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Why Security Needs a Software-Defined Perimeter

Most security teams today still don't know whether a user at the end of a remote connection is a hacker, spy, fraudster -- or even a dog. An SDP can change that.

Leo Taddeo

August 28, 2018

4 Min Read
Photo Credit: Jochen Tack/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

In 1993, Peter Steiner published a now famous cartoon in which one dog tells another that on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. Twenty-five years later, that adage is still true. But it's even worse than that: Many security experts often don't know whether a "user" is a hacker, spy, or fraudster, either. The ability to verify the human being (or dog) on the other end of a remote connection is critical to security. It's about time we get it right with user-centric dynamic access controls.

We often hear that the problem of verifying users stems from the original purpose and design of the Internet. The Internet protocols used to send and receive messages do not require users to identify themselves. But the problem also stems from the design of legacy security. Specifically, the tools we use do not focus on the user. For example, firewalls and network access controls are built around network addresses and ports. Even complex next-generation firewalls are built around protocols, not users.

In order to verify the dog — er, user — on the end of a remote connection, we need a security solution that is built around the user. That is, one that makes it impossible for a hacker to impersonate anyone other than the authorized user. We need a software-defined perimeter (SDP). SDP, also known as a "Black Cloud," is a security approach that evolved from the work done (see pages 28–30 in this PDF) at the Defense Information Systems Agency under the Global Information Grid Black Core Network initiative around 2007.

A software-defined perimeter focuses on user context, not credentials, to grant access to corporate assets. To solve the problem of stopping network attacks on application infrastructure, in 2013 the Cloud Security Alliance formed the SDP Workgroup, which developed a clean-sheet approach that combines device authentication, identity-based access, and dynamically provisioned connectivity. The group noted that "While the security components in SDP are common place, the integration of the three components is fairly novel. More importantly, the SDP security model has been shown to stop all forms of network attacks including DDoS, Man-in-the-Middle, Server Query (OWASP10) as well as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)."

An SDP requires users to present multiple authentication variables, such as time, place, and machine health and configuration to confirm whether users are who they say they are, and whether or not they should be trusted. This context enables organizations to identify an illegitimate user even if that person is in possession of legitimate user credentials. 

Access controls also need to be dynamic to account for risk and privilege escalation. Users interact with systems and applications in real time. Throughout any given session, they can perform any number of transactions of varying risk levels. For example, a user may check email several times, print a confidential document, and update the corporate blog. An SDP continuously monitors context when changes occur related to the user's behavior or the environment. The system can manage access based on location, time, security posture, and custom attributes.

An SDP also needs to be scriptable so that it can check more than the information on the device. It needs to be able to reach out to collect and analyze other sources of data to provide context and help authorize users. This ensures that even if a legitimate user is attempting to access resources with a new or different device, that enough information can be gathered to authenticate the user and permit access.

Once a user is properly authenticated — that is, we can determine with confidence that the user is Joe Smith from accounting and not a fraudster or a dog — then the SDP creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between the user and the resource(s) to protect the communications channel. In addition, the rest of the network is rendered invisible. By hiding network resources, the SDP reduces the attack surface and eliminates any possibility of the user scanning and moving laterally across the network.

Finally, because of the complexity and size of today's IT environments, an SDP needs to be scalable and highly dependable. It should be built like the cloud to enable massive scalability, and be distributed and resilient.

The key to securing access is making sure our adversaries can't simply steal credentials to gain access. We need an SDP to separate authorized users from hackers (and other bad dogs) on the Internet. Despite this longstanding and essential security control, many enterprises struggle to get it right — but they don't have to. All of these characteristics are available in SDP architecture today. 

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About the Author(s)

Leo Taddeo

CISO, Cyxtera, and former FBI SAC of cyber and special operations for the NY region

Leo Taddeo is responsible for oversight of Cyxtera's global security operations, investigations and intelligence programs, crisis management, and business continuity processes.  He provides deep domain insight into the techniques, tactics and procedures used by cybercriminals to help Cyxtera continue to develop disruptive solutions that enable customers to defend against advanced threats and breaches.

Taddeo is the former special agent in charge of the special operations/cyber division of the FBI's New York Office.  In this role, he directed over 400 special agents and professional support personnel conducting cyber investigations, surveillance operations, information technology support, and crisis management. Previous responsibilities focused on FBI international operations, including service as a section chief in the International operations division, where he managed operations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Taddeo received a B.S. in applied physics in 1987 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  After completing his studies, Taddeo served as a tank officer in the US Marine Corps.  In 1991, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal for valor for his service in the Gulf War.  Following his service, Taddeo earned a J.D. from St. John's University.  Upon graduation, he joined the law firm of Mound, Cotton & Wollan in New York, where he practiced in the field of civil litigation until entering duty with the FBI.

Taddeo is a graduate of the CISO Executive Program at Carnegie Mellon University. He maintains the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and GIAC Certified Incident Handler certifications.

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