Enterprise Networks Rife With Unauthorized Apps, Study Says

Employees use variety of tactics to circumvent IT policies and misuse the corporate network

Think you know what types of software employees are running on your enterprise network? A new study suggests that you may know a lot less than you think.

Employees in most enterprises are circumventing corporate security policies by deploying unauthorized applications, including video viewers, streaming audio, P2P, and Google applications, according to a study that will be released next week by next-generation firewall vendor Palo Alto Networks.

The study is a compilation of data from 20 different enterprises, gathered during vulnerability assessments that Palo Alto conducts as a prelude to deployment of its next-generation PA-4000 firewall. Unlike most firewalls, the PA-4000 can recognize some 570 specific applications on the network, rather than just broad categories of traffic. (See Palo Alto Intros Next-G Firewall.)

The 20-enterprise study is a reflection of Palo Alto's experience in studying application traffic at dozens of enterprises in a wide variety of industries, says Steve Mullaney, vice president of marketing at Palo Alto.

"You only need to do four or five of these [assessments] before you can really see the pattern," he says. "A lot of IT people think that they know what's going in and out of their networks, but they don't."

Employees are using a broad variety of tactics for circumventing IT policies on network usage, Palo Alto found. For example, approximately 80 percent of the enterprises are supporting proxy applications, such as KProxy or CGI proxies, which mask the user's identity and surfing habits from IT monitoring tools.

"There's no business reason for using proxies in the enterprise, other than to hide your activity from IT," Mullaney says. "But we see at least some use of them in most of the enterprises we [assess]."

About half of the enterprises studied by Palo Alto are supporting Tor or other methods for encrypted "tunneling" through the corporate network. Tunneling enables the user to bypass IT traffic enforcement mechanisms, such as those that prevent users from accessing inappropriate content or streaming media that can use up precious bandwidth.

"We're seeing a lot of use of Web-based file transfer services, such as YouSendIt and Megaupload, that will allow users to send or receive files as large as 50 gigabits," Mullaney says. "What that says is that employees are using the corporate network's bandwidth to upload video files to YouTube or download movies."

Technologies such as proxies and tunneling also help users to hide their use of potentially dangerous applications, such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file exchange. P2P is often used to download music or data in violation of copyright laws, and it is increasingly used as a method of attack on computers that leave their P2P connections open. (See P2P Leads to Major Leak at Citigroup Unit.)

In many other cases, employees simply use the corporate Internet connection for a broad range of personal activities, sometimes violating corporate policy without attempting to hide their behavior.

"It's assumed that a big portion of the HTTP traffic that corporate networks support is used for Web browsing, such as checking the sports scores or online shopping," Mullaney says. "But what we found was that 90 percent of HTTP traffic is not browsing -- it's Web-based applications like Webmail, instant messaging, and Google apps."

Instances of unauthorized applications were no less frequent in enterprises that had strict security policies or broad security awareness programs, he says. "We looked at companies that had very strict and detailed policies, and some that had almost no policy at all. There really wasn't much difference in the data -- no matter what your policy, you're going to have some employees that try to circumvent it."

Palo Alto is hoping that enterprises will embrace its next-generation firewall as a means of controlling access to these currently unauthorized applications, allowing employees to take advantage of them on a more controlled basis.

"Up to now, the security guy has always been the guy who said 'no' to everything," Mullaney says. "But if you know when and where these apps are being used, you can actually create and enforce policies that allow them in situations where it's safe to use them. So the security guy can actually say 'yes' some of the time."

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