because the more information a user can access, the more information is at risk if their account is compromised or they turn into an insider threat. User access reviews help companies keep their IT secure by stopping privilege creep and restricting access to digital assets to only what is strictly necessary.

Risks Without Regular Access Reviews

Without periodic access reviews, organizations run the risk of leaving many of their employees with overprivileged user accounts – i.e. accounts with access to information and systems they do not need.

But what does this look like in practice? And what are the consequences of not reviewing access? Here are three common scenarios your company might face without regular access audits:

  • A user might retain access to sensitive information even after switching departments. After falling for a phishing email, this allows attackers to exfiltrate huge amounts of critical data.

  • An ex-employee could log into one of their old enterprise accounts to retrieve sales and product data for their own use.

  • A service provider with guest access that was never removed could re-enter the network to steal product and customer information and put it up for sale.

Security Standards that Require User Access Reviews

User access reviews are a cornerstone of effective identity governance alongside role-based access control, automated provisioning and in-depth reporting. So it should be no surprise that regular auditing is an important part of many cybersecurity standards.

Laws and security standards that require user access reviews include:

Reviewing User rights
Not reviewing the permissions in your organization might be a compliance issue. Adobe Stock, (c) Coloures Pic

How to Perform User Access Reviews

Inventory IT Assets

In order to review access, companies first need a clear picture of all apps, users, devices and information their network contains. This inventory of IT assets must be stored securely due to its sensitive nature. Aside from access reviews, it can also serve as the basis for vulnerability and risk assessments.

Create a Review Policy

In order to be effective, access reviews need to be performed regularly and consistently. So before you start checking permissions, you should begin by creating a review policy that establishes review intervals, the standards for appropriate access and who is responsible for conducting the audit.

Your review policy should be part of a larger access control policy that defines how access is managed in your organization, including authentication procedures, security and compliance requirements and permission roles for different parts of the organization.

Assign Reviewers

Even small IT environments have far too many permissions for a single person to review. To make this task manageable, you will need to split the audit among multiple people. Instead of leaving everything up to your IT team, it’s a good idea to involve your business users in the audit process. They have a much clearer picture of who needs access to their department’s resources.

Review Permissions

With all the groundwork laid and responsibilities established, it’s finally time to begin the audit. Your reviewers will have to go through every access right assigned to them and either confirm it as still in use or mark it for removal.

Important: Your reviewers should only approve access rights if they are strictly necessary for a user to have. Make sure they understand and follow your access policy when evaluating users’ privileges. Special attention should be paid to privileged users due to the higher level of risk associated with these accounts.

Remove Unnecessary Access

Based on the audit results, you now need to revoke any permissions that have been marked as unnecessary by reviewers. Depending on which tool you use and who performs the audit, this may happen automatically, but it is technically a separate step of the process.

Document & Analyze Results

If your organization is required to perform access reviews, you likely need to document the results to provide an audit trail as part of your compliance. This involves documenting each decision made by each reviewer.

This data can also highlight potential areas of improvement where you may need to revise your security policy. For example, if reviewers had to remove a lot of guest accounts from cloud collaboration tools, you could limit guest invites or set an automatic expiration for guest access.

It’s a bad idea to perform user access reviews without proper support in the form of an identity & access management solution. These governance platforms speed up the review process by tracking, updating and documenting access rights for you.

Depending on the scale of your IT environment, it is likely impossible to perform access reviews without an automated solution to help lay the groundwork for your audit.

How to Automate User Access Reviews

Access reviews cannot be fully automated, because the decision of who needs access to which IT resources should be left up to a human auditor rather than an automated system.

However, there are many parts of the review process that can and should be automated! For example, here are some ways you can automate access reviews with the help of an IAM solution:

  • Tracking IT privileges for an accurate and up-to-date inventory of permissions

  • Automatically notifying reviewers of upcoming audits

  • Compiling audits into a single, clear list of yes/no decisions

  • Updating permissions based on review outcomes

  • Automatically documenting which permissions were approved and removed (and by whom)

For more information on the advantages of IAM solutions – from central reporting to automatic provisioning – check out our product overview.


