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Monitoring & Testing
Protecting the Network with Proactive Encryption Monitoring
Encryption technology is everywhere: in applications, data centers and other foundation infrastructure
By: Jason Thompson
Aug. 1, 2014 11:00 AM
Encryption is a key element of a complete security strategy. The 2013 Global Encryption Trends Study shows a steady increase in the use of encryption solutions over the past nine years. Thirty-five percent of organizations now have an encryption strategy applied consistently across the entire enterprise, up from 29 percent in 2012. The study showed that, for the first time, the main goal for most organizations in deploying encryption is mitigating the effects of data breaches. There is good reason for this shift: the latest Ponemon Institute research reveals that the cost of a data breach is $3.5 million, up 15 percent from last year.
On the surface, the 35 percent figure seems like good news, until one realizes that 65 percent of organizations do not have an enterprise-wide encryption strategy. In addition, even a consistently applied strategy can lack visibility, management controls or remediation processes. This gives hackers the green light to attack as soon as they spot a vulnerability.
While organizations are moving in the right direction when it comes to encryption, much more needs to be done - and quickly. Encryption has come to be viewed as a commodity: organizations deploy it and assume they've taken the steps they need to maintain security. If breaches occur, it's rarely the fault of the software or the encryption protocol. The fault lies rather in the fact that encryption management is left in the domain of IT system administrators and has never been properly managed with access controls, monitoring or proactive data loss prevention.
Too Many Keys Spoil the Security
A quick calculation will reveal that the number of keys assigned over the past decade to employees, contractors and applications can run up to a million or more for a single enterprise. In one example, a major bank with around 15,000 hosts had over 1.5 million keys circulating within its network environment. Around 10 percent of those keys - or 150,000 - provided high-level administrator access. This represents an astonishing number of open doors that no one was monitoring.
It may seem impossible that such a security lapse could happen, but consider that encryption is often perceived merely as a tool. Because nothing appeared on the surface to be out of place, no processes were shut down and the problem was undetected.
SSH keys pose another threat as well: subverting privileged access management systems (PAMs). Many PAMs use a gateway or jump host that administrators log into to gain access to network assets. PAM solutions connect with user directories to assign privileges, monitor user actions and record which actions have taken place. While this appears like an airtight way to monitor administrators, it is incredibly easy for an administrator to log into the gateway, deploy a key and then log in using key authentication, thereby circumventing any PAM safeguards in place.
Too Clever for Their Own Good
The Internet offers many articles on how to use Secure Shell to bypass corporate firewalls. This is actually a fairly common and clever workaround policy that unfortunately creates a huge security risk. In order to eliminate this risk, the organization must decrypt and inspect the traffic.
This kind of monitoring solves the issue of decrypting traffic at the perimeter and helps organizations move away from a gateway approach to PAM. At the same time, it prevents attackers from using the organization's own encryption technology against itself. In addition, an organization can use inline access controls and user profiling to control what activities a user can undertake. For example, policy controls can be enforced to forbid file transfers from certain critical systems. With the more advanced solutions, an organization can even block subchannels from running inside the encrypted tunnel, the preferred method of quickly exfiltrating data.
Encryption technologies are often set up without effective monitoring or proper access controls, which also blinds layered defenses. A major vulnerability could potentially compromise the entire server, which could in turn expose other areas of the network to subsequent attacks.
A Healthy Respect for Encryption
No one understands better than IT administrators how critical network security is. This understanding should spur security professionals to do all in their power to make their organizations' data as safe as possible. Given all that can go awry, it's important to examine encrypted networks, enabling layered defenses and putting proactive monitoring in place if they have not yet done so. An all-inclusive encrypted channel monitoring strategy will go a long way toward securing the network.
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