Got into a great discussion in a recent class, about the difference between these two security concepts (indeed, some of the class thought there wasn’t even a difference). At the time, I was caught up in the conversation, and couldn’t construct a good example to clarify the distinction. But after a bit of time, I’ve formulated one that should do the job:
Alice and Bob are drivers/bodyguards for senior managers in the company they work for.
Both Alice and Bob have the correct permissions and access mechanisms to perform their duties (which are the same, for their respective managers): each driver has a passcard that will allow them access to the secure garage where the vehicles are stored; they each have authorization to check out keys for the vehicles used to transport the managers. Their passcards do not, however, allow them into other parts of the company property-- they can’t, for instance, use their passcards to enter the Research department, or Accounting. This is an example of least privilege-- they are only given a set of permissions necessary to perform their duties.
However, when Alice and Bob arrive at the garage to check out their respective vehicles, they are not given the route and destination of other managers-- only the manager they are driving/protecting that day. Alice cannot see the destination of Bob’s vehicle, and Bob can’t see Alice’s destination. That information is exclusively given only to the people involved in coordinating the movements of the specific senior managers, thus limiting the number of people who might compromise the security of that information. This is an example of need to know-- Bob does not need to know the destination of Alice’s vehicle.
To put it in general terms, least privilege usually has to do with clearances and roles, while need to know is typically based on which projects or customers a person is working on/for, and allows for compartmentalization.
While I may have done a disservice to the class in not coming up with this analogy earlier, I’m hoping it serves the purpose for anyone else confused about these concepts.