Best Practices for Access Management In Microsoft® Environments

Our in-depth guide explains how to manage access securely and efficiently from a technical and organizational standpoint, including tips for implementation, reporting and auditing.

5 Best Practices for Effective Access Reviews


Automate On- and Offboarding

Reviewing access is an essential control against overprivileged users. But it’s always more effective to provide users with the right permissions from the start instead of removing unwanted permissions later on.

So before you start reviewing access, make sure that everyone in your organization receives the exact privileges they need through automated onboarding and offboarding. Use role-based access control to establish default privileges for different teams and departments, then assign users to these permission roles to trigger automated provisioning workflows.

With baseline access being automatically assigned and revoked, you can focus your reviews on additional privileges that employees receive over time. This way, there are fewer permissions for you to review, making audits faster and easier.


Use Temporary Access Whenever Possible

Permissions that expire automatically have one major advantage: They don’t have to be reviewed. Unless it is part of a user’s core role, you should use temporary access whenever possible. It is safer to renew permissions as needed than to risk a privilege being overlooked and eventually exploited.


Delegate Reviews to Business Users

Many organizations consider access reviews a job for their IT department. But admins have no idea whether a user still needs access to a resource or not. You know who does? The application and data owners who work with these resources every day!

Access reviews should reflect the needs of end users across the different branches and departments of your organization. So the best way to ensure accurate audit results is to allow data owners to review permissions themselves. This has the additional benefit of freeing up your IT staff.


Make Reviews Easy to Complete

The more complex and time-consuming you make your reviews, the higher the risk that users could get confused and make the wrong decision – or just start ticking boxes to be done with it.

Make reviews as easy as possible, especially if you follow our recommendation to involve non-IT users in the process. Limit the review scope by relying on temporary access and automated (de)provisioning as much as possible. Give clear instructions and compile all pending items in one place so reviewers can work through them quickly.


Follow the Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege dictates that users should only receive permissions that are absolutely necessary for their job. Least privilege access is similar to the term need-to-know, but goes one step further by specifying organizations must use the lowest permission level possible.

In other words: Only individuals who need access to a resource to do their job should receive it, and even then you must keep access to a minimum. If a person only needs to view a spreadsheet, don’t give them permission to edit it!

When it comes to auditing permissions, it’s important to make sure that your reviewers understand and follow this guiding principle of minimizing permissions. During an audit, they should only approve access if they are certain it is essential for the user in question.

tenfold: The Best Way to Review User Access

As important as access reviews are, there’s simply no way your staff can check hundreds or thousands of permissions by hand. If you want to audit permissions successfully, you need an automated access review platform. And there’s a few important factors to look out for!

A good access review platform should:

  • Be quick and easy to set up

  • Offer role-based access control for automated on/offboarding

  • Allow you to delegate access reviews by assigning business users as data owners

  • Let you set custom review intervals for different systems

  • Automatically notify data owners when they have pending reviews

  • Make the review process easy to complete, even for non-IT users

  • Provide full coverage for cloud and on-prem systems like AD, file servers and M365

  • Support both high-level and in-depth auditing, i.e. for directories or shared files

  • Document review outcomes and trigger the necessary changes

If you’re looking for an access review solution that ticks all of these boxes, then tenfold is the perfect choice for your organization! Not only does tenfold offer powerful and flexible tools for reviewing access, but as a no-code IAM solution, it is far quicker and easier to implement than any comparable platform.

While most IAM solutions take months of custom coding to set up, tenfold is ready to go in a few weeks thanks to our plugins that offer out-of-the-box support for key systems like Active Directory, Entra ID/Microsoft 365 and common business apps. Learn more about the advantages of tenfold by starting a free trial today!

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About the Author: Joe Köller

Joe Köller is tenfold’s Content Manager and responsible for the IAM Blog, where he dives deep into topics like compliance, cybersecurity and digital identities. From security regulations to IT best practices, his goal is to make challenging subjects approachable for the average reader. Before joining tenfold, Joe covered games and digital media for many years.